Even before it goes into effect next month, Georgia’s new immigration law is having an effect as farm workers flee the state for friendlier environments in other southern states.
Some farmers say they have already lost about one third of their workers and are contemplating moving from labor intensive crops such as berries and lettuce to crops that can be machine harvested such as wheat.
Governor Nathan Deal, a strong proponent of the new law, suggests that farmers should hire ex-cons, many of whom are unemployed in the state.
Even before it goes into effect, business leaders say Georgia’s law is crippling the state’s core agriculture industry: Migrant workers have started fleeing to nearby states, particularly North Carolina and Florida. Says Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council: “What we have here is the equivalent of a giant scarecrow in the middle of a cornfield.”
Predictably, farmers have coldly received Deal’s suggestion that non-violent ex-offenders be hired. “Let them in the governor’s mansion, to be cooks,” sixth-generation blackberry farmer Gary Paulk says, “and I’ll let them on my farm. I want my family to be as safe as the governor’s.”
To understand what’s at stake for business, consider Paulk’s situation. In recent weeks, one-third of his 300 field workers have fled. His request for state temporary workers hasn’t been answered. Now, Paulk expects to abandon about 25% of his 125 acres, at a projected loss of $250,000 this season. To lure workers, he has raised the price he pays for every box of blackberry picked by about 15%, to $3.50. But he hasn’t been able to pass that higher cost onto suppliers. There are few places to shave costs, either: blackberry picking is typically done by hand. “We’ve gone into survival mode,” he says.
Overall, experts predict new immigration laws could cost American agriculture nearly $10 billion a year as more crops are imported from Mexico, where it is still apparently legal to hire Mexican workers.
The labor shortage may drive up food costs, especially for peaches, onions and chicken, which Georgia produces in abundance. There is anecdotal evidence that states’ new immigration policies is forcing farmers to eschew labor-intensive crops such as blackberries for wheat and corn, which can be harvested by machine. Certain crops, like lettuce, will be increasingly sourced not from leading U.S. producers like Yuma, Ariz., but Mexico. The labor shortage could result in as much as $9 billion in lost farm production annually. “This is the magnitude of the risk to the sector, if we can’t get the labor we need,” says Paul Schlegel, director of public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, in Washington. “It’s an extremely important issue.”