JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. — Gov. Nathan Deal promised delegates at the Georgia Farm Bureau convention that he will work to ensure they have a reliable labor force to harvest their crops.
Farmers have estimated that they lost as much as $300 million as a result of unharvested crops as immigrant labor has fled or stayed away from Georgia because of the state’s tough new immigration law. When the loss of cooks, dishwashers, janitors and other job vacancies are factored in, some estimate the law could cost the Georgia economy up to $1 billion.
Deal told the delegates to the Farm Bureau’s 73rd annual meeting that Georgia will move forward, perhaps with a guest worker program, to get immigrant workers back on Georgia farms.
Deal said the goal for any immigrant labor program is “one that is affordable for the farmer, one that is fair for the laborer and one that keeps our economy in balance.”
Asked about the losses on the farms in unpicked blueberries and other crops, Deal said not all of the losses can be blamed on the immigration bill, and that the drought also took a toll.
“The reality is the bill didn’t take effect until after the harvest,” he said.
He acknowledged that migrant workers might have anticipated the law’s effects and left early or didn’t come at all.
Although there is some uncertainty of the direction of state and federal laws, Georgia will at least know what its labor needs are when a task force finishes gathering data, Deal said.
As a former congressman, Deal noted that every time immigration reform came up it was thwarted by “a lack of numbers,’’ and at other times it was hurt by calls for amnesty for illegal immigrants, something Georgia residents will not accept, he said.
The Georgia Farm Bureau membership includes a lot of Georgians. When those who join as associate members to buy homeowners, flood and car insurance are included, the organization has about 350,000 member families.
Besides labor, there are a number of positive developments, including good prices for crops.
While pecan prices have risen drastically to meet China’s needs, peanuts are enjoying higher-than-normal prices because of a shortage, said Don Koehler, the executive director of the Georgia Peanut Commission.
Cotton’s good price pushed peanuts out of a lot of fields, Koehler said.
“We had 462,000 acres planted. That’s the lowest since 1980,” he said.
And while many farmers have signed contracts to sell their crops at guaranteed prices, those without contracts have actually come out better, he said.
The average contract price is $550 a ton, but farmers without contracts are selling for as much as $1,050 a ton, he said.
Nationally, there will be 1.75 million tons of peanuts harvested, down from the typical 2 million.
Meanwhile, one of Georgia’s most stable cash crops continues to fade like smoke. University of Georgia tobacco expert J. Michael Moore said he hopes Georgia tobacco farmers will plant about 10,000 acres.
“I’ve seen us grow 48,000 acres,’’ he said. “One county in North Carolina has 10,000 acres.”
Moore blames it on good prices for corn, peanuts and cotton.