Cucumbers grow for Norman Park, Ga.-based Southern Valley Fruit & Vegetable. ( Courtesy Southern Valley Fruit & Vegetable Inc. )

Georgia fruit and vegetable growers enter their spring and summer growing season with a sense of optimism, said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association.

Growers endured some freezes in March, but not matching the severity of last year’s cold snaps.

“We lost some early peaches and blueberries, but I think things are coming along,” he said. “Some blueberry guys got hit pretty hard, and some didn’t lose much, so I think it was spotty from that standpoint.”

Beyond the present realities of the weather and yields, Hall said the evergreen topics of the North American Free Trade Agreement, labor and food safety grab a big share of attention.

As for labor, Hall said growers using the H-2A program have generally been able to secure requested workers this year.

Perhaps 80% to 90% of the growers have gotten their workers in on time, he said.

Georgia is one of the top states for use of the Department of Labor’s H-2A agricultural guest worker program. In fiscal 2016, Georgia accounted for 17,392 certified H-2A positions, or about 10.5% of total U.S. H-2A positions certified that year. That total of more than 17,000 certified H-2A position is up from 8,227 positions in fiscal 2012 in Georgia.


H-2A improvements

Hall said that U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., has been working to get the Department of Labor to look at what changes could be made administratively to improve the guest worker program.

The Trump administration has created an inter-agency working group on the H-2A program composed of officials from the Department of Labor, Department of State, Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The group has not reported any of their conclusions to the industry yet, but Hall said there are hopes the working group could provide information on its conclusions by sometime this summer.

Meanwhile, Hall said Georgia growers are still hopeful that the seasonal trade protection provision will be a part of any renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement.

“It has stayed a part of the administration’s positions (on NAFTA) for a while now and we appreciate that,” he said.

Growers of blueberries and vegetables in Florida may continue to suffer the effects of dumping by Mexican growers unless some framework is in place to control imports, he said.

While the produce safety regulations regarding agriculture water are still up in the air, Hall said produce safety rules have been accepted well by Georgia produce operations.

“Right now it seems the implementation of Food Safety Modernization Act guidelines is coming along pretty good, though there are still some guidance documents and policy documents that have some questions,” he said.