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.