Nativism costs Georgia farmers $300 million to $1 billion

Despite warnings that HB 87 – the restrictionist, anti-immigration law that passed the Georgia General Assembly this year – would hurt the state’s agricultural industry, Gov. Nathan Deal, seemingly unconcerned, signed it anyway. The law hasn’t even gone into effect yet and already it’s a disaster, costing Georgia farmers between $300 million to $1 billion in lost crops:

An agriculture industry group estimates a shortage of migrant labor may wind up costing Georgia fruit and vegetable farmers $300 million in crop losses. Officials worry the total economic impact will be even greater if crops from the next harvest are lost.

The Georgia Agribusiness Council estimates the total loss stemming from spoiled and unpicked produce to be close to $1 billion.

And that doesn’t include other crops such as pecans and cotton that will be harvested next.

Farmers have had to leave crops in the field due to a labor shortage they say stems from the state’s new immigration crackdown. Council president Bryan Tolar even if crops get picked, there may not be enough workers to process them.

“With our peanuts and our cotton and certainly our pecan crops, these are all big, high-dollar value products,” he said. “We can get them harvested but can we get them further processed so they are ready to go to the textile mills and ready to go to the food processors? That’s the question that hasn’t been answered yet.”

When farmers complained of a lack of workers, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, at Gov. Deal’s direction, surveyed farmers in the state trying to find out how deep the labor shortage really was. And despite Georgia’s 9.8% unemployment rate, it turns out the farmers weren’t joking. The survey found that over 11,000 jobs were unfilled. Gov. Deal suggested that probationers could fill the jobs. But what has happened since the state tried to implement this program is as sad as it is hilarious:

Unless the cucumbers come off the vine soon, they will become engorged with seeds, making them unsellable. Mendez’s crew of Mexican and Guatemalan workers will keep harvesting until 6 p.m., maybe longer. Not so for the men participating in a new state-run program aimed at replacing the Latino migrants Georgia farmers say they’ve lost to a new immigration crackdown with unemployed probationers.

“Tired. The heat,” said 33-year-old Tavares Jones, who left early and was walking down a dirt road toward a ride home. He promised Mendez he’d return the next morning. “It’s hard work out here.”

Mendez urged another man to stay. “I need you today,” he said. “These cucumbers not going to wait until tomorrow.”
The first batch of probationers started work last week at a farm owned by Dick Minor, president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. In the coming days, more farmers could join the program.

So far, the experiment at Minor’s farm is yielding mixed results. On the first two days, all the probationers quit by mid-afternoon, said Mendez, one of two crew leaders at Minor’s farm.

“Those guys out here weren’t out there 30 minutes and they got the bucket and just threw them in the air and say, ‘Bonk this, I ain’t with this, I can’t do this,'” said Jermond Powell, a 33-year-old probationer. “They just left, took off across the field walking.”

Mendez put the probationers to the test last Wednesday, assigning them to fill one truck and a Latino crew to a second truck. The Latinos picked six truckloads of cucumbers compared to one truckload and four bins for the probationers.

“It’s not going to work,” Mendez said. “No way. If I’m going to depend on the probation people, I’m never going to get the crops up.”
Jose Ranye, 37, bragged he’s the best picker in Americus, the largest community near the farm. His whirling hands filled one bucket in 25 seconds. He said he dumped about 200 buckets of cucumbers before lunch, meaning he earned roughly $20 an hour. He expected to double his tickets before the end of the day.

None of the probationers could keep pace. Pay records showed the best filled only 134 buckets a day, and some as little as 20. They lingered at the water cooler behind the truck, sat on overturned red buckets for smoke breaks and stopped working to take cell phone calls. They also griped that the Latinos received more tickets per bucket than they did, an accusation that appeared unfounded.

Republicans in this state like to cite numbers from groups like Center for Immigration Studies or FAIR – organizations founded by John Tanton, a radical environmentalist, that have a stated goal of reducing immigration in this country. Of course, they conveniently ignore unbiased studies that show the net positive of immigration. For example, a 2006 study by the Texas Comptroller shows that illegal immigrants are a net benefit and are worth $17.7 billion to the economy. Similarly, the University of North Carolina found that immigrants, both legal and illegal, have a net cost to the state of $61 million. However, they contribute $9 billion to the state’s economy.

Of course, we often hear about the need to follow the rule of law. It’s an entirely valid concern. Of course, it would mean more if those echoing such arguments hadn’t argued that legislation like the PATRIOT Act were needed despite the fact that it is inconsistent with the rule of law (ie. the Bill of Rights). The concerns over the rule of law is why there has been pushes for immigration reform. Unfortunately, many conservatives have opposed even the principle of such reforms. They would say that they wanted a “wall” built at the Southern border before reform can even be discussed; nevermind that it had become a government boondoggle that getting through wouldn’t be all that difficult (about 3 minutes in the video at the link…mind the language).

While many of Georgia’s crops sit unpicked, Georgia Republicans are scratching their heads. Yeah, they may have appealed to their nativist base; but they’ve enacted a measure that is going to hurt farmers and likely cause food prices to rise. Try honestly explaining that to your constituents.

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