LYONS, Ga. — Always a critical issue, labor is an even more serious issue to Georgia grower-shippers.
The issue emerged in Georgia’s fields after the Legislature in 2011 passed a sweeping E-Verify law cracking down on the employment of illegal workers.
Like last season, growers worry if they’ll be able to secure enough workers to harvest and pack their crops this season.
“I lost onions last year and the year before that because we didn’t have enough labor to harvest them,” said L.G. “Bo” Herndon Jr., president of L.G. Herndon Jr Farms Inc.
“It (the new labor law) devastated us. A lot of our labor wouldn’t show up. They wouldn’t come to Georgia. That law has caused a lot of problems.”
Herndon said he didn’t lose as many onions last season because Vidalias fetched lower than normal market prices.
“The labor deal is going to be serious this year,” said Jamie Brannen, partner with Statesboro-based Curry & Co. of Georgia LLC and Sweet Vidalia Farms.
“Labor was tough (last year). We went through three times as much labor as we normally do with the high turnover rate. The immigrants went around the state. We are afraid this year will be the same way.”
To reduce labor use, Brannen said Curry is trying to mechanize more of its harvesting and packing process.
Aries Haygood, operations manager for M&T Farms, Lyons, and chairman of the Vidalia Onion Committee, said some of M&T’s longtime workers didn’t return last season.
“It’s getting harder now to get workers,” he said. “When Georgia came out with the immigration law, it may work for one area, but it doesn’t work like that for agriculture. We’re trying to acclimate and change to that. It takes time.”
Delbert Bland, president of Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, said he doesn’t foresee a problem with labor at Bland’s operations.
“We don’t plan for it to have any effect on our labor because we participate in the guest worker program,” he said.
“As long as we don’t have any snags getting the guest workers to the U.S., we’ll be just fine. If you’re using H-2A labor, unless there is something changing with (the) guest worker program, there shouldn’t be any problems. If we do have any issues then it would be a disaster.”
Still, Bland said labor should remain a big issue for all growers of all commodities.
Though he secured workers through the H-2A program, R.E. Hendrix, president of Hendrix Produce Inc., Metter, said lack of workers cost him the harvesting of 100 acres.
“If they had gotten here a week earlier, we would have had those 100 acres,” he said.
“Their late arrival pushed us back a week. It got so hot, the onions blistered in the field.”
Hendrix said all growers can do is hope their workers will arrive on time.