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Ag leaders call for changes to guest worker program
Farmers struggle to find labor for harvesting crops
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Georgia's agriculture industry is calling for a new guest worker program to stave off crop losses due to lack of labor.

And it's got to start at the top, Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black said at a news conference Tuesday in Atlanta.

"A rightfully placed federal solution lingers on the horizon much like a summer afternoon cloud bank: lightning, thunder, wind, but no rain," he said in the department's Report on Agriculture Labor. "Georgia farmers and agribusiness employers widely attribute the need for these workers due to the fact that local citizens do not generally possess or care to develop the specialized skills associated with agriculture, and further do not regularly demonstrate the work ethic necessary to meet the productivity requirements of the farm business."

The report, released Tuesday, was written in accordance with Georgia House Bill 87, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Reinforcement Act of 2011.

The department conducted an agricultural labor survey to give a comprehensive status of labor across the industry. Black and other members of the department traveled throughout Georgia to meet with producers and gain additional data, listening to growers sharing their labor experiences for the 2011 crops and their concerns for the 2012 season.

The survey had 36 questions and was sent out to more than 4,000 producers, but less than 1,000 responses were received.

A majority of growers who responded hire nonfamily employees to work their farms. Though some found it easier to hire workers in 2011, about 21 percent saw less than average response, according to the report.

Fewer workers means fewer crops: blueberries, cabbage, eggplants, tobacco and watermelon were all
significantly affected by the agriculture labor shortage last year, though research has not yet shown how much of that is directly related to HB 87, according to a news release from the department.

Drew Echols, farm manager at Jaemor Farms in Alto, lost two of his 25 employees because of HB 87.

"In previous years I would have six or seven people a day ask for jobs," he said.

Not anymore.

Jaemor Farms has hired Latino workers as well as high school students, but those resources are harder to find and keep.

"I don't know any other way to say it, but I tried white people. It doesn't work," he said. "The work ethics in the white community are almost gone as far as physical, manual labor. People just don't want to do it."

The survey results demonstrate the solution rests in the hands of the federal government, Black said in the news release.

"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," he said.

For that, something must be done about the Federal H-2A guest worker program. The department was asked to address the need for this reform as part of HB 87.

Only 6 percent of those surveyed use the program, and only 33 producers in Georgia use it, according to the Department of Labor.

Reasons why nearly 90 percent don't use it include cost, excessive paperwork, local workers' being more readily available and hearing negative things about H-2A.

"In the press conference, Commissioner Black spoke in-depth about the need for congressional action for H-2A reform, which we totally agree with," said Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council.

The department recommended better education and outreach about the guest worker programs. The report also called for additional research on employment patterns, crop production cycles, commodity labor needs and worker concerns.

"We don't want to lose sectors of agriculture. I like the idea of ‘grown in Georgia,' not ‘grown in Guatemala,'" Tolar said. "If we want ‘grown in Georgia,' we have to have people to harvest those crops."

It's not just crops. Hall County Extension Agent Michael Wheeler said the bill's effects extend to the poultry business, too. Poultry processing plants had to slow down their lines because they didn't have enough people.

Like Black, Wheeler said a guest worker program is needed, but H-2A might not be the right answer.

"I think most are not necessarily happy about it. They would like some program but the way it's organized now, I think they find it too hard to deal with at this point," he said. "It's gotten so large they can't wrap their hands around it, so they give up and don't try to use it."

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