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Could Georgia's new immigration law put the sting back in Vidalia onions?

10:04 AM, Apr 19, 2011   |    comments
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  • Times Square billboard promoting Georgia's Vidalia onions.

ATLANTA - Monday is the official seasonal kickoff for Georgia's famous Vidalia onions.  Boxes and bags of them are already swelling loading docks at the Atlanta State Farmer's Market in Forest Park.

Among the customers was Cartersville produce wholesaler Pete Casey. He predicts they'll cost more this year thanks to higher gas prices.

"It's just real tough right now to make it with the way fuel prices are," Casey told 11Alive News.

Georgia's Vidalias are even being advertised on a large, electronic billboard in New York City's Times Square.

But opponents of a new Arizona-style anti-illegal immigration bill passed by the State Legislature last week promise a national boycott of Georgia products.

"It's not just to boycott agriculture goods, it could be a boycott on convention business and it could cost the state literally hundreds of millions of dollars," said Doug MacKenzie of the Georgia Human Rights Coalition.

Governor Nathan Deal has said he will sign HB 87, possibly as early as this week.

Some agriculture groups fear a crackdown on illegal immigrants could cripple the state's largest industry, which brings in $68-billion a year. Vidalia Onions represent a portion of that total.

Gary Black, Georgia's new State Agriculture Commissioner, said Monday his department will soon comply with the legislature's order to study of the bill's possible economic impact.

His department will also look into whether Georgia should and could set up its own guest-worker program to allow many of those immigrants to stay in farm fields legally.

The bill's supporters feel the Federal H-2A guest-worker program isn't working well enough and needs to be fixed by Washington.

"How can we make sure that we have a legal work force that's documented and how do we interact with our Federal partners to make sure that's a streamlined program that farmers can use?" Commissioner Black told reporters.

Meanwhile, back at the State Farmer's Market, wholesale buyer Pete Casey expects the crackdown to mean even higher prices for Vidalia onions and other Georgia agricultural products.

But he still thinks the new law is needed and should be enforced.

"Even if we do have to pay more, I feel that way, you know," Black said. "If you're here legally, great, and if you're not, so be it; it's the law."

If Gov. Deal signs HB 87, as promised, it would become law on July first.

But the State Agriculture Department's study of its impact on Georgia's largest industry won't be completed until it's presented to the legislature next January.

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