“Field harvest work is skilled labor,” says Hall. “Anyone that has tried to pick blueberries, or cucumbers, or watermelons knows you have to have to have experience, plus be in top physical condition. These jobs are in the hot sun, high temperatures — 98 to 100 degrees, eight to 10 hours a day, and require lifting, bending and stooping. It is not something that the average citizen can do. For agriculture, E-Verify is not a job creating bill — it is job loss legislation.”

Hall’s organization, along with other major producer groups in Georgia, commissioned the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development to analyze production data from the state’s spring and summer harvest.

Results of the study — released in October — show that farmers lost at least $74.9 million in unpicked crops harvested by hand this past spring and summer because they didn’t have enough labor. The farmers said they lacked 40 percent of the total work force they needed.

The numbers come from self-reported surveys completed by 189 farmers of onions, watermelons, bell peppers, cucumbers, squash, blueberries and blackberries, says John McKissick, director of the Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development and one of the study’s authors.

The study analyzed data from seven crops that represented more than 46 percent of the acreage available for harvest this past spring. The seven crops studied represented a total farm gate value of more than $578 million, according to the 2009 UGA Farm Gate Survey.

Researchers identified a shortage of 5,244 farm laborers from the seven crops. Farmers’ direct losses resulted in an extra $106.5 million loss in other goods and services in Georgia plus 1,282 fewer jobs across the state, the report projected. Using these numbers and assuming the farmers they surveyed are representative of all Georgia farmers with the same crops, the researchers projected the state’s total yearly losses could be $391 million and 3,260 full-time jobs.

In an effort to determine what the longer term or full-year impacts may be, the study asked how farmers’ 2012 production may be impacted by the labor situation experienced in 2011. While most respondents to the question indicated they would try to maintain production, a significant number of vegetable producers planned cuts.

“Yearly planted annual crops such as vegetables can more easily be altered than can perennial, multi-year crops such as those produced from berry bushes. However, even berry producers indicated planned changes in production and harvest/packing methods if the labor experience of 2011 is likely repeated in 2012,” states the report.

The UGA report never cites a reason or reasons for the worker shortages and the economic impact.

Prior to the enactment of the state’s controversial immigration law, University of Georgia agricultural economist Cesar Escalante conducted his own study to analyze organic and conventional farms’ responses to changes in farm labor market conditions arising from stricter implementation of immigration policies.

"Policymakers really need to look at the farmers' perspectives. We need to give them more options,” he says.
The results of Escalante’s study 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,” says Escalante.

Conventional farms, which are more mechanized or capital-intensive, are probably less stressed in dealing with farm labor issues, he adds.

“If a small farmer needs to hire help, the ones we interviewed said they don’t even look at the H-2A program. It’s just too costly for them,” he says. “We have to make it clear to the policymakers what predicaments the small farmer is actually in.”
phollis@farmpress.com