Charles Hall Discusses Georgia Produce Farming, Immigration Laws

Contributing Editor Charles Strangward, Senior Editor Barbara Keiker

2 October 2011

(Note to Growing Georgia readers: Not only do Georgia produce farmers grow some of the most management-intense crops in the state, they deal with some of the toughest off-farm scrutiny, too, facing new immigration laws, heightened food-safety practices and a daunting regulatory climate. This is the first in a two-part series regarding these issues with Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.)

Last July, Georgia’s Illegal Immigration and Reform Act of 2011, also called H.B. 87, took effect. The bill requires an employer to verify the immigration status of employees or face stiff penalties for non-compliance.

“I don’t think most growers knew that there’d be this major of an impact on the harvest crews as what it turned out to be,” said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.  “We have farmers who said they have Latino workers that are natural-born citizens of the U.S., but they decided to go to South Carolina and North Carolina because they didn’t want to be profiled.”

Farmers, like any business, must process an immigration form called an I-9 when they hire a worker. The form requires the employee to furnish documentary proof of citizenship – like a social security card, driver’s license or valid visa – or other documents that establishing legitimate proof of citizenship.

Hall says these required documents may appear legitimate to a farmer, who signs the I-9 and hires the worker. But growers have no way of knowing if the applicant’s papers are genuine.

“When this legislation came up, where people were checking their legal status, those people who were truly undocumented bypassed Georgia,” he said. “I don’t think we really expected the law to have that big of an effect initially. We knew that the first phase of e-Verify was going to happen in January 2012, but we didn’t expect quite the reaction from the worker force that we got this past June. Workers were afraid of being arrested or profiled if they came to Georgia.

“This year, our Vidalia onion harvest was almost 50 percent over when the bill took effect, so it did not impact Vidalias as much as it could have,” he said. “But we still had worker shortages. Many of our peach workers use H2A (the federal guest worker program), so we didn’t have the problems in peaches that we had with some of the other crops. I don’t want to say we got by, because Vidalias and peaches were hit pretty hard, but they could have been hit much if the bill had taken effect two months earlier.”

Hall says that an accurate picture of the bill’s impact won’t be known until after the harvest season. The association has commissioned a study by the University of Georgia to look at the economic impact of the spring harvest on fruit and vegetable growers as well as communities in south Georgia where fruits and vegetables are vital economic engines.

The association, which has 350 members, conducted surveys in August. The data was turned over to UGA the first week of September. The results are expected to be available in October and will be presented to Georgia lawmakers in conjunction with a similar fact-finding study conducted by Georgia’s agricultural commissioner. The reports, said Hall, will be used to tell state and federal legislators what can happen if there are not adequate guest-worker provisions with regard to immigration bills.

“We passed a law in Georgia that affects the economic base of state agriculture, but without any provisions allowing farmers to harvest their crops,” Hall explained. “The whole purpose of the law was to discourage the illegal, undocumented worker. Our association tried to explain to our metro-area legislators that in doing so, you’re basically tearing up the ag economy in these small rural communities.”

Hall continued, “They were much more concerned about how they could get rid of the undocumented workers in the metro areas, then our unemployed Georgians would have jobs. Our contention is that unemployed Georgians do not want to work in the field.”

Not only is the harvesting of produce physically demanding -- requiring bending, stooping, turning and lifting for 8 to 10 hours a day in hot conditions -- it requires a special skill set.

“It’s not like going to granddaddy’s and picking beans,” Hall said. “You’ve got to make sure you’re choosing the freshest blackberry or the most-ripe cucumber and if it’s too big to be No. 1s, you’ve got to throw it away or if it’s too small then you don’t want to pick it. A lot of people see this as unskilled labor out there in the field. It’s not.”

Dr. Teri Hamlin
North Region Agriculture Education
Georgia Department of Education
204C Four Towers University of Georgia
Athens, Ga 30602
706-552-4461 / 706-540-0032
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