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.”
While the labor situation has eased a bit since 2011, “we continue to see shortages at the farm level. It’s hard to put a number on what kind of losses we’ve sustained because there are so many issues. For example, this year we’ve had a very rainy season – the rainiest summer I’ve seen – and there have been a lot of quality issues, a lot of fruit that wasn’t picked. … If we’d have had (workers) here in the correct numbers and at the right time, we could have done a lot better.”
Berry also pushed against the perception that the farm workforce is unskilled. “This is very difficult work. It’s very skilled work. I think the second-generation immigrants as well as (U.S.) citizens are not seeing that work as desirable. I feel the guest-worker program is extremely important for us in the produce industry.”
He elaborated further: “A lot of people look at it as a dirty, back-breaking job. That anyone can get out there and grunt their way through it. But that really isn’t the case. It actually takes skill and you can’t pull anyone who needs a job off the street to do it. We’ve tried some of that.”
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The disparity between skilled and unskilled workers became obvious, said Berry, when in 2011 his operation advertised for blueberry pickers through the Department of Labor. “We got folks to come in here, offered them sign-up bonuses and put them in the field. … They were paid by their production, piece-work. An unskilled worker would pick $2 or $3 worth of fruit in an hour. A skilled worker was making $18 to $20 an hour picking the same fruit, in the same field.”
Since the unskilled workers still had to be paid the minimum wage, the cost to Berry was prohibitive. “We’d love to fill the job with American workers but I don’t think that’s a possibility.”
Vilsack warned that an insufficient agricultural workforce has a ripple effect. “Other countries are not standing pat. They aren’t contracting; they’re moving forward. … The result of that is we compromise export markets. This isn’t just about maintaining food security (in the United States) but it’s also about the export opportunities.”
“It’s difficult to put your money on the line when there is uncertainty,” said Berry. “It’s hard to grow our operations and meet the demands of a growing population without the certainty of a skilled workforce.”