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Immigration Law Could Cost Georgia $391 Million

ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia's agricultural businesses reported a shortage of more than 11,000 workers during the early summer harvest of 2011, according to a survey conducted by the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and analyzed by the University of Georgia's Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development here.

The analysis does not speculate on reasons for the labor shortage, but farmers have complained that House Bill 87, the state's strict new immigration law, has led many migrant Hispanic farm workers to move elsewhere.

Georgia's unemployment rate is currently higher than 10%, but farmers say they are still having trouble finding, hiring and retaining enough U.S. citizens to help harvest crops.

Earlier this month, Connie Horner, an organic blueberry farmer based in Homerville, Ga., detailed the problem in her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security, explaining that “besides the seven H2A [agricultural visa] workers we brought from Mexico in 2010, we were required to send out 58 local hire letters. We received no response from 25 (43%). Eighteen (31%) were hired but never showed up, and of the 13 (22%) that were hired and came to work, six worked three days or less, one lasted longer than two weeks, and none finished the season.”

Using historical production and cost data supplied by survey respondents, the UGA analysis estimates that Georgia's blueberry industry suffered almost $30 million in losses this spring due to the reported labor shortages.

Combined spring season losses for the state's blueberry, blackberry, watermelon, cucumber, bell pepper, squash and onion crops totaled almost $75 million.

“If the survey results were representative of all [Georgia's agricultural] acreage, the total yearly impact would be about $391 million,” the report notes.

In a sign that they expect the labor shortage to persist, more than 53% of vegetable growers and more than 20% of berry growers said that they planned to cut production in 2012. As the report notes, plantings of annual crops, such as vegetables, are more easily altered than perennial, multi-year crops produced on berry bushes.

“Georgia is the poster child for what can happen when mandatory E-Verify and enforcement legislation is passed without an adequate guest-worker program,” Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said in a press release regarding the report.

Farmers are reporting similar problems in neighboring Alabama, which recently passed its own tough law attempting to crack down on illegal immigration.