Tractor helps farmer with immigration problem

The United States has an immigration problem, but it's not what you think.

Credit: George Mathis

Credit: George Mathis

The problem, some farmers say, is that there's not enough immigrants to harvest the food we eat.

Earlier this year the AJC reported Georgia farmers were having trouble securing enough migrant labor to harvest crops. Millions of dollars, potentially, were at risk.

The federal government requires those wanting to hire temporary foreign workers to jump through several hoops.

In short, farms, or "crew leaders" who supply labor to farms, must be approved by the U.S. Department of Labor and then the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. After the employer clears two federal agencies, the worker has to get past two as well by obtaining an H-2A visa from the U.S. Department of State and permission to enter the United States with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

That's a lot of paperwork to deal with to keep crops from rotting in the fields.

In the first quarter of this year, 161 Georgia companies requested migrant workers and 148 were approved, according to U.S. Immigration.

One of those denied was a south Georgia crew leader who recruits labor for Tattnall County onion farmer Gary Ray.

Instead of letting 400-plus acres of Vidalia onions go to waste, Ray Farms bought a harvester that specializes in gently lifting, sorting and packing the delicate Georgia staple.

People say immigrants steal jobs. People say technology steals jobs. Sometimes, technology steals immigrant jobs.

Using the harvester, a Top Air model made in Idaho , Ray was able to get the job done with 10 workers instead of 100.

The farm equipment wasn't cheap, but will pay for itself in two years, Ray said. Unfortunately, he won't be able to use the machine to plant new onions in November. That delicate work will require hundreds of human hands, he said.

Ray is hoping he gets approved to hire foreign workers by planting season. He's tried hiring locals to work in the fields, but few will stick with it.

Working on a farm is tough. The days are long and hot and the pay is meager. It's one reason I learned to type for a living.

"You can't [run a farm with U.S. workers]," said Ray in a telephone interview."The labor department will send them out here and they will work one day, maybe two, and then they're gone."

Foreign workers are essential, said the Vidalia Onion Grower of the Year (2013).

"If we rely on Americans to do the work there's not going to be anything to eat," he said.

How many migrant workers are there in Georgia? I called one Georgia agency and four federal ones and came to the conclusion no one really knows. The U.S. State Department knows how many H-2A visas were awarded, but doesn't know how many workers actually arrived. U.S. Customs only knows how many transited through various official ports of entry, but workers who entered at Atlanta's airport may follow crops to Florida.

I wonder how many federal workers we pay to make it possible for farmers to hire foreign workers to do jobs Americans refuse? There's probably no answering that question either, but it may make more economic sense to build new tractors than new walls.