Ag commissioner Black testifies before the Senate on immigrant labor
On Oct. 4, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black testified before the Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee in the United States Senate.
The hearing was called “America’s Agricultural Labor Crisis: Enacting a Practical Solution,” and Black spoke about the labor shortage in Georgia’s fields.[gn_box title=”Georgia spring agriculture losses” color=”#33cc33″] The Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association released some findings from a study of the state’s farm labor shortages Oct. 4. Here is a breakdown from the study of this year’s $74.9 million in crop losses:
Blueberries, $29 million
Vidalia onions, $16.3 million
Bell peppers, $15.1 million
Cucumbers, $5.9 million
Blackberries, $4 million
Watermelons, $2.5 million
Squash, $1.9 million[/gn_box]
“With over a $68 billion impact, agriculture is the leading industry in Georgia, employing one in seven Georgians,” Black said, “We lead the country in production of poultry, pecans and peanuts. Cotton, peaches, fresh market vegetables, blueberries and ornamentals are also prominent in our agricultural portfolio.
“Needless to say, Georgia has a vested interest in making sure our agricultural employers have the manpower necessary to effectively run their operations.”[gn_pullquote align=”right”]“In my view, it is not just a labor issue but also a food safety issue. We need to make sure we know who is on our nation’s farms, and we need to make sure that America does not become reliant on third-world countries to put food on the family tables across this country.” —Gary Black, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner[/gn_pullquote]
Georgia farmers began calling Black in the spring, worried about summer labor shortages.
“In May of this year, Gov. (Nathan) Deal asked the Georgia Department of Agriculture to evaluate the labor situation in the agricultural sector. My department created an informal survey and worked with various agricultural associations for dissemination to their members. The survey accepted responses for 15 days, and we heard from roughly 230 producers representing Georgia’s diverse agricultural economy. Our brief, unscientific snapshot suggested a degree of unmet labor needs during the 2011 spring harvest season.
“The survey revealed significant concerns among blueberry and fresh market vegetable producers. Additional variables for this past growing season included unusually high heat and lack of rain causing an unexpected rush in harvest. Bottom line, the pool of respondents reported on June 10 the unmet availability of 11,080 jobs,” Black told the senators.
Georgia’s economy is projected to take a $391 million hit and shed about 3,260 jobs this year because of farm labor shortages, according to a report released Oct. 4 by the state’s agricultural industry.
The report doesn’t point out the reasons for the shortage, but many farmers complained this year that Georgia’s new immigration law—House Bill 87—has scared away the migrant Hispanic workers they depend on, putting their crops at risk.
Georgia passed HB 87, a bill cracking down on illegal immigration, earlier this year.
To alleviate the shortfall in workers, Mark Butler, the Georgia Labor Commissioner, worked with agricultural associations over the summer to place unemployed workers in the farm jobs, but many of the workers did not stay in the positions because of the heat and hard labor.
Black gave an example. One farmer “had one employee that worked half a day one week and two half-days the next week. This employee earned a total of $119. The employee walked off the job and did not return though plenty of work was available. In addition, the employee filed an unemployment claim, and the producer received notification that the employee was eligible for $235 weekly benefits for 17 weeks. The producer filed a timely appeal, and it was finally determined that he was not responsible,” Black related.
Gov. Deal and the Georgia Department of Corrections also formulated a plan to fill farm jobs. The pilot program wasn’t an instant success, but with more work Black thinks it could be a positive program.
“Corrections officials believe they can offer opportunities for nonviolent offenders with skills developed by working in the prison farm system. Agricultural producers would qualify for the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), which can be as much as $2,400. The WOTC is 25 percent of qualified first-year wages for those employed at least 120 hours and 40 percent for those employed 400 hours or more. This program is strictly voluntary, and no one is required to participate,” Black said.
After labor shortages, Georgia farmers asked for a study to be done over the summer to calculate losses.
UGA’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development completed the study for the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and other state agricultural groups.
Researchers identified a shortage of 5,244 farm laborers and $74.9 million in losses from seven crops. They surveyed farmers representing nearly half of the acreage available for harvesting those seven crops last spring. Their losses resulted in an extra $106.5 million loss in other goods and services in Georgia plus 1,282 fewer jobs across the state, the report projected.
“In my view, it is not just a labor issue but also a food safety issue. We need to make sure we know who is on our nation’s farms, and we need to make sure that America does not become reliant on third world countries to put food on the family tables across this country,” Black said.