Growers: Too few workers to harvest Vidalia onions

9:22 PM, Apr 12, 2012   |    comments
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Video: Mild winter could stunt Vidalia crop

Onion workers in Toombs County GA

LYONS, Ga. (WXIA) -- When it came time to harvest this spring's Vidalia onion crop, grower R.T. Stanley found he had a fraction of the workers he needed to do the work.

"We need more people. This year we need more people," said Oscar Cruz, a foreman in one of Stanley's onion fields east of Lyons. "We usually average 30 to 40," he said, looking at a crew of 15 workers picking onions.

For years, Stanley had depended on mostly Hispanic migrant workers to harvest onions. Last year, Stanley says, many of those workers left Georgia following the state's passage of a tough new immigration law. This is the first harvest since that law took effect.

This year, Stanley and other onion farmers began using a federal guest worker program called H2A. It basically imports workers from countries like Mexico, and then sends them back when the work is finished.

"I had ordered 60 people (via H2A) with the paperwork and everything," Stanley said. But he said the government botched that request.

"And now I've only got 17 people when I'm supposed to have 60. The excuse they gave me was, they lost my paperwork," Stanley said.

Despite its reputation for red tape, backers of the new immigration law tout the federal guest worker program as the best way to get reliable workers legally into Georgia's onion fields. Onion grower Bo Herndon says he has used H2A for 12 years.

We asked Herndon if his experience with H2A has made H2A easier to use. His reply: "Harder.  I mean, they've made it harder and harder. And it just gets harder and harder."

Herndon said he lost 20 percent of his onion crop two years ago because the government delivered none of the guest workers he'd sought. He said the snafu cost him more than $800,000.

Herndon is angry that Congress won't streamline the guest worker program, with an eye on eliminating red tape. Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black says he has been after Congress to do so since 1997.

Stanley is paying workers 38 cents per bucket of onions picked.  The workers deliver the onions to a truck, where a supervisor dumps the onions, then places a yellow chip inside the empty bucket. The worker keeps the collected chips and redeems them for cash later. Stanley also maintains a cinderblock military-style barracks, with electricity and indoor plumbing, where he says his migrant workers can live at no charge.

But the labor shortage may change this traditional setup, and growers say it's unclear they -- or government determined to keep out illegal immigrants -- can adapt. 

"If you tell a man he's fixin' to lose everything he's got if he keeps growing vegetables, he's going to quit growing vegetables and grow something else" that doesn't require hands-on harvesting, Herndon said.

Meantime, the law gets even tougher on growers next season, when they'll be required to use E-Verify to screen the immigration status of field workers.

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