U.S. labor officials met Thursday with Georgia agriculture leaders in search of ways to keep Georgia farmers from losing millions of dollars because of a lack of available workers to harvest crops.
The solution? Email.
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and three local farmers met with the U.S. Department of Labor officials in Washington to the problems farmers faced this year and ways to prevent it in the future.
“We did leave with an agreement today that is just as simple as having the name and the email of the farmer (on labor applications) so the Department of Labor could including them in the communication stream,” Black said.
To understand why that’s important consider how foreign migrant workers get to fields in Georgia or any other state. Each winter, many farmers hire a private labor contractor who helps file applications with the U.S. Department of Labor for a certain number of foreign workers through the H2-A visa program.
The department evaluates each application and then sends it on to the Department of Homeland Security. After both agencies sign off, the contractor hires pre-cleared workers, many of whom are from Mexico or Central America, who then make their way to their host farm.
But this year, many farmers were left waiting months past the time they asked for workers to arrive and were told the Department of Labor had yet to process their applications.
But, Black said Thursday, federal officials convinced them that many of those applications were “just not up to par.” The agency, Black said, had no way to contact the farmer directly, only the contractor many of whom simply dropped the ball, Black said.
Now, he said, the agency will require contractors provide contact information for their farmer clients.
“There were all these problems with the applications that were causing the delay, the farmer did not know that was going on,” Black said. “He had not heard from anybody.”
Russ Goodman, a Blueberry farmer from Homerville, was with Black in Washington on Thursday.
“As farmers, there are some things that are going to help us,” said Goodman, who estimated he lost several hundred thousand dollars this year after he requested 500 migrant workers arrive at his farm on March 1. By May only 30 had arrived, causing fruit to die on the vine.
“That’s going to be a very good thing that we as farmers are going to be copied on the emails so we can know if something isn’t done right,” Goodman said. “That way we know these contracts are being processed properly.”
Black said he and Labor officials also discuss ways of giving farmers more information about the labor contractors that operate in the state. Short of giving each a rating, Black said he wants to develop a way for farmers to be able to educate themselves about these private businesses.
Goodman welcomes the idea.
“If somehow we could get in there and see what percentage rejection rate (of applications) contractors had, that’s something that can help us tremendously,” he said.