Peach growers were conspicuously absent from the list of fruit and vegetable producers who suffered crop losses when some 11,000 seasonal farm workers failed to show up for harvest.

The reason? Most of Georgia’s peach crop is picked by H-2A workers. They didn’t shun Georgia after the state passed anti-illegal-immigrant legislation in April.

Like a similar law in Arizona, Georgia’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act makes it a crime to harbor or transport undocumented immigrants, imposes penalties for providing false papers to them, and allows law enforcement officers to check immigration status on anyone they suspect to be in the country illegally. It also requires employers to use the federal E-Verify system.

“We use H-2A and have for 15 years,” said Robert Dickey, owner of Dickey Farms in Musella, Georgia. “The majority of peach growers, and all the large commercial growers, do. It works for us—but we hold our breath.” Dickey Farms grows 900 acres of peaches.

Duke Lane III at Lane Southern Orchards, Fort Valley, Georgia, agreed that most peach growers use H-2A workers and had few problems with labor this year. “H-2A’s expensive,” he said. “But when you start leaving peaches in the orchard, it becomes cheap.” Lane Southern Orchards grows 3,200 acres of peaches.

In October, a report released by the Center for American Progress estimated that the law cost Georgia produce farmers $300 million and cost the Georgia economy $1 billion in just one year. It predicted a future of “agricultural malaise” if growers, unable to hire workers, abandon fruit and vegetables and turn their land back to lower-value field crops.

Earlier in the year, the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, working with the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, did a survey of the damage done to growers of blueberries, blackberries, Vidalia onions, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers, and watermelons. The survey found that 230 growers of these seven spring crops lost $75 million and were short about 5,200 workers, with blueberries taking the biggest hit, nearly $30 million. The full industry impact was thought to be double the survey figures.

Dickey said peach growers are in better position to use H-2A because the season is longer and the work load is heavy for nearly nine months. It takes a lot of labor to prune, hand thin, and then harvest. Crops looking for labor for a short harvest season can’t amortize the H-2A costs of housing and transportation, and the rules don’t allow H-2A workers to move from crop to crop unless all the crops are grown on one farm. Growers can’t share H-2A workers and let them migrate crop to crop.

Federal solution

Dickey would like to see H-2A fixed to become a more reliable guest-worker ­program that is grower-friendly and costs less. He’d like the federal government to develop good immigration policy. “Individual states doing their own thing isn’t the way to go,” he said.

Just the week before, Georgia native and presidential Republican candidate Newt Gingrich broke ranks with other Republican candidates by advocating legalization of residency for some illegal immigrants—those who have been in the country for some years, have jobs, have children and grandchildren in schools, and are settled in their communities. Dickey agrees. “What’s going on is awful. It will take initiative by the President, ­whoever that may be, to get this fixed.”

Before the Georgia legislature passed, and the governor signed, HB 87 into Georgia law, some 200 leaders in the Georgia farm community implored them not to do it, saying it would destroy agriculture.

Charles Hall, the executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Association, said that “Georgia is the poster child for what can happen when mandatory E-Verify and enforcement legislation is passed without an adequate guest-worker program.”