A Georgia blueberry producer, along with the state’s commissioner of agriculture, was among those testifying before the U.S. Senate in October about immigration enforcement and farm labor.

The hearing, billed as a discussion of “America’s Agriculture Labor Crisis: Enacting a Practical Solution,” was called by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security.

A farm labor shortage was reported in Georgia this year after the state’s legislature passed a new law cracking down on illegal immigration. This shortage, said Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black, shows the need for a new or expanded guest worker program for migrant workers.

Black told senators he was open to any number of proposals to deal with the problem, as long as there is a strong guest-worker program in place.

Unusually high heat and a lack of rain caused an unexpected rush in Georgia harvests this year, said Black, and that may have contributed to labor shortages. But E-Verify — which is required of some employers by the new Georgia law — is a “real problem without fixing a guest-worker program,” said the commissioner.

Black testified that an informal survey showed that farmers of onions, watermelons and other handpicked crops lacked more than 11,000 workers during the 2011 spring and summer harvest.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., whose state also passed a law with E-Verify requirements, said during the hearing that he would prefer letting guest workers stay in the United States for less than a year without their families to do seasonal farm jobs.

Connie Horner, a blueberry farmer from Homerville in south Georgia told the subcommittee members that she needed their help to do the right thing, and that she needed legal, experienced, seasonal workers to maintain her farm and harvest food that “helps feed Americans.”

“I want to hire legal workers. Yet, the hiring process must be cost-effective and — most important — simple. In short, I need your help to make it easier to do what’s right,” said Horner, who manages a family-owned blueberry farm.

There are approximately 2,000 U.S. farmers in 20 states growing 500 to 600 million pounds of cultivated blueberries annually, with a wholesale value of about $1.5 billion, she said.

“In Georgia, I am one of about 350 growers who produce blueberries with a total farm gate value of $120 million to $140 million annually. We are by any measure a small family farm. Yet, the challenges we face are shared by farms small and large across Georgia and the nation.”

Horner noted that Georgia had been pushed into the national spotlight when a new state law “quickly resulted in a farm labor disaster.”

Social Security mismatch letters

“In 2006, we hired 67 individuals who worked for varying lengths of time over the course of the year. They were pleasant, productive and efficient. Unfortunately, as months passed, we received nearly 60 Social Security mismatch letters. Translation: unknown to me at the time, more than 80 percent of my hires were most likely falsely documented workers,” she said.

Upon discovering this, Horner said she researched options, including the H2A program. In 2007 and 2008, she held joint H2A contracts with a larger farm. “We believed participating in

H2A would ensure reliable, legal, experienced workers. We were disappointed. The first year, workers’ wages were 60 percent more than minimum wage and production dropped substantially. The second year, along with a new crew, we brought back the best workers from 2007, but again, production suffered.

In 2009, due to crop damage from a hailstorm, she needed only five additional workers during harvest. “We had previously cancelled our H2A contract on the advice of three gentlemen from the Department of Labor (DOL) who assured us they could supply over 500 farm jobs due to the overwhelming number of Americans out of work. I was calling 3 branches of the DOL several times a week, begging them for workers.

“The Americans interested in working wanted only air-conditioned positions and refused to work outside. About 80 percent of our fruit rotted on the bushes.”

Subsequent experiences with H2A proved costly and cumbersome, she said, requiring more than $12,000 in non-payroll related costs and 7,000 sheets of paperwork for only seven employees.

Many of the DOL referrals were criminals, said Horner, a fact she discovered after they had to be excused from work to visit their parole officers and have their ankle bracelets removed.

“The H2A rule requiring employers to hire everyone without question is irresponsible and potentially dangerous. It is one of the many reasons Horner Farms will no longer use this program. In addition, we are currently involved in a lawsuit where our 2010 H2A contract is in question.

“Our contract, though it was approved by all the necessary government agencies, accepted and signed by me and all my employees, is in danger of being voided. So, even though we paid the agreed upon contracted wage rate, this lawsuit may require us to pay 26 percent more in back wages.”

Farmers’ survival depends upon excess to experienced, efficient works, said Horner, yet under the H2A program, worker referrals typically had no experience with farm work. As a result, she added, production suffered.

After 2010, Horner said she purchased a harvester and began converting her farm to machine-harvestable varieties. But this isn’t an option for every farmer, she said, and mechanization brings with it a whole new set of challenges.

“I believe H2A is a well-meaning mess. It has an admirable goal of protecting workers while supplying farms with needed labor. Yet, the H2A regulations and requirements have turned government red tape into a crimson tide.  H2A is not the answer to the labor crisis we are facing today,” she told senators.

And tweaking H2A is not the answer, she said. “Growers and producers in America need a 21st century farm labor solution that is more suited to the realities of farming. A program needs to give workers the freedom to move among crops and among employers as most do now.

“The program must provide workers needed in the future, and it also needs to provide a worker visa that allows the existing, experienced workforce to continue to work. I don’t see how you can solve the problem otherwise.”

This year, she said, much of the migrant farm labor supply skipped coming to Georgia out of fear of the new law. “Farms felt the impact first, but so did community-based businesses that serve the farming and farm worker communities. It was a man-made disaster that threatens to repeat itself in more and more states unless Congress finally acts,” said Horner.

phollis@farmpress.com