Georgia is ready to put unemployed probationers to work picking and packing crops.
This week Governor Nathan Deal announced state agriculture, corrections and labor officials will combine efforts to identify unemployed probationers who can work on farms that are trying to harvest crops quickly, especially in South Georgia where blistering 100-degree heat accelerated the growing cycle.
Agriculture commissioner Gary Black told The Foundation that preliminary coordination began last week and small numbers of probationers “could be on the farm as early as this week. This is a free market suggestion,” Black said. “It won’t work for everybody and not every producer would want it, but what if it does work for some? We owe it to the producers and the taxpayers to take a look.”
State agriculture officials estimate Georgia farmers need about 11,000 manual laborers right now to replace missing migrant workers. Some blame the labor shortage on one of the nation’s strictest anti-illegal immigrant laws that was enacted this spring by the Legislature.
“The agriculture industry is the number one economic engine in Georgia and it is my sincere hope to find viable and law abiding solutions to the current problem our farmers face,” Governor Deal said. The governor’s office estimated 2,000 probationers could work on southwest Georgia farms.
Agriculture commissioner Black said, “One way or another (these jobs) are going to be pretty hot. The jobs that were reported to us, they certainly represented harvesting and packing.” This year the state labor department has tracked 14,918 open agricultural jobs, but just 1,756 hires.
Agriculture is the state’s $69 billion per year cash cow (no apology for the pun!). Georgia ranks between first and tenth nationally in 22 products, including first in broiler chickens, peanuts and pecans, second in cotton and onions, third in peppers and cantaloupes, and fourth in peaches.
Sustaining that level of agricultural production requires thousands of seasonal workers, but many were apparently intimidated by House Bill 87. Arizona, Georgia and Alabama have enacted anti-illegal immigrant legislation as a rebuke to Washington’s failure to reform.
“Those who claim this bill will have a negative financial impact on Georgia completely ignore the billions of dollars Georgians have spent on our schools, our hospitals, our courtrooms and our jails because of people who are in our state illegally,” Deal said when he signed the legislation last month. “Illegal immigration is a complex and troublesome issue, and no state alone can fix it. We will continue to have a broken system until we have a federal solution. In the meantime, states must act to defend the taxpayers.”
The Georgia Agribusiness Council lobbied against House Bill 87, and the Council was quick to survey industry leaders when it appeared there would be a labor shortage. Council President Bryan Tolar told the Foundation that the statewide agriculture industry needs 40,000-to-45,000 workers, “but not all at one time because crops mature at different points during the growing season.”
Georgia is approaching the end of the Vidalia onion and blueberry seasons. Blackberries, sweet corn, watermelon and cantaloupe are becoming mature now. Later this summer farmers will harvest bell peppers, cucumbers and squash. Then this fall, it will be peanuts and cotton.
The state ranks seventh nationally in eggs and 25th in milk production. “Poultry will be fine,” Tolar said, largely because of automation. “Folks who process the birds aren’t seeing a mass exodus. The dairy industry is very concerned. Those are year-round jobs. The (dairy cow) has to be milked every day.”
Tolar said Georgia farms have plenty of experience with employees who crossed over the line into the corrections system. “It is not about your background. Are you able to work? Are you willing to do the work? Do you have the papers that say you are legally here to do the work?”
Nobody said this Tuesday, but if this new idea succeeds, Georgia might be onto something that could help ease misery being felt every day by the state’s one-quarter million long-term unemployed. A successful agriculture industry experiment could lead to other innovative ideas.
“We’ve got to seek creative solutions,” Black said about putting probationers to work on farms, “but the federal government has to act on streamlining a guest worker program that is applicable to all producers. That’s got to happen. We cannot let up on our call for federal officials to act.”
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