R.T. Stanley watches workers plant onions in Toombs Co. Georgia, November 2011
VIDALIA, Ga. -- Georgia vegetable growers are expecting to plant fewer crops this fall, and to try to use an unpopular federal program to recruit legal farm workers next spring.
"I think a lot of growers are looking to H2A as an alternative this spring," said Charles Hall, director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
H2A provides temporary visas to foreign workers to enter the United States solely to work in an industry lacking a local labor force.
Growers are turning to H2A as a way to manage shortages of migrant labor expected next spring. Growers say Hispanic migrant workers have been frightened away from Georgia by the state's new Arizona-style immigration law.
Planting time is decision time for R.T. Stanley, a man whose family has grown Vidalia onions in the sandy soil of Toombs County since the 1970s.
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As he has done for years, Stanley says he will rely on immigrant labor to harvest the onion crop next spring -- workers who have produced documentation that Stanley admits may or may not be authentic.
Now because Georgia has a tough new immigration law, Stanley says he can't be sure how many onions he'll be able to harvest starting in April 2012.
"When it's time to harvest and you lose your labor and you can't replace (workers), those onions won't wait on you," Stanley said. "We'll lose them."
Planting time forces Stanley to gamble on how much labor he'll have next spring, and he's betting low. He's planting 1,000 acres of Vidalia onions between now and the end of December -- 200 acres less than he planted a year ago.
"I don't want to plant extra onions and not be able to get 'em harvested," Stanley said.
Stanley says he's also going to use H2A next spring even though he and other farmers have long complained it's mired in bureaucratic red tape and costly to use.
"You almost have to have your own Human Resources department to process the paperwork with H2A," Hall said. "It's a massive amount of paperwork."
The state's largest onion farmer, Bland Farms of Glennville, has been using H2A for years, according to a spokeswoman for the grower.
The state's largest peach growers have also used H2A to provide guest workers for the better part of the last decade, Hall said.
Backers of Georgia's new immigration law -- from Gov. Deal on down -- have cited H2A as the best answer to get immigrant workers legally into Georgia's agricultural fields. Stanley says large-scale growers have to use H2A because of the size of their crops.
"They don't want to," he said. "But they're just forced into it because they can't get enough labor otherwise. And that might be what I have to do too."
The spokeswoman for Bland Farms declined to elaborate on the grower's use of H2A.
Stanley says using H2A will add at least 25 percent to his labor costs, but he'll use H2A reluctantly and for only a portion of his needed labor force. He says he isn't convinced it'll provide the workers he needs next spring.
Hall says he's hopeful Congress can reform H2A by next spring, making it easier to use. Two Georgia congressman have introduced legislation to do that, he says.
As a farmer, Stanley is accustomed to uncertainty in weather and in produce prices. Now, as he plants for next year -- he has the added uncertainty of political change.