Vidalia growers face labor shortage
February 07, 2006
by Tad Thompson
"Hurricane Katrina has really thrown our growers a curve ball this year," said Wendy Brannen, executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee in Vidalia, GA. "Labor has gone south to help the Katrina relief effort, which left us short of labor for planting this year."
On Jan. 30, she said, "Some of Vidalia's major growers have expressed concerns throughout the planting season that there was a labor crunch."
Grower Bo Herndon of L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms Inc. in Lyons, GA, who also sits on the board of the Vidalia Onion Committee, said that Vidalia onion planting starts around Nov. 10, and "we try to be through by the end of December, but you can plant November 1 and run to the end of January and be safe."
Mr. Herndon said Jan. 30 that the whole Vidalia crop for 2006 had been planted. Some Vidalia growers did not plant an entire crop of onions because of insufficient labor. Thus, "I think the crop will be short, but a lot people will not have enough labor" for harvest this spring.
Ms. Brannen said that the Vidalia Onion Committee is working legislatively at both the state and national levels as immigration and labor issues are increasingly pressing. Mr. Herndon said, "I have been in the H2A program for six or seven years. If you're in the H2A program, it's the only way to be legal, and it costs a ton to be legal. If you're not legal, you don't get enough labor." Mr. Herndon said he has to pay $8.07 per hour minimum wage to his H2A workers, while those who have other workers are paying as little as $6.50 per hour.
"Seventy-five percent of the migrant workers in the U.S. are illegal. There are another 25 percent that are legal workers." These include people from one-time migrant families that were born in the United States. The national labor laws and related legal structure "has penalized the employers that have been legal."
Mr. Herndon said that the supply of agricultural workers "will get worse when they close the borders down and keep the illegals from coming in."
Sitting on the Vidalia Onion Committee board with Mr. Herndon is Alan Sikes of Sikes Farms in Collins, GA. Mr. Sikes said Jan. 31 that it is hard to keep immigrant farm workers in the United States because "as soon as they learn the [US] system," they move away from farms to easier jobs in the retail and foodservice sectors. Mr. Sikes considers himself fortunate because "I've had the same crew for years and years. We have greater than an 80 percent return on my core crew. That is very good, but I saw that all my neighbors had tremendous labor shortages. I have surplus; I have core crew and a big group of extras" because "I have a very, very honest crew leader."
This planting season, however, Mr. Sikes said, "I had my normal crew but not all the extras we normally get. Looking around at my neighbors, I could see that we're becoming more and more vulnerable to this labor situation. We have to be more mechanized or have a guest worker program. We have been growing onions in our family since the '70s, and times are changing. We have to address the issue." Because of his good labor situation, he said that he could maintain his status quo "for as long as any grower, but I have to change too. I don't have a horror story to tell like a lot of them. A lot had a knot in their stomach wondering how they were going to plant and harvest."
Sikes Farms, an operation involving "the whole" Sikes family, will have its "normal 250 to 300 acres of Vidalia onions this spring." Other growers did not necessarily meet their planting expectations because of a labor shortage, which he said will haunt Vidalia again when harvest time comes in April. As an industry, "We have a tough time getting [the onions] harvested when there is not a labor shortage." Weather and other factors present challenges beyond labor in the spring. "I can see a big problem with harvest. We have dodged several bullets in the past" at harvest, "but not always."
Mr. Sikes said, "We need legislative action" to improve the national immigrant labor situation. "I tried to participate in the [H2A] guest worker program about seven years ago before I had this crew I have now. I had a Guatemalan crew before. We were bombarded with lawsuits from Legal Aid and other entities. I had to give up that idea" of the H2A program.
Mr. Herndon confirmed that "the greatest expense for those growers cooperating with the H2A program have been consistent lawsuits" against growers.
Mr. Herndon and Mr. Sikes both noted that a grower has never lost one of these lawsuits, but growers have spent millions of dollars defending themselves in court. Mr. Herndon said that he has won lawsuits filed against him by workers whose claims were ultimately proven false. "It cost me a lot to prove I was right, but you've got to defend yourself."
Because Legal Services is supported by taxpayer dollars, "I pay Legal Services to sue me, and then I pay to defend myself. That is not right. It tells you the system is not working." He noted several reforms are in the works to improve the migrant labor situation. "Hopefully in a few years," this will be straightened out, Mr. Herndon said. Mr. Herndon said that his costs for legal workers have included building houses to specified conditions.
Mr. Sikes observed, "If we closed the border today we would have such a negative shock on our economy that it would be a poor decision to do so. Long term, closing the border is viable for the long term strength of this economy because of the cost of the infrastructure needed for enforcement." Mr. Sikes said that if businesses could have years to plan labor law changes, "it would give us a chance to prepare for that time. If I knew that -- in no uncertain terms -- that I would no longer have workers on January 1, 2008, I would have time to go procure a machine. You can harvest with a machine but if I have machine harvesting and my neighbors harvest by hand, day in and day out, theirs will be slightly nicer. Currently, we're unable to harvest with a machine as delicately as can be done by hand but it's quite acceptable. If we both have a machine, we will get our onions to the end consumer cheaper in long run," Mr. Sikes said.
A crew would still be needed for the packinghouses, but such crews tend to number 30 vs. the 80 needed for planting. And accelerated pay scales in the packinghouses could attract people for that work.
"We have answers here but we don't need abrupt change." Mr. Sikes emphasized that he must be absolutely sure of when and what changes will apply to the entire industry to keep a fair level of competition and allow for efficient business planning. I have to believe we won't have workers in '08. If I do invest and my neighbors don't, then they can still do a slightly better job picking."
Another Vidalia grower, James McClain of McClain Farms, said, "Our politicians need to do something for us that is better for us to work with. They don't do it." Mr. McClain said that he, too, was part of the H2A program for a while. That program requires that workers be paid (about) $3 per hour more than the $5.15 going rate. Off the H2A program, Mr. McClain said that his company still does not pay anyone less than $7 an hour. Mr. McClain also noted that frivolous lawsuits cost Vidalia H2A growers millions of dollars in legal fees. "We never lost one, but it costs us millions to pay attorneys $200 to $300 an hour."
Mr. Herndon said that he grows and harvests all his Vidalia onion production by hand. "There are some machines that work for gathering, but I don't own one and I don't want to get into that. After onions are done, I grow sweet corn, then greens, so I have got to have hand labor 12 months a year to run my farm."
Mr. Sikes said that Vidalia has had the warmest winter on record this season. The crop harvest could be earlier than normal. Vidalia normally does not harvest "quality onions" before mid-April.