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Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 7:42am

Survey Finds Widespread Farm Labor Shortages

Updated: 3 years ago.
South Georgia farmers say they can't get enough workers to pick the state's most profitable and best-known crops, including peaches and Vidalia onions.

The Georgia Agribusiness Council says nearly half of the farmers it surveyed don’t have enough workers to harvest their crops.

About 130 fruit and vegetable growers, cotton and peanut processors and other agricultural employers responded to a survey on labor needs.

Bryan Tolar, the council’s president, says farmers have reported labor shortages in the past. But this year is different.

“This year we’ve seen workers that have been available in the past that are now leaving," he said. "We’re not talking about people, uh, that we just can’t find the workers. We’re talking about people who have historically done the work who are not making themselves available to do that work. They are leaving the state. That's what's different about this year.”

Parts of the new immigration law go into effect July 1. It will require many businesses to verify employees can work here legally. It also allows police to check the immigration status of some criminal suspects.

Gov. Nathan Deal and other state officials have said they hope the unemployed can fill some of the vacant farm jobs. Indeed, he’s asked the Department of Agriculture to deliver its own survey on farm labor shortages by Friday.

But Tolar and other agriculture experts say migrant workers have built up skills that are hard to replicate. Plus, the workers often move from place to place, harvesting crops as they ripen across the state.

That kind of schedule doesn’t appeal to a lot of native-born workers, says John McKissick, an agricultural economist at the University of Georgia. As a result, it may be difficult to find enough replacement farm workers among the local populations in South Georgia.

“We’re talking about small geographic areas and the availability of workers for that short duration, for that specific kind of job, and then we’re also talking about that it really is just a part-time situation,” he said.

Ben Speight, an official with Teamsters Local 728, says migrant workers don't compete with Americans for jobs.

"Not a single undocumented worker has taken a single Teamster job in this state," he told reporters. "Because the fact is undocumented workers do work that most of us don't want to do, at wages we refuse to accept."

Speaking at a news conference last week, he added, "They are hyper-exploited under labor laws that don't protect them."

One farmer told the agribusiness council that "Georgia residents do not want to do the hard physical labor required in my business."

Another said, "Today I needed 20 pickers and got 10."

Tolar said his organization doesn't want to complain about the labor shortage. Rather, he aims to highlight the situation, in the hopes it will galvanize some laid-offer workers to apply for the jobs.

In the meantime, Tolar said farmers are leaving crops unpicked because they can’t deploy enough manual laborers. Farmers need workers now to pick some of the state’s most profitable crops, including peaches, Vidalia onions, and blackberries.

Tolar said the economic impact of the labor shortages won’t be clear until later on this year. A class action lawsuit has been filed against the new immigration law, and an injunction to stop the law is expected this week.

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