Probationers trickle into Georgia produce fields

8:25 PM, Jun 15, 2011   |    comments
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11 Alive photographer Dan Reilly with first-time farmhands in Sumter Co. GA

LESLIE, Ga.-- "It's a little heated out here," said Jaquis Jones as he stood in a dusty Sumter County field.  For most of the men here, this was a first.

They'd never before worked in an agricultural field - never even considered it until Tuesday.  "This is the hardest work I've ever done," said Maurice Evans, a first-timer.

Nineteen men started work here at dawn, a majority of them, probationers from the state Department of Corrections. By lunchtime, eight had quit. 

They get paid fifty cents per bucket of cucumbers -or at least minimum wage. Nearby, a crew of migrant workers churned through a cucumber field at more than twice the pace of the crew of probationers.

"This crew is real slow," said Benito Mendez, the supervisor. "If I had to depend on these people, I would lose my crops." Across the road, the grower lost much of a field because it didn't get picked in time.

They're here because three state government agencies began actively recruiting probationers to work in south Georgia's produce fields-to replace migrants scared off by Georgia's tough new immigration law.

The program doesn't compel probationers to work in the field. These folks could have been working here weeks ago. Some said they hadn't know agricultural jobs were available.

Anthony Lawson says he'll be back to work again Thursday. "I will be back out here at seven on the dot."

Growers say it's too soon to gauge the success of the program. They'll know better at the end of cucumber season.

Meanwhile, the director of probation operations for Georgia's Department of Corrections says the undertaking put forth by Governor Nathan Deal -- to have probationary workers fill the roughly 11,000 unfilled farm jobs in the state -- is "the biggest demand they've had so far."

Director Stan Cooper told 11Alive's Matt Pearl the system is still in its infancy and will likely require growing pains, but he believes it offers plenty of incentive for the workers themselves -- namely, the opportunity to make at least minimum wage and potentially up to $12-15/hour.

"I don't think we can fill all the holes," Cooper said, but he did think the match could very well work out.

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