Specialty crop growers paid the biggest price for Georgia’s farm labor shortages last year, according to a Georgia Department of Agriculture report.
The study, mandated by Georgia lawmakers through a stricter immigration law that went into effect Jan. 1, used a 36-question survey of 813 Georgia producers, processors and others in agricultural services and marketing.
The survey said 26% of those who responded reported a loss of income due to the lack of available workers, with the most severe losses from specialty crop growers.
“Specifically, over 50% of the producers of blueberries, cabbage, cantaloupe, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, squash, tobacco, and watermelon reported income losses in 2011 due to lack of available workers,” according to the study.
The report found that 21% of the responders indicated fewer than average workers were hired in 2011 compared with the previous five years. Reasons for the reduction were blamed on a poor economy, loss of revenue, poor worker retention and lack of workers.
Georgia produce leaders have complained that the state’s immigration law, passed in May 2011, has had a negative effect on worker availability, despite the fact the first E-verify requirement didn’t go into effect until this year. Other enforcement provisions of the law worried migrant workers, industry leaders said.
“The rumors killed us,” said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Association.
He said within the Latino community there were rumors that law enforcement officials would set up roadblocks at the state border and check immigration status.
“We attribute it back to House Bill 87, but it was people thinking they were going to be arrested at the border,” Hall said.
The report, released in early January, did not directly say the immigration law diminished the labor supply, but he said it was a possibility.
“It is unknown if the lack of full- and part-time workers in 2011 was a direct result of the passage of Georgia HB 87, however, the findings of this study suggest that this could be an issue,” according to the report.
“I think (the report) validated a lot of the feelings we had already within the fruit and vegetable industry,” Hall said.
A study by the University of Georgia released in October estimated economic damage to Georgia produce growers in 2011 attributed to labor shortages at near $74 million for growers of seven produce crops, representing nearly half of the state’s acreage of those commodities.
Hall said the department of agriculture study estimates $10 million in losses for growers who responded to the survey. However, Hall said the state department of agriculture survey included fewer produce growers than the University of Georgia study last fall.
Hall said he hopes the report could spur Georgia’s Congressional delegation to advocate for a reformed agricultural guest worker program. “We’re going to see problems long term if corrections aren’t made.”
However, he is concerned the election year may make progress on reform of the agricultural guest worker program out of reach.
“Hopefully we can get something done this year.”
Bruce Goldstein, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Farmworker Justice, said Jan. 4 that the report did not seek out the opinions of agricultural workers in Georgia.
“That concerns us,” Goldstein said.
Hall said there has been no discussion of changes to the state’s immigration law, House Bill 87, which has a mandatory E-verify provision that kicked in Jan. 1 for employers with 500 workers or more. The same provision for companies with 250 employees starts Jan.1, 2013. In July 2013, the law will go into effect for employers or more 10 workers.
Hall said it is too early to determine if growers will cut back acreage this year because of concerns about worker availability. However, he said some growers have been talking about growing field corn or cotton rather than vegetables. There has been some reduction in Vidalia onion acreage, in part related to pricing last year and perhaps some measure of concern about labor availability.
The state’s report said reforming the “archaic” H-2A program must be a near-term priority for federal officials. The report also suggests that the state improve and expand education and outreach to growers about state and federal labor recruitment programs.
“This study found that over 20% of respondents were unfamiliar with H-2A for hiring workers,” according to the report. A third recommendation said that more research is needed to track Georgia farm employment patters, crop production cycles, labor needs by commodity and worker concerns.