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U.S. watermelon fields are pumping out all-time-high volumes of product this season. Growers of other commodities in Mexico, Texas, Florida and Georgia have produced bumper crops as well. But the problem is there are not enough workers on hand to harvest those crops.

For years, labor has been one of the produce industry's thorniest issues, but it has lately become priority one in the Southeast. Some Florida farmers this spring left crops unpicked or opened their fields to the public due to a lack of workers.

Now Georgia growers are concerned that the same labor shortage Florida faced earlier in the season will crop up in that state as well.

What growers — particularly those in Florida and Georgia — want to know is: Where are all the workers?

"That's really the question we're trying to answer, trying to find out exactly what's going on," Charles Hall of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Association in LaGrange told The Produce News May 17. "Some of the early crops, we've had workers. Some growers have had some [workers] but now aren't going to get any the next two-three weeks. It's going be kind of a wild ballgame. It could be a real train wreck if we don't have crews show up."

No one is exactly sure where the workers have gone, but there are three popular theories. One is that the U.S. economy has been so lousy the last few years many illegal immigrants simply packed up and moved home. Another is that crews in states with pending — or support for — anti-immigrant legislation, like Georgia and Florida, are simply laying low until the hubbub dies down. A third is that crews in states that are toughening their stands on immigration have simply moved on to more welcoming climes.

 

 

Wendy Fink-Weber, director of communications for the Western Growers Association in Irvine, CA, said, "I haven't heard at this point of any shortages" in the states the association represents (California and Arizona).

In fact, Ms. Fink-Weber said that Arizona growers had no labor shortage even in the wake up of the infamous SB 1070, which toughened the state's approach to immigration (though much of that legislation has since been overturned).

Ms. Fink-Webber suggested that an economy that is again starting to move just a bit could be siphoning off some ag workers to more lucrative jobs in other industries, such as construction.

"That played into the labor situation quite a bit" before the recent recession, she said. "We certainly anticipate especially when the economy comes back that we'll see those days again. We know it will happen again; it's happened before. We need a legal workforce, but with no legislation coming — and it has to be federal — with no resolution, states are trying to fix some of that on their own and a lot of times that ends up in court. Labor still is the number one issue for our members, there's no doubt about that. But I was with a number of our members and our board of directors last week in Washington, DC, for our annual Capitol Hill visits, and while immigration reform was the topic, I didn't hear anybody talking about their fear of a labor shortage yet. Yet."

It would seem there likely were no Georgians or Floridians in that contingent. This spring, the Florida House of Representatives passed a bill that would have allowed state law-enforcement officials to force anyone in Florida to produce proof of citizenship on demand. A similar bill stalled in the Florida Senate, but the legislation kicked around until the end of Florida's main spring harvest season and will likely pop back up in some form during the next legislative session. Meanwhile, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal recently signed into law HB 87, which authorizes law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of certain suspects and to detain them if they are in the country illegally. It also penalizes those who knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants and makes it a felony to present false documents or information when applying for a job.

The new law in Georgia goes into effect July 1, and "What we're hearing now is crews that are normally in Florida and would be coming into Georgia to work, they're not coming to Georgia and they're saying it's because of the new immigration law," Mr. Hall said. "The work crews are just concerned about coming to Georgia, so they're bypassing Georgia and going on up the East Coast."

In mid-May, Mr. Hall sent GFVA members a survey asking about their labor concerns. He anonymously shared the comments from one e-mail he received in reply with The Produce News. It read: "Yes, we're experiencing a shortage of workers. Typically, we would need 180; now we're lucky if we can get 80. We're talking about which part of our fields we can stop picking and take the losses. Some of our workers came in and said, 'The big man in Atlanta signed the immigration bill, and we're leaving Georgia.'"

Mr. Hall's survey is part of a larger task with which the Georgia Department of Agriculture has been charged as part of HB 87. The new law requires the department to tackle the immigration issue and look for solutions.

Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black said, "We've been charged with a very interesting opportunity with the passage of the immigration reform bill here in Georgia, requiring the department to conduct a study about the potential guest worker program and a study to recommend what type of revisions are needed in the H-2A visa program at the federal level. So we've got members of our team looking at different parts of that challenge right now. I fully expect that to be a very academic piece, and we're going to cover lots of different kinds of data so we can really explain this issue to lawmakers and the rest of Georgia. The answer to agricultural needs in this area just can't be summed up in a sound bite. I'm thankful the legislature had enough confidence in our department to give us this task, and we're going to be very thorough and solution-oriented. We have to report back to the general assembly January 1. We've got a really great opportunity to produce a scholarly study that will be helpful to the process. It's a two-fold thing: find a solution for producers, but also use this platform to educate the other 9-something-million Georgians about how this issue works, how it fits in."

It is clear that the H-2A program is flawed. The law requires grower-shippers to give first dibs on jobs to domestic workers. The problem is there are very few willing domestic workers, even in the worst economic times since the Great Depression.

"One [grower], I saw the documents where he hired 412 domestic workers between January and October, and none of them lasted more than a week," Mr. Hall said. "Either they didn't come back to work after they applied and were told to come back, or they did come back to work and lasted a day or two. You can talk to pretty much any H-2A employer and that's the same story."

That is despite the fact that H-2A workers make well above the federal minimum wage. H-2A salaries start at $9.12 an hour, "and they can make better than that on a piece-rate," Mr. Hall said. "Some are making $12-$13-$14 an hour based on production."

So the real issue, Mr. Hall said, is "how to craft a bill or legislation that will work. There's a component in the U.S. that feels the best thing we could do is ship everybody back home. That's almost physically impossible and really I don't think most of those folks realize that if we could get everybody to leave there would be a tremendous amount of services that will go unfilled because we don't have people working. I'm not in favor of people being here in this country illegally, but you've also got to have a way to provide services at hotels and restaurants and on the farm and in construction. It's just a big problem. I don't have the answer to it. There are too many diverse opinions on it, and nobody really wants to belly up and make it work. I wish we could solve it, but right now people are having to just deal with it the best they can."

Growers are finding different ways to deal with the shortages. Some are leaving crops in the fields. Others are relying on staffing services. Still others are reaping the benefits of years of good employee relations.

"Good labor is hard to find, especially seasonal labor," said Arnold Mack of McMelon Inc., a year-round producer of watermelons, onions and potatoes headquartered in Lake Wales, FL, and growing elsewhere in that state and in Georgia. "A high percentage of our labor force works for us all year long. We do experience some problems when we need additional labor during our harvest season but have managed to work through it. So you might say we are better off than most companies mainly because we can take our labor north with us each year then come back to Florida in the fall for the planting season."

Brent Harrison of Al Harrison Co. in Nogales, AZ, said that his company now outsources labor to a private provider. "This crew travels our domestic program and does the cutting, harvesting, packing and shipping, and they do it consistently and they know what our needs are for our customers."

Bob Gibson of Gibson Produce Co. in Vero Beach, FL, has had the same crew virtually intact for the past decade. "I'm fine on labor. I've had the same crews for the last 10 years, the same guys I've always had. Labor's not an issue for me," Mr. Gibson said. "You just treat them right and make sure they've got work every year and they always come back."