Changes in certain policies affecting farm labor and improved business strategies are needed to help farmers weather farm labor shortages, says a University of Georgia agricultural economist.

“Policymakers really need to look at the farmers’ perspectives. We need to give them more options,” said Cesar Escalante, an economist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Long before the controversial Georgia immigration law was even on the table, Escalante was wrapping up a study — funded by a $120,000 Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, or SARE, grant — to analyze organic and conventional farms’ responses to changes in farm labor market conditions arising from stricter implementation of immigration policies.

The results verify the stories now making headlines: the more labor-intensive organic farms are most vulnerable to changes in farm labor; finding suitable alternative labor among domestic workers is difficult; farmers are relying more on family members to do the work; and changes in the farm labor market may mean significant farm losses.

“The most glaring finding of the study was the greater vulnerability of organic farms compared to conventional farms. They are smaller in acreage, more labor intensive and are incapable or unable to justify making investments in machinery to replace the labor,” Escalante said. “I must clarify that not all farmers will be affected by these farm labor changes. Conventional farms, which are more mechanized or capital-intensive, are probably less stressed in dealing with farm labor issues.”

Escalante conducted a regional survey of organic and conventional fruit and vegetable farms, as well as case studies of organic and conventional fruit and vegetable farms across Georgia that documented their farm labor experiences.