LESLIE, Ga. – It's 3:25 p.m. in a dusty cucumber field in south Georgia. A knot of criminal offenders who spent seven hours in the sun harvesting buckets of vegetables by hand have decided they're calling it quits — exactly as crew leader Benito Mendez predicted in the morning.
Unless the cucumbers come off the vine soon, they will become engorged with seeds, making them unsellable. Mendez's crew of Mexican and Guatemalan workers will keep harvesting until 6 p.m., maybe longer. Not so for the men participating in a new state-run program aimed at replacing the Latino migrants Georgia farmers say they've lost to a new immigration crackdown with unemployed probationers.
"Tired. The heat," said 33-year-old Tavares Jones, who left early and was walking down a dirt road toward a ride home. He promised Mendez he'd return the next morning. "It's hard work out here."
Mendez urged another man to stay. "I need you today," he said. "These cucumbers not going to wait until tomorrow."
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal started the experiment after farmers publicly complained they couldn't find enough workers to harvest labor-intensive crops such as cucumbers and berries because Latino workers — including many illegal immigrants — refused to show up, even when offered one-time or weekly bonuses. One crew who previously worked for Mendez told him they wouldn't come to Georgia for fear of risking deportation.
Farmers told state authorities in an unscientific survey that they had more than 11,000 unfilled agriculture jobs, although it's not clear how that compares to prior years or whether the shortage can be blamed on the new law.
For more than a week, the state's probation officers have encouraged their unemployed offenders to consider taking field jobs. While most offenders are required to work while on probation, statistics show they have a hard time finding jobs. Georgia's unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent, but correction officials say among the state's 103,000 probationers, it's about 15 percent. Still, offenders can turn down jobs they consider unsuitable, and harvesting is physically demanding.
The first batch of probationers started work last week at a farm owned by Dick Minor, president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. In the coming days, more farmers could join the program.
So far, the experiment at Minor's farm is yielding mixed results. On the first two days, all the probationers quit by mid-afternoon, said Mendez, one of two crew leaders at Minor's farm.
"Those guys out here weren't out there 30 minutes and they got the bucket and just threw them in the air and say, 'Bonk this, I ain't with this, I can't do this,'" said Jermond Powell, a 33-year-old probationer. "They just left, took off across the field walking."
Mendez put the probationers to the test last Wednesday, assigning them to fill one truck and a Latino crew to a second truck. The Latinos picked six truckloads of cucumbers compared to one truckload and four bins for the probationers.
"It's not going to work," Mendez said. "No way. If I'm going to depend on the probation people, I'm never going to get the crops up."
Conditions in the field are bruising, and the probationers didn't seem to know what to expect. Cucumber plants hug the ground, forcing the workers to bend over, push aside the large leaves and pull them from the vine. Unlike the Mexican and Guatemalan workers, the probationers didn't wear gloves to protect their hands from the small but prickly thorns on the vines and sandpaper-rough leaves.
The harvesters carried filled buckets on their shoulders to a nearby flatbed truck and hoisted them up to a dumper, who tossed the vegetables into a bin.
Temperatures hovered in the low 90s with heavy humidity Thursday, but taking off a shirt to relieve the heat invited a blistering sunburn. Tiny gnats flew into workers' eyes and ears. One experienced Latino worker carried a machete that he used to dispatch a rattlesnake found in the fields.
By law, each worker must earn minimum wage, or $7.25 an hour. But there's an incentive system. Harvesters get a green ticket worth 50 cents every time they dump a bucket of cucumbers. If they collect more than 15 tickets an hour, they can beat minimum wage.
The Latino workers moved furiously Thursday for the extra pay.
Jose Ranye, 37, bragged he's the best picker in Americus, the largest community near the farm. His whirling hands filled one bucket in 25 seconds. He said he dumped about 200 buckets of cucumbers before lunch, meaning he earned roughly $20 an hour. He expected to double his tickets before the end of the day.
None of the probationers could keep pace. Pay records showed the best filled only 134 buckets a day, and some as little as 20. They lingered at the water cooler behind the truck, sat on overturned red buckets for smoke breaks and stopped working to take cell phone calls. They also griped that the Latinos received more tickets per bucket than they did, an accusation that appeared unfounded.
Robert Dawson, 24, was on his fourth day of fieldwork. On probation for commercial burglary, he said the governor's idea was a good one and long overdue. He said farmers were at least partially to blame if they're experiencing a labor shortage because they hired illegal immigrants.
"I feel like they should have gone and hired us first before they even hired them," he said in the morning. "You pay us right and we'll get out here and work. If you don't want to pay us nothing and we're out here in this hot heat, 100-and-some degree weather, it ain't gonna last."
By the afternoon, Dawson had sweated through his shirts, and his steps had become labored. His arms and back were sore, but he continued to work after other probationers had quit or were sitting under the shade of the truck. In a quiet sign of mercy, a Latino supervisor helped Dawson fill his bucket and walked it to the truck.
Ray Henry can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/rhenryAP
Kate Brumback can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/katebrumback