From AJC.com, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jeremy Redmon, 5 Aug 2011.
[Georgia] — State officials are preparing to resume filling open farming jobs in South Georgia with probationers this fall, following mixed results from a pilot program they started amid severe labor shortages in the state’s No. 1 industry.
Some of the probationers who worked on two vegetable farms in Sumter and Colquitt counties during this summer’s pilot program quit because of the high heat, long hours and physically taxing jobs they got, said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
It is unclear how effective the remaining ones were. Some worked on the Minor Brothers Farm in Leslie. A partner in the business did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the probationers.
On average, between six and 19 probationers worked on his farm daily for three weeks this summer, according to the state Department of Corrections.
More worked for another farmer in Colquitt County. That farmer has not been publicly identified and is declining requests for comment, Hall said. On average, 13 worked each day for that farmer.
Gov. Nathan Deal proposed putting probationers to work on farms in June, calling the idea a “partial solution” to the labor shortages plaguing the state’s $68.8 billion agricultural industry. He announced his proposal the same day his office released the results of a state survey of farmers showing they had as many as 11,080 jobs open.
Some farmers say a measure Deal signed into law in May to target illegal immigration is scaring away the migrant workers they depend on, putting their crops at risk. Supporters of that law say the state needed to act to deter illegal immigrants from settling in Georgia, burdening its taxpayer-funded schools, hospitals and jails and taking jobs away from U.S. citizens.
Hall has estimated the labor shortages afflicting South Georgia counties could put as much as $300 million in crops in danger. His industry is preparing to commission a study of the financial losses it suffered this year, with a report due in October.
Farmers have been warning the labor shortages could reach metro Atlanta residents through increased costs for fruits and vegetables at local grocery stores.
“This may be one possible solution to some of the harvest needs,” Hall said of the probationers. “It is certainly not a full fix.”
Hall’s association has been cooperating with state Corrections and Agriculture departments on the program. State officials say they have been screening probationers and referring them to open farming jobs.
The program, however, is voluntary for probationers. In Georgia, state law allows the court to require that as a condition of probation, people “work faithfully at suitable employment insofar as may be possible.” State officials cannot force them to choose specific jobs.
Meanwhile, there are mixed views among probation experts about whether this is a good idea. Some observers say farm jobs may not be the best fit for people trying to get back on their feet and avoid becoming repeat offenders since many of these positions are temporary. Others say probationers can make good money with these jobs, helping them cover their living expenses, child support and restitution.
“We feel this program will continue to be a win-win for offenders who need suitable employment to fulfill the terms of their probation and farmers who need assistance,” said Stan Cooper, the state’s probation operations director.
Some observers say the best solution to the state’s farm labor needs is a new and improved visa program aimed at allowing foreign laborers to temporarily work here. The existing federal H-2A guest worker program is too costly and cumbersome, some Georgia farmers complain.
Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black’s office is studying whether Georgia can legally create its own guest worker program. His report, which is required by Georgia’s new immigration enforcement law, is due to Deal and state lawmakers by Jan. 1. The study was inspired by legislation Utah enacted this year to set up its own guest worker program. There is sharp disagreement, however, over whether states can do that. Critics say only the federal government has that power.
Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, agreed with Hall that the probationers have helped but that they are not enough to meet all of the state farming industry’s needs.
“Any worker is progress,” he said, “but [this program] is not going to provide the number of workers that are needed. And that is why we need reform at the federal level.”