From Westport-News.com, Ray Henry and Russ Bynum, Associated Press, 5 Jun 2011.
ATLANTA (AP) — Weeks after Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed one of the toughest laws in the country targeting illegal immigrants, it remains to be seen if recent complaints about farm labor shortages represent a wider problem.
Fruit and vegetable growers blame the new law for spooking migrant farmworkers — including many illegal immigrants — from fields in Georgia. The law authorizes police to check the immigration status of suspects who cannot show an approved form of documentation. It will force growers to eventually use a federal database to verify that new hires are legal.
In a sign of the uncertainty, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black has asked farmers to complete a voluntary survey to find out what they grow, how many workers they need and what they pay. He will report that information to the governor, who requested it, by Friday. The survey will be unscientific — and likely the best information state leaders get anytime soon.
“We really don’t have any good metrics,” said Kent Wolfe, an agricultural economist with the Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development at the University of Georgia.
There are problems trying to determine the scale of agriculture labor shortages. One federal agency stopped tracking farmworker data earlier this year because of budget cuts. Another federal survey interviews too few workers in Georgia to make state-level conclusions.
From July to late May, the state Department of Labor listed nearly 15,000 agriculture jobs on a website meant to match the unemployed with potential employers. The department referred more than 12,600 people it judged qualified to interview for the jobs. It is unclear how many got jobs because employers and job seekers are not required to report hires.
Although the new law hasn’t taken effect, fruit and vegetable growers, whose crops are typically worth more than $1 billion annually in Georgia, say they are already feeling a labor pinch.
Most parts of the law are set to take effect July 1, but the requirement for employers to check the status of new hires will be phased in starting in January. Civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit Thursday asking a judge to declare the law unconstitutional and to bar it from being enforced. Similar laws enacted in Arizona and Utah have been blocked by federal judges.
Gary Paulk, a fifth-generation family farmer in Wray, said he’s had to raise wages 20 percent this year and still can’t hire enough workers to pick his 150 acres of blackberries that just began to ripen in late May. He estimates that he has only half of the 300 field workers he normally requires to pick berries by hand.
Latino migrants who would normally flock to his farm to pick blackberries for $3.60 per tray, compared with $3 per tray last summer, are in short supply, he said. He’s allowing a significant portion of ripened blackberries to go unpicked and eventually rot. He said 10 percent of the crop has already been lost and estimates that figure could rise as high as 40 percent.
Federal agriculture reports do not indicate big disruptions in the harvest of two major Georgia crops, peaches and onions. A larger percentage of both crops had been harvested by the week ending May 29 than during the same period one year earlier. Industry officials say those statistics do not reflect labor conditions or whether crops are being picked to maximize their value.
Jason Clark Berry, who runs a blueberry farm in Baxley, said he has 90 workers a week into the harvest — not nearly enough to pick his 200 acres by hand.
As a result, Berry said he’s using machines to pick from many of his blueberry bushes. It’s not ideal. Blueberries picked by machine tend to be of lower quality and fetch a lower price. Machines knock more berries onto the ground and pluck unripe berries that a human would pass over and allow to ripen later.
Like other growers, Berry said he expected Georgia’s new immigration law to take a bite out of his wallet, but not this soon. He’s offered a $25 weekly bonus for new hires — not to mention a one-time $50 for anybody who worked even part of a single day. Berry said he still cannot get enough workers.
“It ended up being a bigger catastrophe than I thought it would be this year,” Berry said. “I really thought this year would be OK, but the fear factor made it come to fruition earlier than expected.”
The labor shortage goes beyond fruit and vegetable growers, said Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council. The council represents the interests of diverse agriculture-related businesses, including fruit and vegetable growers, dairies, plant nurseries and landscapers. The council is conducting its own survey to determine the extent of the reported labor shortage.
Tolar said 97 companies from across the state — just more than a third of them representing urban agriculture, such as landscaping — had responded to the survey between Wednesday and Friday. Only about a quarter said they have been able to hire the number of workers they needed so far this year. Nearly half said they were having trouble finding labor.
Almost all of them, 92 percent, said they don’t use a federal guest worker program that allows the agriculture sector to bring in seasonal workers. The program has often been criticized by the industry as being cumbersome and expensive.
Bynum reported from Savannah, Ga. Ray Henry can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/rhenryAP.