Georgia agriculture commissioner to testify about farm labor on Capitol Hill

Georgia’s agriculture commissioner and a South Georgia blueberry farmer are scheduled to testify Tuesday at a congressional hearing on farm labor shortages, state immigration laws and guest-worker programs.

The Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security has billed the 10 a.m. hearing as a discussion of “America’s Agriculture Labor Crisis: Enacting a Practical Solution.”

Among other things, the committee is expected to consider how state immigration laws -- including Georgia’s House Bill 87 -- are affecting farm labor. Many Georgia farmers have complained the law is scaring away the migrant Hispanic workers they depend on, putting their crops at risk. Proponents of the law say it will prevent illegal immigrants from taking jobs away from U.S. citizens.

A spokesman for Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black confirmed that Black would appear before the panel but could not say what the commissioner would discuss. Connie Horner, a co-owner of Horner Farms Inc.,  said she will appear at the hearing and talk about the headaches she has experienced participating in the federal H-2A guest-worker program at her blueberry farm. Some farmers complain that program is cumbersome, costly and mired in red tape.

Roy Beck, the executive director of Numbers USA, a nonprofit that supports lower immigration levels, has suggested in the past that farmers might become more innovative if they did not depend on the labor of illegal immigrants. They might even resort to using more mechanization in harvesting, he said.

But the Center for American Progress -- a liberal policy group in Washington that opposes Georgia’s immigration law -- is preparing to release a study Tuesday that says the state's farming industry would lose nearly $800 million annually if it were to replace all its handpicked crops with mechanically harvested crops to avoid problems associated with finding laborers.