Ga’s farm-labor crisis playing out as planned

NOTE: This post includes substantial material published earlier on this blog. It is published here as the electronic version of today’s AJC column.

After enacting House Bill 87, a law designed to drive illegal immigrants out of Georgia, state officials appear shocked to discover that HB 87 is, well, driving a lot of illegal immigrants out of Georgia.

It might be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Thanks to the resulting labor shortage, Georgia farmers have been forced to leave millions of dollars’ worth of blueberries, onions, melons and other crops unharvested and rotting in the fields. It has also put state officials into something of a panic at the damage they’ve done to Georgia’s largest industry.

Barely a month ago, you might recall, Gov. Nathan Deal welcomed the TV cameras into his office as he proudly signed HB 87 into law. Two weeks later, with farmers howling, a scrambling Deal ordered a hasty investigation into the impact of the law he had just signed, as if all this had come as quite a surprise to him.

The results of that investigation have now been released. According to survey of 230 Georgia farmers conducted by Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, farmers expect to need more than 11,000 workers at some point over the rest of the season, a number that probably underestimates the real need, since not every farmer in the state responded to the survey.

In response, Deal proposes that farmers try to hire the 2,000 unemployed criminal probationers estimated to live in southwest Georgia. Somehow, I suspect that would not be a partnership made in heaven for either party.

As an editorial in the Valdosta Daily Times notes, “Maybe this should have been prepared for, with farmers’ input. Maybe the state should have discussed the ramifications with those directly affected. Maybe the immigration issue is not as easy as ’send them home,’ but is a far more complex one in that maybe Georgia needs them, relies on them, and cannot successfully support the state’s No. 1 economic engine without them.”

According to the survey, more than 6,300 of the unclaimed jobs pay an hourly wage of just $7.25 to $8.99, or an average of roughly $8 an hour. Over a 40-hour work week in the South Georgia sun, that’s $320 a week, before taxes, although most workers probably put in considerably longer hours. Another 3,200 jobs pay $9 to $11 an hour. And while our agriculture commissioner has been quoted as saying Georgia farms provide “$12, $13, $14, $16, $18-an-hour jobs,” the survey reported just 169 openings out of more than 11,000 that pay $16 or more.

In addition, few of the jobs include benefits — only 7.7 percent offer health insurance, and barely a third are even covered by workers compensation. And the truth is that even if all 2,000 probationers in the region agreed to work at those rates and stuck it out — a highly unlikely event, to put it mildly — it wouldn’t fix the problem.

Given all that, Deal’s pledge to find “viable and law-abiding solutions” to the problem that he helped create seems naively far-fetched. Again, if such solutions existed, they should have been put in place before the bill ever became law, because this impact was entirely predictable and in fact intended.

It’s hard to envision a way out of this. Georgia farmers could try to solve the manpower shortage by offering higher wages, but that would create an entirely different set of problems. If they raise wages by a third to a half, which is probably what it would take, they would drive up their operating costs and put themselves at a severe price disadvantage against competitors in states without such tough immigration laws. That’s one of the major disadvantages of trying to implement immigration reform state by state, rather than all at once.

The pain this is causing is real. People are going to lose their crops, and in some cases their farms. The small-town businesses that supply those farms with goods and services are going to suffer as well. For economically embattled rural Georgia, this could be a major blow.

In fact, with a federal court challenge filed last week, you have to wonder whether state officials aren’t secretly hoping to be rescued from this mess by the intervention of a judge. But given how the Georgia law is drafted and how the Supreme Court ruled in a recent case out of Arizona, I don’t think that’s likely.

We’re going to reap what we have sown, even if the farmers can’t.

116 comments Add your comment


June 23rd, 2011
12:55 pm

This is incredibly sad and of course totally expected. “Chickens come home to roost” is the phrase that comes to mind…

Derek L.

June 23rd, 2011
3:39 pm

I laugh at those of you who say the illegals have displaced the American worker. Illegals are willing to work at lower wages, while you Americans want to get paid like executives for doing the same work. Who do you think would get hired? And besides, I really, truly question just how many Americans would honestly go out there in the fields and do back-breaking labor like that? Many who complain the loudest would be the last to sign up.


June 23rd, 2011
3:53 pm

I love all of this blather from people who are accusing non-existant American farm laborers of being “too soft”, all while typing from a computer and probably not getting paid $7.25 an hour. Simple question: if taking this job, which probably pays less than fast food, isn’t going to cover the rent or mortgage on the place you could afford on your old job, how likely are you to take this? How likely is a farmer going to want to hire someone who would, rightly, leave the second they have a better offer? And if you want to know where all the teenagers are that would normally take this job, their parents (or grandparents) left the farm and moved to the city during the 80s and they don’t live there anymore.

Caitlin Ryan

June 23rd, 2011
4:59 pm

I find the whole thing amusing, but then I don’t have a dog in that hunt. Did learn a new word today: “Teabillies”. Love it!


June 23rd, 2011
6:52 pm

I’m waiting for my job offer. Nothing in the paper. No billboards. No ads or appeals anywhere. I checked the state job center today to see if there are any requests for agricultural workers. Nada. Zero.


June 23rd, 2011
6:58 pm

Teabilly’s? Teabillies? I can’t stop laughing even if I can’t spel it.


June 23rd, 2011
8:52 pm

” The employers only hire illegal immigrants because they are cheaper. They are also more likely to be abused.”

You may want to read the recent article in which the Georgia probationers went out to the farms and tried to do the work of the Latinos. The Latinos wiped the floor with the probationers and often managed to get the bonuses that made the Latinos earn 20 bucks an hour doing the farm work.

“On the first two days, all the probationers quit by mid-afternoon, said Mendez, one of two crew leaders at Minor’s farm.

“Those guys out here weren’t out there 30 minutes and they got the bucket and just threw them in the air and say, `Bonk this, I ain’t with this, I can’t do this,’” said Jermond Powell, a 33-year-old probationer. “They just left, took off across the field walking.”

Mendez put the probationers to the test last Wednesday, assigning them to fill one truck and a Latino crew to a second truck. The Latinos picked six truckloads of cucumbers compared to one truckload and four bins for the probationers.”
“By law, each worker must earn minimum wage, or $7.25 an hour. But there’s an incentive system. Harvesters get a green ticket worth 50 cents every time they dump a bucket of cucumbers. If they collect more than 15 tickets an hour, they can beat minimum wage.”

“None of the probationers could keep pace. Pay records showed the best filled only 134 buckets a day, and some as little as 20. They lingered at the water cooler behind the truck, sat on overturned red buckets for smoke breaks and stopped working to take cell phone calls. They also griped that the Latinos received more tickets per bucket than they did, an accusation that appeared unfounded.”

Kris G

June 23rd, 2011
9:02 pm

Self righteousness is killing America, and Georgia will be among the first to fall.


June 23rd, 2011
10:10 pm

“I’m waiting for my job offer. Nothing in the paper. No billboards. No ads or appeals anywhere. I checked the state job center today to see if there are any requests for agricultural workers. Nada. Zero.”

Bother to call the farms.

For those think visas are the answer to the farm worker problem there are only about 6000 or so Visas for agriculture work in the US each year. Republicans refuse to expand the VISA program for such work.

michael adams

June 24th, 2011
12:07 am

He He He You,ve reaped what you sewed Your intolerance has come home to roost.The sad story is he will be foregiven, and be reallected,Little by little these Republican morons are going to bankrupt every state in wich they hold majorities.I guess a Georgia peach aint what it used to be.Every last one of you desrve this who voted for these mental midgets.See ya in bankruptcy court.Or maybe the bank will refinance you.Get the point couldnt have happened to a nicer state.


June 24th, 2011
1:07 am

It’s called automation. Fifty years ago it took forty workers 10 hours to harvest five acres of potatoes. Today two men with $250,000 worth of equipment can do that in 45 minutes. You either develop mechanical harvesters for what you grow,or grow plants that can be. Most of what we eat is mechanically harvested already. With time labor contractors will arrange workers in advance for each seasons harvest. Japan feeds one hundred-fifty million people with little arable land and not a Mexican in sight.


June 24th, 2011
1:16 am

Surprise surprise. All that talk about them illegals taking our jobs, and no one bothered to look at exactly what kinds of jobs are being “taken”. As if picking tomatoes in 40*C out in the open with little cover, food, water, or break time is such a precious commodity, even in today’s abysmal job market…

Plastic Dishes

June 24th, 2011
1:23 am

I think we just found a win win solution to this labor problem. The farmers can hire the elderly since they will need some means of income once the GOP has dismantled social security. I always wondered who would want to hire a 70 year old but maybe that would be a better option than prison labor. The GOP economic plan for the future of this country is working out beautifully!!! All the baby boomers who vote for the GOP and can no longer rely on Social Security can enjoy working late into their golden years.

Mighty Lefty

June 24th, 2011
1:36 am

Mighty Righty is not intended to be a factual poster … he is a conservative after all … thus his is not familiar with the truth.


June 24th, 2011
5:29 am

I’m sorry… am I supposed to feel sympathy for farms that were breaking the law by hiring illegals? It seems like the only innocent ones “hurt” by this are government employees – and we have more of those than we can afford under the best of times.

Yes, it would be nice to have immigration laws enforced ‘across the board’ and not on a State-by-State basis, but this is a false argument. We have not had and will not have anything across the board and so the States have got to do something. Between cuts in welfare benefits and increases in wages to attract people who *could* be working those jobs – nothing in this article sounds like a problem at all.

Don’t let the author’s hysteria infect you.

Link: GA farms in labor crisis

June 24th, 2011
9:22 am

[...] farms in labor crisis Ga’s farm-labor crisis playing out as planned | Jay Bookman Thanks to the resulting labor shortage, Georgia farmers have been forced to leave millions of [...]