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Georgia is neglecting its largest industry

Posted: December 21, 2011 - 1:04am

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.)

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Comments (6)

blmartin77

What problem?

Arent the prisons around our state full of inmates. Why not let the prisoners earn their keep by forcing them to work on the farms in place of migrant workers. The pay the prisoners earn from the farmers should be given back to the state to help offset the cost of their food, lodging, and health care.

Little Lamb

Reruns

Well, we are accustomed to the broadcast TV networks playing reruns of prime time shows every holiday season; so I guess it's only natural for columnists to use reruns also. Here we have the same, tired half-truths and suppositions that were widely disseminated this past August and September. Tom Crawford didn't even bother to interview anyone himself. He merely regurgitated quotes and quips from Associated Press articles and Atlanta Journal Constitution stories.

I'm sorry, but I don't buy the premise promulgated by the left that there was a labor shortage in Georgia this past fall. If there were, we would see official statistics proving the assertion. But they cannot produce such numbers.

As far as food rotting in the field; well, we're still as obese as ever.

Little Lamb

Retread

Ole Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, has become a celebrity with his one interview. It circulated around the nation time and time again from August until now. But when you read his quote, it sounds sad, and even a little creepy.

Please allow Little Lamb to engage in a little supposition and logical extension to offer what Charles Hall was thinking but was not actually quoted:

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. It is not something that the average citizen can do. We need to get these illegal Mexicans because we can exploit them easier than legal workers.

Note the words in italic are supplied by moi, but I'll bet it's not far off the mark of what goes on in Charles Hall's brain.

These farmers want labor they can manipulate, so they look for illegal immigrants. I'm sure Georgia's new immigration law that went into effect on July 1 is not perfect (no law is). But it is a step in the right direction.

Little Lamb

Poor Mouthing

I grew up in a small farm town in a state west of here that is a few notches down the economic ladder from Georgia. Even as a teenager I grew suspicious as I heard the farmers talking to each other in the barbershop, the church socials, the square dances, etc., about how they were suffering because of the weather, the bankers, the government subsidy programs, and anyone else they could think to blame. Year after year they said they never made a profit. But I noticed they lived in houses nicer than ours in town. They had multiple vehicles nicer than ours. They continued to buy shiny new tractors and combines.

I came to the conclusion that is was a tradition, a code to complain and poor mouth. That is why I question the following statement from Crawford's column up above:

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.

You just cannot trust statements like that if they come from a farmer or the Agribusiness Council.

Little Lamb

Scorn for the law

Do you feel the scorn in Tom Crawford's pen when he writes about Gov. Deal’s concern for upholding the law? The law is not important for Tom Crawford and other left wingers. The law is a bureaucratic inconvenience when it stands in the way of preventing massive increases in Democratic voter registration. If only they could get those illegal workers on the voting rolls then rosier policies could be implemented.

Riverman1

Solution

Those who are getting food stamps or whatever it's called now should be given passes to farmer's fields instead. Farmers could be paid by the government and it would be up to the people on stamps to harvest whatever it was for themselves.

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