Numerous surveys and studies conducted in Georgia have revealed farm labor shortages and negative economic impacts since the passage this year of a tough new immigration law in the state.

Though none of the findings mention the law specifically, many farmers have complained that House Bill 87 has frightened away immigrant workers, resulting in some crops rotting in the field.

Georgia’s Republican-controlled General Assembly passed the law in the spring of 2011. Among other things, it 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.

Other states, including Alabama and Arizona, have passed similar laws.

Shortly after the legislation was signed into law by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a survey conducted by Georgia Farm Bureau showed that farmers had 11,080 jobs open and waiting to be filled.

Another survey conducted this past summer by the Georgia Agribusiness Council (GAC) revealed that 46 percent of those responding were, at the time, experiencing a labor shortage. More than 130 employers from 61 counties across the state participated in the survey, representing different sectors of the agricultural industry, including crop, livestock, greenhouse, landscape and many ag input suppliers.

Of those who had jobs needing to be filled, 24 percent said that fewer workers were applying for the available jobs than in past years, 8.7 percent said that local law enforcement has increased enforcement action towards immigrants, 30.4 percent said the physical demand of the jobs were too difficult for those who seem interested, and 37 percent said that immigrants were concerned with Georgia’s new immigration reform law.

Farmers and representatives of farm groups in Georgia have been especially critical of the provision in the law that requires many of them to use the federal E-Verify program. Legislation is pending in Congress to mandate E-Verify nationwide.

At the same time, farmers say the federal guest-worker programs that are designed to help them temporarily employ foreign workers are cumbersome and costly.

“Georgia is the poster child for what can happen when mandatory E-Verify and enforcement legislation is passed without an adequate guest-worker program,” says Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

Hall says that while most of the “mandatory E-Verify” legislation is promoted as a jobs creation bill, that’s not necessarily the case with agriculture.

Skilled labor needed

“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