MOULTRIE — A pilot program to replace some of the migrant laborers who traditionally pick fruits and vegetables with Georgia probationers placed eight workers in the field Monday in Sumter County.
Gov. Nathan Deal announced the program’s start on Tuesday, but state officials do not know when any could be working in Colquitt County.
The problem is that for Colquitt County’s $200 million vegetable industry only a few days remain to gather the perishable crops as excessive heat has caused rapid maturity. Some farmers have plowed fields under because they do not have laborers to gather squash, cucumbers and other vegetables.
Echols County is the third county enrolled in the pilot program, and it’s not clear when they’ll have workers through the program either.
Agriculture officials say that Georgia’s new immigration law spooked migrant laborers who usually begin picking in Florida and move north as crops are ready. This year many decided to bypass Georgia altogether, leaving farmers with little available labor to gather vegetables, which have a short window for harvest.
“This is not going to work,” Georgia Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ochlocknee, said of the effort by the Georgia Department of Corrections. “We don’t have enough domestic labor to do the job that we need that are capable and willing to work, to do that type work. There’s not enough that are capable and willing to go out and bend their backs and pick the produce. That’s why we’ve used migrant labor all these years.”
Bulloch, a farmer himself, said he did not support HB 87, the state’s tough new immigration law, because of the impact it would have on agriculture.
The solution to the nation’s immigration problem needs to come from the federal government, he said, but in the vacuum of federal inaction states have passed their own immigration laws.
Farmers know that at least some of the migrant laborers who pass through are not in the country legally but have little recourse because those workers are willing and able to do work Americans won’t do, Bulloch said.
“These people are here, they’re wanting to work,” he said. “We’ve gone to planting more and more vegetables. We’re dependent on more and more field labor. Sending all these people back to Mexico is not going to improve our situation.
“If we’re going to have locally grown, safe vegetables processed in a safe facility, we need a work force.”
In a Friday report to Deal, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said that 230 farmers who responded to a survey indicated the need of 11,080 workers — from one day to 12 months — for the spring harvest season.
In a Tuesday news release, Deal’s office said that there are 8,000 probationers in Southwest Georgia, 2,000 of whom are currently unemployed.
“I believe this would be a great partial solution to our current status as we continue to move towards sustainable results with the legal options available,” the release said.
Deal’s office did not respond Tuesday to questions from The Observer.
With the program only beginning operation this week in three counties, and with only about a week to salvage what remains to harvest, the impact will be negligible for the spring crop.
The Department of Corrections cannot force probationers to work in farm work, but can make them aware that the jobs are available, said Kristen Stancil, an agency public information officer. Being employed is a condition for all of the state’s probationers.
Of the more than 100,000 probationers statewide, 85 percent are able to work, Stancil said. Of those, 70.1 percent currently are employed.
“This is a solution that our commissioner came up with, not only for probationers who need to work but for farmers who need assistance,” she said of the pilot program.
As for when any of those available to work could be in Colquitt County fields, the state currently has no answer.
“It’s new and it’s just starting,” Stancil said. “We don’t have a specific date.”