ATLANTA — It's unclear whether farmers in Georgia and Alabama will face a shortage of workers due to tough new laws targeting illegal immigration, but some producers said they have begun changing their plans for planting and harvesting this year's crops.
Some farmers said they might reduce the number of acres they plant or shift to less labor-intensive crops, while others are bracing for higher labor prices and have turned to new recruiting tools to attract workers.
“We're expecting some shifts, but it's a bit too early to tell,” said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
Georgia and Alabama have approved laws that have tough enforcement provisions that farmers say are scaring migrant workers away.
Since the laws were approved last year, farmers in both states have reported labor shortages because migrant workers aren't showing up and they say they can't find other workers. Farmers and state officials have said that some produce was left to rot in the field last year because there weren't enough workers to help with the harvest.
Farmers have claimed not enough U.S. citizens want the jobs, but some said the issue is actually that producers won't offer a high enough wage to attract legal workers.
Brett Hall, Alabama's deputy agriculture commissioner, said nurseries across south Alabama are trying to find workers to fill about 2,000 jobs ahead of the spring growing season. Many nursery growers are staffing job fairs.
Other growers aren't ordering seeds or new equipment because they anticipate a labor shortage, he said.
“Before this law, migrant workers would just show up. They knew when they were needed,” Hall said. “That's not happening anymore.”
In Georgia, some growers of the state's famed Vidalia onions are planting fewer acres of the labor-intensive crop, which could lead to a roughly 10 percent drop in production, said Bob Stafford, director of the Vidalia Onion Business Council.
Stafford said it's unclear if the smaller crop will mean consumers will pay more for the prized sweet onions because prices are dependent on many factors.
Aries Haygood, chairman of the Vidalia Onion Committee, said he has reduced planting by about 15 percent at his farm near Lyons, Ga.
Haygood and some other farmers in both states are using a federal guest worker program, known as H-2A, which lets farmers bring in an unlimited number of temporary agriculture workers.
But some complain it's too expensive and doesn't allow enough flexibility.
Haygood said that sometimes his workers' visas run out before the end of the harvest.
Some members of Georgia's congressional delegation have proposed changes to the H-2A program, notably allowing farmers to provide workers with vouchers to obtain housing nearby rather than being required to provide on-site housing.
Dawson Morton, a lawyer with the Georgia Legal Services Program, dismissed complaints about the guest worker program, arguing the real issue is farmers don't want to pay a legal wage or provide basic housing.
“The H-2A conditions are hardly extravagant,” Morton said. “They're so modest that most Americans aren't willing to accept them.”
Morton noted that a report by Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black showed that some farmers believe legal workers are more expensive and won't work as hard.