This story is part of an Untold Atlanta special report called Georgia in Trump's America. Watch the full version here.
It’s an impressive sight.
Rows after rows of pumpkins, their rich orange color contrasting against the bright green vine. Despite the warm weather, the view makes autumn feel within reach.
Life in the country is supposed to be simple.
Life on a farm is not.
Agriculture is Georgia is the number one driver of the state’s economy, but the industry itself is delicate. Automation creates disruption; weather patterns dictate a harvest’s profitability and picking schedule; compliance with changing rules and regulations can change business models. In essence, the variables are hard to control.
“The only constant here at Jaemor Farms is the fact that the market opens at seven in the morning and closes at 6 p.m.,” explains general manager, Drew Echols.
Jaemor Farms has about 75 year-round employees that help on the farm as well as the bakery and the market that is on-property. During peak season, Drew will hire an additional 25 employees. It's those workers and their labor that drives Jaemor Farms season after season - but finding it isn’t easy.
The immigration conversation has centered around walls and borders, forcing farms like Drew’s to maneuver within the confines. For years, Drew Echols did what most still do: employ undocumented workers.
“I had work I had to get done and I took whoever would show up,” Drew said.
In 2011, Governor Deal signed HB 87, the Illegal Immigration Reform Act, which made it difficult for businesses to hire workers and created stricter punishments for those who employ undocumented workers. HB 87 also empowered local law enforcement to demand immigration documentation from people in custody.
Governor Deal signed the law in 2011, but by 2015, Drew was struggling to find workers to maintain the farm’s harvesting and production. That year, Jaemor Farms increased their acreage and, by the time fall rolled around, 45 acres of pumpkins were in need of harvesting - and 12 acres of strawberries needed planting.
“I had seen all these stories in agriculture magazines about farmers all over Florida, Georgia, California -- all these different farms -- guys who had lost their crops because they didn’t have the labor to harvest them,” Drew said. “I kind of made a decision then that I didn’t want to be one of those guys that lost 45 acres of pumpkins in the field.”
Drew knew he wasn’t going to find local workers, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Echols said he advertised job openings in the newspaper and on Facebook. Two local workers responded to the ad but never actually showed up to the job.
With only a finite amount of time for the harvest, Drew needed workers in his fields as soon as possible. He decided to hire a crew from Michigan, paying their transportation and lodging fees on top of their hourly wage. It was an extra expense but one that was necessary to save his crop. It was by no means, however, a viable solution.
“It’s not just mindless labor. It’s jobs that a lot of people can’t do,” Drew said, insisting this part of the reason he has such a hard time filling positions.
“There’s no machine that plants strawberries for you and there’s no machine that sort and grade pumpkins,” he said. “It’s all by trained eye; strong backs and trained eyes and, you know, having a smart head on your shoulders.”
Twenty-five-year-old Kenneth Valenzuela is one of those skilled workers so vital to the Jaemor Farms workforce. He’s in the U.S. legally and is contracted to the farm through the H2A guest worker program. For 8 months of the year, Kenneth is picking, planting and doing whatever else is needed to help out.
"I want to work," Kenneth said, "because it's an opportunity to grow and do things for your heritage and for your family."
After the season is over, Kenneth goes back home to Mexico City where he’s studying to become a lawyer. Kenneth sends portions of his paycheck back home to help support his parents and his brothers.
Since the implementation of the H2A program at Jaemor Farms, Drew hasn’t found himself scrambling for workers at the last minute to harvest crops.
Yet, what appears to be a compromise is filled with controversy. Many small growers can’t afford the extra costs and required housing for the workers. Opponents say it limits those workers’ rights and exposes them to potential abuse. Headlines have called it “modern-day slavery.” Even if it worked perfectly, H2A would solve nothing for the millions of undocumented immigrants on U.S. farms and in U.S. homes.
Immigration reform has been a big ticket item on the agenda for the past three administrations. President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama had party majorities during the first 2 years of their administrations but failed to come to bipartisan agreement on meaningful reform. President Trump finds himself in a similar political situation, but Drew feels the president’s rhetoric is coarsening the debate and missing the point.
“I think that’s the big misconception, that they’re this different class of people,” he said of the perception that migrant workers are taking jobs away from Americans and siphoning money to Mexico instead of investing it in the U.S. economy.
“Do we need border security? Absolutely. Do we need to know who’s in this country? Absolutely. But do we need workers in this country? You’re dang right.”
Life on the farm is never simple, nor are the politics that influence it. But Drew feels that keeping the human side of the discussion in the forefront makes things a little less complicated.
“All my guys are great. They work hard. They do the right things, and I try to do the right thing by them,” he said. “My whole family does.”
This story is part of an Untold Atlanta special report called Georgia in Trump's America. Watch the full version below.