A Georgia farmer took part in a Washington round table Monday with Pres. Obama about the immigration overhaul under consideration.
Blueberry grower Jason Berry represented the views of farmers from Georgia’s largest fruit sector. He's with Dole Berry Co. in Homerville, in southeast Georgia. He was part of a group of business leaders meeting with Obama.
If passed, the bill would affect Georgia farms and other businesses that rely on immigration labor in several ways.
But the guest-worker provision in the bill is the most critical, says Charles Hall, with the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
That’s because it would make it easier to hire temporary workers. Under the current program, Hall says Georgia’s small farmers can’t always find workers when they need them.
“The great need will be to maintain a reasonable guest worker program so that workers can come into the U.S. for work and that guest worker program is usable from a small grower's standpoint as well as a large grower's standpoint,” he said.
Some smaller farmers have struggled to fill jobs since Georgia passed an immigration crackdown in 2011. It bars companies from hiring undocumented workers.
Joe Cornelius is with the Georgia Blueberry Commission. He says the state law has made an already tight labor market even worse. And that often means you can’t harvest the whole crop.
“Some of the crop goes to waste. Or you take a lower quality product and you receive a lower price for it,” he said in a phone interview.
He says as the blueberry sector in Georgia grows, there are more acres to harvest but fewer workers.
Cornelius says farmers have few options. He says when they use the current H2A foreign guest worker program, they often can't use all of the workers the government helps them hire because they're not up to par. But he says using skilled migrant workers also presents problems.
“When you’re dependent on migrant laborers who move from work their way up from Florida, you’re always worried you won’t have enough workers,” he said.
And he said the rumor mill has snared illegal and legal workers alike.
"Just the fear of it has driven a lot of people away last year and this year," he said.
Some blueberry farmers have adapted by growing varieties that can be machine-harvested. But Hall with the growers association said that option is only possible for fruit that won’t be sold directly to consumers at supermarkets.
“Blueberry or any kind of mechanized harvesting is going to cause the fruit to be bruised or scarred or have the skin broken," he said. "If they go to the fresh market, that harvest almost has to be done by hand.”
The Senate is expected to vote on the bill this week.