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Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - 6:32am

Survey: GA Agriculture Needs Workers

A Georgia Department of Agriculture survey has revealed a shortage in farm labor. But the question is, why aren't those jobs filled?

The farmers surveyed report a need for 11,000 workers this year. That’s despite a state unemployment rate of 9.9 percent.

Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black says farmers question whether they can fill those jobs.

“We’ve had some farmers indicate they’ve had one of the most serious challenges they’ve ever had this year. We’ve had some farmers who’ve simply said, ‘We’re concerned about the fall. We just simply don’t know right now.’”

Black said in some instances, farmers have had to plow fields that they were unable to harvest because they didn't have enough labor to pick crops.

A new immigration law may be behind the labor shortage. Parts of the law take effect July 1. It’ll require many businesses to verify employees can work here legally.

The state survey is in line with a similar survey by the Georgia Agribusiness Council. The council found that nearly half of the farmers surveyed don’t have enough workers to harvest their crops.

But Council president Bryan Tolar says the issue isn’t how many jobs are available.

“It’s the same number of jobs that were available last year. It’s just that last year they were filled and this year they are not," he said. "So that’s what puts us in a difficult position. How do we fill a void that, number one, no one anticipated? And number two, now we’re scrambling trying to figure out how we’re going to fix it.”

Some say a climate of fear over tougher citizenship checks by police and employers is leading migrant labor to leave state.

Gov. Nathan Deal says probationers and the unemployed could fill some the farm jobs.

The governor says there are 100,000 people on probation in Georgia, and many are unemployed. He said the prison system will work on connecting people on probation with farmers seeking labor.

Tolar of the agribusiness council said he hopes some of the unemployed, and the probationers will give harvest jobs a chance. He said these opportunities could lead to longer-term employment.

But he said time is of the essence. He said there are crops that are ripe right now and they need to be harvested immediately, not next week.

Deal asked the department of agriculture to survey growers after several warned that a new law targeting illegal immigrants was scaring away the Hispanic migrant workers who help harvest the state's crops. The survey did not systematically question growers, so the results are not exact.

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