No matter what the weather brings, many Georgia growers are more optimistic about the fall harvest than they were during the spring and summer deals because key provisions of the state’s controversial new immigration law are on hold.
“Right now, we have more than ample labor because a judge has put the whole labor thing on hold,” said Calvert Cullen, owner of Northampton Growers, which has operations in Moultrie, Ga.
“It’s not at all like it was this spring.”
Steve Sterling, salesman for Blackwater Produce, which is the sales agent for Coggins Farm and Produce Inc. of Lake Park, Ga., also expressed optimism.
He said it was “really tough” during the spring deal, but he expects the labor situation to be much better this fall when Coggins begins its first-ever sweet potato harvest for the fresh market.
An announcement from President Obama’s administration in mid-August gave the Georgia produce community even more hope. Citing limited resources, the administration said it would focus on removing criminal aliens, recent border crossers and repeat offenders, rather than pursuing deportation of all illegal immigrants.
In northern Georgia on Aug. 23, two illegal teens whose parents brought them from Mexico to the U.S. when they were young children were released from federal custody and the cases against them were dropped.
Their release reignited public debate in the state regarding House Bill 87, which was signed into law May 13.
Blackberry and muscadine grape grower Gary Paulk, Ocilla, Ga., has been a vocal participant in the immigration law debate.
He said he lost $200,000 in the spring deal because labor shortages forced him to leave berries in the field.
He was just wrapping up with his muscadine grapes when the Obama administration announced it was backing off of deportation enforcement.
The labor climate changed fast, Paul said.
“Someone on my crew just yesterday said ‘Has the law changed?’” Paulk said on Aug. 23.
Paulk, who was born in Puerto Rico while his father was stationed there with the U. S. military, said the facts coming from supporters of the Georgia immigration law just don’t add up.
“They say the illegal immigrants are costing Georgia $2 billion a year for things like health care and education,” Paulk said. “But then they turn around and want to survey people about the number of workers they have because they say they don’t know how many illegals there are.
“How can they know the cost if they don’t know how many there are?”
According to a 2010 report from the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Center, Georgia is No. 7 in the U.S. in terms of illegal immigrants with an estimated 425,000.
Illegal immigrants make up 6.5% of the state’s total labor force, the report said.
Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, said in late August that he still wasn’t sure how the fall deal would shape up because of the effect of the labor situation.