Vidalia onion growers are testing mechanical harvesters this season in hopes of improving quality and efficiency and reducing their reliance on migrant workers.
Growers will test four harvesters, including one from Holland, to determine if their $60 million sweet-onion crop can be plucked from the ground, graded and packaged as gently by steel fingers and conveyor belts as by human hands.
"I think it's a natural progression," said Reid Torrance, Tattnall County's extension director. "I don't think we're going to get away entirely from hand harvesting, but just a portion ... to save the grower some money. I think we can have as good, or better, a crop and do it more economically."
Growers are looking for ways to ease chronic labor problems. They need workers who can respond quickly to ever-changing planting and harvest conditions.
Traditionally, they have relied on migrants, many of whom are in the country illegally and face deportation if caught during periodic sweeps by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Last week, INS officers raided farms and packing houses in south Georgia, detaining at least 21 suspected illegal aliens. The sweeps infuriated growers, and the INS was expected to grant temporary amnesty to illegal aliens now harvesting the crop.
In exchange, the growers agreed to identify all contractors in the future who supply them with workers and to provide workers with clean and safe housing. The agreement is expected to be finalized Tuesday.
Also, "labor is too expensive," said Reidsville grower Delbert Bland. "Government regulations are too complex. Everybody is coming at you from all directions. You've got to cover your bases with the alternatives that are out there."
Onion harvesters already are used in Texas, Oregon and Europe. Now equipment companies are turning to Georgia, where the crop is large enough and valuable enough to make $80,000 to $100,000 harvesters affordable.
A harvester operated by five or six workers can dig and prepare about 15 acres of onions per day and send them to a packing shed, Mr. Torrance said. A farmer would have to hire 60 workers to do the work by hand, excluding removal from the field, he said.
This summer, scientists at the University of Georgia's Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton will compare hand- and machine-harvested onions.