Ag Department: Guest workers need to harvest crops

8:38 PM, Jan 3, 2012   |    comments
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Vidalia onions

ATLANTA -- When the state of Georgia enacted a new immigration law last year, it backed its agriculture industry into a bit of a corner.

Where onion growers and other farmers have historically relied on undocumented Hispanic workers to harvest crops, the industry is now searching for a way to handle next year's harvest -- without running afoul of the new state law.

The Georgia Department of Agriculture just completed a comprehensive study of the new immigration law's impact on agriculture. The solution, says Commissioner Gary Black, rests with an unpopular federal guest worker program called H2A. 

H2A recruits workers who live in other countries like Mexico to work temporarily in the US.  When the work is finished, the workers return to their home countries.

"The H2A program is the only one that has proven that if you cannot find workers, and you need people to do that job, that there's a system to bring it in," said Bryan Tolar of the Georgia Agribusiness Council. 

But Tolar and Black say the federal government needs to reform the guest worker program to make it more user-friendly.

In November, Vidalia onion grower RT Stanley told 11Alive News the H2A program is rife with red tape. Commissioner Black agrees, and called on Congress to clean it up, and quickly.

"The big challenge that comes with that is making sure the federal government can deliver the increased demand," Black said.

Black says there is no viable alternative for Georgia farmers. And there's not much time either. The onion harvest begins in about a hundred days.

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