POLITICS

Georgia Needs Migrant Labor, Commissioner Said

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 09:  Elia Ortiz walks to his garden plot at the South Central Community Farm on March 9, 2006 in Los Angeles, California. Owner and developer Ralph Horowitz has decided to erect a Wal-Mart warehouse on the site and ordered the eviction of the farmers who won a stay until a March 13 hearing to determine the fate of the 13-year-old community food farm. The 14-acre food garden is operated by about 350 Mexican and Guatemalan immigrant families who mostly live under the poverty line and is reportedly the nation's largest urban farm. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 09: Elia Ortiz walks to his garden plot at the South Central Community Farm on March 9, 2006 in Los Angeles, California. Owner and developer Ralph Horowitz has decided to erect a Wal-Mart warehouse on the site and ordered the eviction of the farmers who won a stay until a March 13 hearing to determine the fate of the 13-year-old community food farm. The 14-acre food garden is operated by about 350 Mexican and Guatemalan immigrant families who mostly live under the poverty line and is reportedly the nation's largest urban farm. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)  (2006 Getty Images)

A farm labor shortage that left crops rotting in the fields after Georgia passed a law cracking down on undocumented immigration shows the need for a retooled or expanded guest worker program for migrant laborers, Georgia's agriculture commissioner told a panel of Washington lawmakers Tuesday.

Commissioner Gary Black testified at a Senate subcommittee hearing on immigration enforcement and farm labor that an informal survey showed farmers of onions, watermelons and other handpicked crops lacked more than 11,000 workers during their spring and summer harvest. Farmers say that's because the Georgia immigration law scared off many migrant workers.

Financial incentives aimed at getting unemployed Georgians and even criminals on probation to take their place picking crops were marginally successful, Black said, because the new workers were too slow and often quit because of the strenuous labor involved.

"A robust agricultural guest worker program, properly designed, will not displace American workers," Black said in remarks prepared for the hearing. "As my testimony shows, in Georgia, even with current high unemployment rates, it is difficult for farmers to fill their labor needs."

Black said it's still unclear how much the labor shortage will ultimately cost farmers. But one group says growers have already lost tens of millions of dollars.

Charles Hall, director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, released figures from an upcoming industry-funded study Tuesday that says farmers lost at least $74.9 million in unpicked crops harvested by hand last spring and summer because they didn't have enough labor. The farmers said they lacked 40 percent of the total work force they needed.

The numbers come from self-reported surveys completed by 189 farmers of onions, watermelons, bell peppers, cucumbers, squash, blueberries and blackberries, said John McKissick, director of the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, which is compiling the report.

It's a snapshot of just a small fraction of Georgia's farmers overall. The surveyed farmers hold just short of half the state's overall acreage for those seven crops.

And the seven crops examined in the study accounted for just 5 percent of Georgia's $11.3 billion in farm products from 2009, according to the agribusiness center's last annual report.

The growers association reported other figures estimating even broader economic losses, based on the $74.9 million figure, but McKissick said those numbers were not scientifically derived.

For more stories from WAGA in Atlanta go to myfoxatlanta.com

Follow us on twitter.com/foxnewslatino
Like us at facebook.com/foxnewslatino