Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary W. Black has released a report on agricultural labor in the state, recommending that the federal government provide farmers with a guest worker program that’ll help them harvest their crops legally and efficiently.

The report was required by Georgia House Bill 87 — a strict immigration reform law passed in 2011 by the state’s General Assembly.

Surveys and studies conducted since the law’s passage 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.

Among other things, House Bill 87 empowers police to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects and sets new hiring requirements for certain employers, requiring many to start using the federal program called E-Verify to confirm that their newly hired employees are eligible to work in the United States.

In addition, the law penalizes people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants.

Speaking at the recent Southeast Region Fruit and Vegetable Conference held in Savannah, Ga., Commissioner Black said the federal government had failed in its responsibility to find a remedy for farm labor problems.

(Other surveys have confirmed to loss of farm labor in Georgia. For that report go to http://southeastfarmpress.com/management/studies-surveys-confirm-georgia-farm-labor-losses).

“The results of our survey continue to make clear that the solution to labor issues facing Georgia producers rests in the hands of the federal government,” said Black. 

“Agriculture is our state’s No. 1 industry, yet the federal government is failing to provide our farmers with the skilled labor they need to harvest crops in a legal and efficient manner. It is time our friends in Washington step up to the plate and provide us with a system that works.”

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.

Opportunity for communication

“The findings of this report also indicate there are opportunities for improved relations between the agriculture community and the Department of Labor for worker recruitment, while education and outreach will help provide better resources for growers,” he said.

Black noted that in 2011, Georgia’s U.S. senators and representatives offered proposed federal legislation addressing agriculture labor.

“We need senators and representatives from other states to join this effort in creating a solution to fix the problem. Our livelihoods are at stake.”

Georgians are concerned about where their food comes from, said Black.

“I challenge consumers to look at the produce available in local stores — you’ll always be able to find blueberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, peaches and the other products you desire — but where these products are grown and sold is directly linked to who is available to harvest them.”

The full report is available online at http://www.agr.georgia.gov/AgLaborReport.pdf. Highlights of the report include the following:

• Forty-eight percent of respondents found their part-time workforce to be roughly the same over the past five years, while 20 percent reported their workforce to be smaller.

• Twenty-one percent of respondents indicated that fewer full and part-time workers were hired in 2011 when compared to the last five years; major reasons included a poor economy, loss of revenue, poor worker retention and lack of available workers.

• It is unknown if the lack of full- and part-time workers in 2011 was a direct result of the passage of Georgia HB87, however, the study’s findings suggest this could be an issue and identifies a perception that the lack of workers could be related to the passage of HB87.

• The survey shows producers pay both full and part-time workers at, or above, federal minimum wage.

• In 2011, more than 50 percent of survey respondents who are producers of blueberries, cabbage, cantaloupe, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, squash, tobacco and watermelon reported income losses.

• More than 40 percent of respondents said H2A was not applicable to their farming operations; another 20 percent indicated they were unfamiliar with the program.

• Most respondents use word of mouth to recruit workers; approximately 13 percent use the Georgia Department of Labor and 3.4 percent reported using H-2A.

phollis@farmpress.com