What is in this article?:
• Surveys and studies conducted since the passage of the Georgia labor law have revealed farm labor shortages and negative economic impacts.
• Though none of the findings mention the law specifically, many farmers complained that House Bill 87 frightened away immigrant workers, resulting in some crops rotting in the fields.
GEORGIA AGRICULTURE COMMISSIONER Gary Black explains the details of his department’s farm labor study at the recent Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference, held in Savannah, Ga.
Is it good, bad?
House Bill 87 is the law in Georgia, said Black, and there has been a lot of debate about which parts of it are good and which are bad.
“There are a lot of parts of this law that people just don’t understand. People are fearful of parts of the bill, and there was a great fear even before it was enacted,” he said.
The Georgia Department of Agriculture study showed that 26 percent of respondents lost income in 2011 because of a lack of available laborers. “Those are real numbers from real farmers,” said Black. “There was an impact last year.”
The 189-page report obtained responses from 138 Georgia counties, with more than 800 producers responding to the survey, ranging from small to large-scale operations.
“With or without House Bill 87, there has been a negligence on the part of federal leaders to reform the H2A program and give us something that works in the 21st Century, and we’ve needed that for 20 years, with or without state legislation,” said Black.
“That’s very important, and that’s what we’ve settled on as the major recommendation of our survey.”
The first recommendation in the report points out that only the federal government has the ability to reform existing agriculture guest worker programs to make them useful and effective for farmers.
Available options for farmers are too cumbersome, unreliable and bureaucratic to be practical in today’s modern economy, it states.
Additionally, more resources need to be put in place for educating the agriculture industry about the federal H-2A program. The third and final recommendation suggests more research be conducted in order to fully understand the complexity of agriculture labor in Georgia.
“Congress must act,” said Black. “Sweeping this under the rug for another generation is not the answer. Twenty percent of respondents said they had never heard of H-2A, so we’ve got some outreach to do with the department of labor and others to make sure we assist farmers in this area.
“We’ve put Duct tape on H-2A for long enough — we need a new brand. We need to take the components of it that work, but we need to come up with a new product.
“To say that it’s an election year, and nothing is going to happen — America deserves better than that. I am firmly convinced that one of the best benefits to come out of House Bill 87 is the fact that without it, and without the other states with their own ideas, it has raised the level to where we’re at least talking about it on the federal level.
(Representatives from Georgia agriculture, including a blueberry grower, took the message to Washington in October by giving testimony before a Senate subcommittee. For a look at what they had to say about the legislation, click here).
“We must have a legal workforce and a system that works for us.”
More than 40 percent of respondents in the study said the federal H-2A program is not applicable to their operations, Black said, noting this includes year-round agriculture needs, such as dairies, ginners and landscapers.