Georgia recruiting ag states to help improve guest worker program

February 6, 2012

Agriculture, Politics

Georgia wants agricultural states such as Mississippi to join in pushing Congress to enact a modern guest-worker program that works for all farmers, not just some.

“We need to work with other states to get the word out,” said Georgia Agricultural Commissioner Gary Black during a stop in Macon last week on the annual Georgia Ag Forecast road show.

But Mississippi is not yet in the dire straits in which Georgia and neighboring Alabama have found themselves. Both adopted stringent immigrant identification papers requirements last year that have caused thousands of migrant farm workers to leave the two states, causing crops to rot in the field.

Mississippi lawmakers, however, haven’t given up on getting a tough immigrant ID of their own passed and have pledged to pick up where they left off in last year’s failed attempt to get one. Should the get-tough-on-undocumented-workers faction in the Legislature succeed, the guest worker program would grow significantly in importance in Mississippi.

One key change that Black, the Georgia ag chief, wants in the federal quest worker program known as H-2A is removal of the “fifty percent rule” which requires growers to hire domestic applicants until 50 percent of the H-2A contract has lapsed, effectively requiring the hiring of a local laborer for each laborer hired.

Black said he’s starting to think it’s a myth that large numbers of functional local laborers want to harvest and process crops. If they are out there, they aren’t coming forward, he noted.

“Farmers tell me they would love to have a local workforce that is sober, reliable, on time and has a work ethic. They say they’d be happy to hire them all if we can tell them where to find them,” Black said.

Another huge flaw, according to Black, is that the federal program limits availability of guest workers to producers with work needs of a temporary or seasonal nature. This renders the guest worker program of no value to year-round operations such as dairy, livestock, poultry and ginning, he said.

Expanded eligibility is key, the commissioner added.

Black urged farmers at the ag forecast to voice their opinions on the current farm labor issues to their congressmen.

Alas, technology may save the day – just not any day soon.

Say hello to Robo Farm Workers. Growers will need to keep them well-charged but they won’t need ID papers and they are guaranteed to return to work after lunch.

Look for them in about 10 years, said ag road show participant Scott Angle, dean and director of the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Science

“The real solution to immigration is that we are going to be developing robots that are going to be out there picking apples off the trees. It’s not that far away. We are going to have to find ways of mechanizing more,” he said.

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