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Spring labor shortage cost Georgia almost $400 million in lost crops and revenues

by Chip Carter | October 11, 2011
This Vidalia onion field near Glennville, GA, was harvested last spring, but many others went untouched. All told, labor shortages cost the state at least $75 million in direct crop losses and possibly as much as $400 million in related revenue losses. (Photo by Chip Carter)

The labor shortage that plagued Georgia growers this spring and summer cost the state almost $400 million, according to a recent report from the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association released at the 2011 United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Public Policy Conference in early October.

“Georgia is the poster child for what can happen when mandatory E-Verify and enforcement legislation is passed without an adequate guest-worker program,” said GFVGA Executive Director Charles Hall.

Over the summer, the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness & Economic Development, led by John McKissick and Sharon Kane, analyzed data from seven crops representing 46.4 percent of the acreage available for harvest this spring. In the 2009 UGA Farm Gate Survey, those crops had a total value of more than $578 million.

Harvest- and packing-labor shortages were reported from Georgia farms representing 80 percent of the acreage reported in the UGA survey. The result was a direct crop loss just shy of $75 million. The state’s blueberry crop suffered most, losing $29 million, followed by Vidalia onions ($16.3 million), bell peppers ($15.1 million), cucumbers ($5.93 million), blackberries ($4 million), watermelon ($2.59 million) and squash ($1.94 million).

Dr. McKissick and Ms. Kane extrapolated that if all Georgia acreage had been surveyed, direct losses to the seven crops studied would have totaled $140 million.

The data showed that Georgia growers typically need 12,930 harvesters to bring in the spring crop. This year, there were only 7,686 harvesters, a 40.4 percent shortage.

The additional economic impact of ruined crops from the acreage reported in the UGA study shows that affected communities lost another $106.5 million in associated services. The extrapolated total is estimated to be $391 million in lost revenues and wages.

“The mandatory E-Verify legislation is promoted as a jobs-creation bill. While this may be true for some industry sectors, it does not create jobs in agriculture,” Mr. Hall said.

The produce industry had hoped that E-Verify legislation would include some sort of exemption for agricultural workers; that did not come to pass, and Mr. Hall is among many who believe that the impact on the industry will be severe.

“Field harvest work is skilled labor. Anyone who has tried to pick blueberries or cucumbers or watermelons knows you have to have to have experience, plus be in top physical condition,” Mr. Hall said. “These jobs are in the hot sun, high temperatures — 98 to 100 degrees — eight to 10 hours a day, and require lifting, bending, stooping. It is not something that the average citizen can do. For agriculture, E-Verify is not a job-creating bill — it is job-loss legislation.”

Georgia growers speculate that with anti-immigration legislation on the docket in Georgia this spring (a bill eventually passed this summer), illegal-immigrant migrant workers who make up much of the labor force simply bypassed Georgia, as they apparently did in Florida earlier this year where labor shortages were also an issue.

Georgia took extreme measures to try to procure labor for its fields this spring. Gov. Nathan Deal forged a deal with the state’s judicial system to steer parolees and probationers to agriculture jobs. The results mostly were disastrous, with most growers reporting substandard performance from those workers and an exceedingly high rate of attrition.

The question is, how does the 2011 labor shortage bode for future harvests? The GFVGA recently surveyed its membership about future plans. Most said that they would maintain current acreage to protect investments, but many said that they would scale back operations in anticipation of shortages next year.

About 80 percent of berry growers indicated that they will maintain the same acreage next season as in 2011, but will be looking at mechanical harvesting methods. A handful of berry growers actually plan to increase acreage, but 20 percent said that they would decrease acreage in 2012.

More than half — 53 percent — of Georgia vegetable growers said that they will decrease acreage by 20-25 percent in 2012, and some are leaving the business. About 45 percent said that they would maintain current acreage, while 2 percent said that they would increase plantings.

In addition to the GFVGA, other organizations participating in the survey were the Georgia Farm Bureau, the Georgia Peach Council, the Georgia Watermelon Association, the Georgia Commodity Commission for Blueberries, the Georgia Blueberry Growers Association, the Georgia Commodity Commission for Vegetables and the Vidalia Onion Business Council.