The lack of an adequate agriculture workforce is costing the state of Georgia some 3,200 jobs and $320 million annually.

On Tuesday morning (August 13), Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack focused on Georgia’s $7 billion agriculture industry while continuing a White House push for comprehensive immigration reform.

“Unfortunately, today American agriculture is faced with a situation where producers are reducing and contracting what they’re able to grow – or actually moving operations outside the country, in some cases,” said Vilsack. “That’s simply because they do not have the assurance and certainty of an adequate workforce. That’s why comprehensive immigration reform is so important.”

Many Georgia farmers, he continued, “are seeing crops they planted not being harvested. Or, they’re scaling back the amount of production because they have an uncertain workforce.”

The immigration bill recently passed by the Senate was touted by Vilsack as a fix for Georgia’s labor problems. “It provides the opportunity for a stable and secure workforce. Folks who are currently working in agriculture but are in a ‘shadow economy’ will (be able) to come out of the shadows, giving them an opportunity to earn their way to citizenship through the payment of a fine, the opportunity to learn the language, pay back taxes and go to the back of the (immigration) line.

“That stable and secure workforce would be supplemented by a guest worker system that would be (easier) and less burdensome than the current system. It would allow us to calibrate accurately the amount of workers we need to supplement that stable workforce to ensure, at all times, that agriculture has … the right amount of workers. It would give us an opportunity to use the E-verification system to track these folks in and out of our country.”

Putting such a system in place, Vilsack argued, would grow the U.S. economy and reduce the federal deficit by $850 billion over 20 years.

While Vilsack praised the Senate immigration bill, the situation in the House is less clear. He called for farmers, ranchers and agriculture-related organizations to push House members on immigration reform during the August recess. If that occurs, lawmakers, “may come back to Washington with a renewed sense of getting something done. … At the end of the day, they need a vehicle to pass in the House and allow that vehicle to be used as a basis for discussions with the Senate, to work out whatever differences might exist.”

Jason Berry, a fourth-generation Georgia farmer, added perspective to the state’s labor woes. In 2011, when the state legislature passed a bill aimed at curbing illegal immigration, “it put a huge strain on us at the farm level. Before then, we really didn’t have too much difficulty acquiring the folks we needed.”

Without a federal fix, Berry believes, “we’ll continue to see farms in Georgia reduce their size, output and reduce the money coming into our state economy.”