The state’s labor department also worked with the Georgia Department of Corrections to develop a pilot program using probationers to fill Georgia’s agricultural labor needs, but there were also problems reported with that program.

Black said the first recommendation of his department’s report to the legislature was that first and foremost, agricultural guestworker reform must start with the federal government.

“From expanding eligibility to exercising common sense in writing rules for the antiquated program, only the federal government can make this program useful for farmers. It is yet to be seen if H-2A can be rebranded to fulfill the needs of 21st century agriculture, but reforming the archaic program must be a near term priority.”

The study also indicated a need for improved and expanded education and outreach to the agricultural industry about state and federal labor recruitment programs.

The third and final recommendation highlighted the need for more research to thoroughly comprehend Georgia’s agriculture labor needs.

Also speaking before the subcommittee was Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA).

“As the largest H-2A Program user in the nation, NCGA has over 700 farmer members who will employ more than 7,000 H-2A workers and many thousand more U.S. workers in 2012.

“I am extremely proud of the farmers and farm workers of NCGA because, working together, they have refused to succumb to the conventional wisdom that it is impossible to comply with labor, immigration and worker protection laws.

“Instead, the farmers and workers of NCGA have committed themselves to compliance and intend to continue promoting compliance and working towards a level playing field for all agricultural employers,” said Wicker.

Labor-intensive agriculture can comply, compete, survive and thrive if the federal government would institute common-sense agriculture labor policy reforms, he said.

“American farmers need a reasonable, rational, predictable and workable guestworker program that supplies a legal, available and fairly compensated farm workforce.

“A guestworker program that actually works in a reasonable and rational manner is absolutely critical if our nation intends to secure the future viability of our farms, especially those that grow our fresh fruits and vegetables,” he said.

Most farmers lack confidence, said Wicker, that the federal agencies running the current H-2A program will make the required decisions on time even when the farmers execute their responsibilities perfectly and well in advance of the deadlines.

Wicker offered possible reforms to the current program, including a rational wage rate linked to the FLSA minimum wage plus 10 to 15 percent to help preclude wage stagnation; binding mediation and arbitration to streamline resolution of worker grievances and avoid costly lawsuits that end up enriching lawyers; having farmers and workers who share in the benefits of the program also share some of the fixed costs associated with the program; simplifying the overly bureaucratic processes required to participate in the program, which serves as a disincentive to participation; and including all sectors of agriculture in the program to encourage wider participation, and provide a path for farmers and farm workers to comply with immigration law.

“In addition, any reforms must include clear statutory language that explicitly defines the role and reach of administrative agencies so that farmers are not continually whipsawed and subjected to different legal interpretations and regulations with every change in the White House,” said Wicker.

(To read about earlier testimony on the Georgia labor situation, visit http://southeastfarmpress.com/government/georgians-testify-farm-labor-issues).

phollis@farmpress.com