Some avoid labor hassles with housing construction, more machinery use

Scared to plant.

That’s how Georgia growers describe themselves when considering fall and spring crops.

“I’m scared to plant all the crops I want to plant because I’m afraid there won’t be enough labor to harvest,” says vegetable grower and packer Bo Herndon, past president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (GFVGA) and operator of L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms, Inc. in Lyons, Ga. “We lost crops this year and last year due to the fact that we couldn’t get enough labor.”

Grower Bo Herndon of L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms, Inc. in Lyons, Ga., was able to plan for this year’s harvest after losing 30 percent of his crop to labor shortages in 2010. This year he estimates he has lost about 15 percent, and he cut fall plantings by 10 percent.

A study commissioned by the GFVGA along with several agricultural organizations for this year’s spring and summer seasons is expected to confirm that growers cut back on fall plantings as a result of the agricultural labor crisis.

“Conservative is about as far as I can go with what we’re seeing,” says Charles Hall, executive director of the GFVGA, with regard to plans for future crops. “It varies on the crop and individual situation. It’s hard to say what the overall crop situation will be by the end of the year.”

The data may also reflect spring and summer crop losses that have been estimated to have cost somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of expected normal levels. For Herndon, the problems began in 2010, when anxiety kept migrant workers away and caused a 20 to 30 percent loss at his 1,500-acre farm. He estimates his production will be down by 15 percent this year.

“I had a better chance to prepare this year and I made adjustments and cut back,” he says.

Free advice

With this year’s experience under their belts, Georgia growers have advice for their peers in other parts of the country where get-tough immigration laws may be on the horizon.

At the state level, laws like those in Arizona, Alabama and Georgia would punish people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants and empower police to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects. At the federal level, efforts to mandate E-Verify are considered by some to be imminent and disastrous for agriculture.

“If I were a grower and had never had these problems, I’d be preparing to build housing on my farm so I could house my workers. Then I’d be looking at getting into an H-2A program for a legal workforce,” says Herndon, who has built housing on his property for 15 years and can accommodate 200 people. “Then I’d try to adjust myself accordingly and grow the crops where I knew I had some loyal customers so I’d make a profit. I would grow slow into it. It’s a growing process.”

While many growers feel that the H-2A program is costly and a paperwork nightmare, Herndon says it’s “the only way to go.”

Jason Berry’s answer to this year’s labor shortage was to bring out the harvester at his 200-acre Blueberry Farms of Georgia in Baxley, Ga.

“We lost about 15 percent due to the lack of labor for our early blueberry crop, and for the remaining portion we used the mechanical harvester,” says Berry.

Produce rotted in the fields at South Georgia Produce, Inc. in Lake Park, Ga., because of summer labor shortages. Some growers offered bonuses to potential pickers for showing up or finishing a day of work to no avail.

“All in all it was a very stressful season,” he continues. “A lot of the folks we depended on to come from Florida would not come this year out of fear. Many of them wouldn’t drive through Georgia – they drove through Alabama and Tennessee to get to North Carolina.”

Berry beat greater losses with machinery, selling most of his blueberry crop to the processed and frozen food markets. However, he felt the sting that left vegetable growers reeling when he was unable to harvest about 40 percent of the Vidalia onions at his organic vegetable farm in Vidalia, Ga.

Like other vegetable growers, he says, “The plan there is to cut our acreage way down because there is no good mechanical option for that.”

“The fact is, we cannot get our U.S.-born locals to do the work,” Berry says. “We offered bonuses for showing up, signing bonuses and bonuses for finishing a day, and the local people just wouldn’t do the work.”

Start talking

Many farmers still believe the best thing growers everywhere can do is to contact their lawmakers with their concerns about laws affecting agricultural workers. They also see greater need than ever to re-educate everyone about the skilled nature of the work.

“My advice is to try working with our state legislators and our U.S. legislators as well,” says Berry. “I think that’s the key: if we can get people going in Washington, get them to understand how imperative it is that we have these workers.”

Patrick Delaney of United Fresh, the industry’s trade association, says it is crucial that industry members become vocal with lawmakers now.

“It’s imperative that growers and wholesalers, packers and shippers, that everyone speaks up on these issues,” he says.

“Immigration and farm labor is a huge issue for our industry,” Delaney says. “It may be easy to become disillusioned if things don’t come your way, but if we don’t stand up for a workable guest worker solution no one else is going to stand up for us. The men and women who make up the fresh produce industry are the experts.”

Many growers believe that lawmakers, like the general public, have forgotten the skill level needed for picking produce. Growers claim the requirements are underestimated; that it’s a skilled job for which Americans are not conditioned. They also say they are tired of being criticized for stating what has now proven true.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal created a pilot program during July that encouraged probation workers to fill vacant jobs because of grower complaints over labor shortages. At one farm, all the probationers quit by midafternoon on the first two days.

“In June, I had a number of people saying I am critical of American citizens because we don’t have people for these jobs,” says Hall. “They can do it, but they don’t want to do it. Field work is extremely difficult. I don’t think pay has anything to do with it. A good blueberry picker can make $25 an hour. The environment we live in doesn’t lead us to be physically fit.”

Working with H-2A

Many growers and industry supporters believe a more simplified guest worker program could offset the frustration and cost associated with the current H-2A program.

“Without a guest worker program, we are going to import produce just like we import oil,” says Hall, who serves as a board member at United Fresh and is part of the association’s Government Relations Council. “We’ve got to get a reasonable guest worker program so we can bring people in to do the work. Right now, H-2A is very, very difficult to work.”

Dan Bremer, president of AgWorks H2, LLC of Lake Park, Ga., has invested 14 years working with growers to do the paperwork that makes them eligible for H-2A workers. In his consulting role, he helps farmers deal with the rule changes that are bound to occur when working with four different government agencies.

“For the past two months, I have been almost totally dedicated to explaining H-2A to growers who want to take a look at it,” said Bremer in September. He is a retired district director for the U.S. Department of Labor. “Although most growers in Georgia know about the H-2A program, they haven’t really studied it to see if it would work for them.”

The cost associated with the program hinges on the number of workers needed, says Bremer, and it could be a solution depending on the operation. Bremer concedes that H-2A does make the process for getting documented legal workers “onerous.”

“If you don’t like a lot of government regulation, H-2A is not for you,” he says. “If you have a good payroll and accounting system and a good way to keep up with hours worked by your employees, you can do this. Once you’re educated on it, then it’s a business decision.”

There are between 40,000 and 50,000 H-2A workers available in the U.S., where about 1.8 million farm workers are needed to fulfill the market’s needs.

“Some say they have no choice but to try H-2A … that it’s either that or quit, and I’ve never known many farmers to quit. Farmers seek other ways to get it done, and this is one way to get it done,” Bremer maintains.

Still disillusioned

All of the advice in the world isn’t helping some growers in the throes of the labor crisis. The media frenzy that ensued over the past summer caused many Georgia farmers to send press calls to voice mail.

“We don’t know what to do,” says a south Georgia farmer who asked not to be named. With regard to future plantings, the grower says, “We are lost with this.”

Like other growers, she is disappointed with lawmakers.

“I don’t know if they want to put American produce farmers out of business, but that is exactly what is going to happen,” she says. “I really and truly wonder if our state and federal government have any idea what goes on out here.”

Jennifer Paire is a freelance writer based in Canton, Ga. Curt Harler, who has a B.S. in agriculture from Penn State University and an M.S. in ag from The Ohio State University, is a full-time freelance writer.