For all the emphasis that our political leaders put on bringing business giants like Kia and Porsche to Georgia, it’s easy to lose sight of this fact: the state’s largest industry is still agriculture.
The people who operate our farms, dairies and orchards bring in more dollars for the state’s economy each year than any other business segment.
You would think that our political leadership would appreciate the contributions of our farmers and do everything they can to help them. That has not been the case, however.
This year, as the state was still struggling to dig out from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the Legislature went out of its way to make it more difficult for people in agriculture to stay in business.
They passed a restrictive immigration law that was intended to address the issue of Georgia’s undocumented immigrants. The new statute turned out to be very effective at keeping immigrants out of the state — and that was the problem.
The migrant workers that our farms hire every year to harvest such crops as blueberries, cucumbers and Vidalia onions stayed away in droves. Even the seasonal workers who had the required permits to be in this country steered clear of Georgia. They didn’t want to be continually hassled by law enforcement officers demanding to see their papers or threatening to put them in jail.
One survey conducted last summer indicated a shortage of at least 11,000 farm workers in Georgia, a figure that was probably conservative. Bryan Tolar of the Georgia Agribusiness Council said the unavailability of labor left the state’s farms with 30 percent fewer workers on average.
The results were predictable. Fruits and vegetables often were not harvested and in many cases farmers plowed their crops under.
The economic losses attributed to the labor shortage were estimated to be somewhere in the range of $300 million to $400 million — at a time when the state desperately needed every job and dollar it could get.
“Georgia is the poster child for what can happen when mandatory E-Verify and enforcement legislation is passed without an adequate guest-worker program,” said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
“We don’t need to stall the largest economic engine in this state and we don’t need to scare off our workforce,” said Zippy Duvall, head of the Georgia Farm Bureau. “Skilled farm labor is a necessity, just like land, water and equipment. Without timely access to a stable work force, large segments of agriculture will grind to a halt.”
The folks who passed the immigration law have largely declined to acknowledge that a lot of damage was done to the state’s economy. Gov. Nathan Deal’s official response when reporters would question him about the impact of the new statute was that it was more important to “uphold the rule of law.”
Deal and other supporters of the new immigration law also maintained there was an easy solution to the labor issue: hire parolees and released prison inmates to replace the migrant workers. That did not solve the problem either.
“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,” Hall noted. “It is not something that the average citizen can do.”
While many state-level politicians have pretended the labor problem doesn’t exist, two of Georgia’s congressmen are actually facing up to reality.
Reps. Jack Kingston of Savannah and Lynn Westmoreland of Sharpsburg have introduced a bill to streamline and revise the federal H2A guest worker program so that farmers can more easily hire documented labor.
Westmoreland readily admitted that Georgia’s farms have indeed been hit hard by their inability to get enough workers.
“It’s just a problem, it’s a real problem,” he said in a recent interview. “When you’ve got something in the field, you’ve got to get it picked. We need to be sure we have workers for what is still the state’s largest industry.”
It’s difficult to say if Westmoreland and Kingston will be able to get a vote on their bill — it could be that there’s a better solution out there. At least they’re willing to admit there’s a problem. That’s a start.
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)