At BFG Produce in Evans County, about 100 seasonal workers, most of them Spanish-speaking immigrants, grade and package spring carrots and onions in the partially automated packing shed.
A smaller number work at BFG in other seasons, helping to grow and harvest at least four other vegetable crops. This year, there was no shortage of labor during the peak season. But BFG's peak season is February to May, and Gov. Nathan Deal didn't sign House Bill 87, Georgia's attempt at immigration enforcement, into law until May.
"You're starting to see it now. There's definitely some fear," said Jarrod Buurma, manager of BFG, or Buurma Farms of Georgia.
Now that the law's effective date is approaching, he knows of five workers who recently left the area, returning to Mexico.
"Some of them are probably going back home just to go back home, but I'm sure part of it is influenced by this law. I mean, naturally," he said.
As of July 1, Georgia's state and local law enforcement agencies will be authorized, but not required, to arrest illegal aliens. Other provisions that apply to public agencies also take effect next week.
But a state mandate that private businesses use the federal E-Verify system to check their new hires will only be phased in later, affecting businesses with 500 or more employees as of Jan. 1, 2012, those with 100-499 employees on July 1, 2012, and those with 11-99 employees on July 1, 2013.
Farm owners, Buurma acknowledges, have their own fears about the new law.
"If they're going to have us do the E-Verify, the impact on agriculture in Georgia is just going to be ... " he stopped. "Well, something's going to have to be introduced to help us, because we don't have a workforce willing to work without the Hispanics."
Buurma, who can trace his family name through four generations of American farmers to a native of the Netherlands, says that Americans need to remember that most are descended from immigrants. From their family farms in Ohio and Michigan, the Buurmas expanded to Georgia a few years ago to take advantage of a different growing season.
"The idea behind this legislation is we're allowing these quote-unquote 'illegal immigrants' to come in and take American jobs," Buurma said. "But are they really taking American jobs? They're taking jobs that Americans aren't going to work anyhow."
Most of the workers on his farm are not "migrants," but stay in the area year-round, Buurma notes. Some of his seasonal employees work, at a different time of year, in the bakery that makes Claxton Fruitcake.
At Smith-Healy Farms near Statesboro, immigrants help keep 2,500 brood sows and herd of cattle fed, bred and watered. Not as labor intensive as a vegetable farm, Bulloch County's largest hog farm has about 12 full-time employees of various ethnic backgrounds.
They work in the farrowing houses helping to deliver pigs. They carry out castration and artificial insemination procedures. Bill Smith, one of the farm's owners, listed tasks they do that wouldn't rank on many lists of dream jobs.
"There's no way to automate these type things," Smith said. "They have to handle the livestock. They have to wash the manure out of the pens, this type stuff. That's a job that we have to do. We've always done it, but it's got to where no labor here is willing to come off the unemployment roles to come to work."
Many times, he said, Smith-Healy has listed job openings at the Georgia Department of Labor office. The one person he recalls hiring this way didn't last long, while others inquire only to have someone sign a form documenting their continuing job search.
But the immigrants stay and do the work. Most have lived in Bulloch County for years. Smith-Healy files Social Security information on its employees and pays their payroll taxes, Smith said, with no complaints about the information submitted.
"They buy groceries, clothing, they go to school here, yes, but they pay taxes here," Smith said. "They pay federal income taxes, state income taxes, they pay Social Security, just like any other employee does. That's a concept that many people misunderstand. They don't think they pay any taxes, but they do."
Still, Smith said, the new state law has made his employees anxious. He has responded to questions from some, trying to reassure them that law enforcement agencies will only charge immigrants who, when arrested for a crime, are found to be in the country illegally. Unlike Arizona's state immigration law, Georgia's says only that local police can arrest illegal immigrants, not that they must do so.
"They're scared. It's no secret that Georgia passed a law to try to get rid of them if they can," Smith said.
If that happens, he observes, the impact will be felt not just by fruit and vegetable producers, but on all types of farms and at feed mills and processing plants.
The Georgia Agribusiness Council released a survey earlier this month in which 46 percent of the 132 agricultural businesses responding said they were experiencing a labor shortage. The GAC and Georgia Farm Bureau advocate the creation of an improved guest worker program. In the GAC's survey, only 8 percent of agribusiness owners said they had ever participated in the existing H-2A and H-2B visa programs, which many say are cumbersome and expensive.
Buurma and Smith think a viable guest worker program might help. But, since most of the immigrants they employ have lived in the U.S. for years, these farmers say an easier path to permanent resident status or citizenship is also needed.
Smith said he sees no reason to require people to return to Mexico every two or three years just because they were born there.
"Many of our employees have lived here all their lives," he said. "They don't have a home in Mexico. Their home is here. They've never known anything else. Now, why do we not make those folks citizens? Just because they happen to be born in another country and brought here as a small child, does that make them second-class to us? I don't think so."