Lawton Pearson is a fifth-generation Georgia peach farmer. Even though he left rural Fort Valley, GA to attend college and law school, he couldn’t give up the farming way of life and soon returned. He’s attracted to the high-risk, high-reward stakes of owning his own business. Plus, he loves the seasons. “It’s in my blood,” says Pearson, 39. “There’s one to rest, plant and harvest. It’s kind of poetic. Besides, I get to be outside and work in the middle of blooming peach trees.”
I can’t go into the year not knowing where my help will come from.
But immigration policy is making this way of life increasingly difficult. Pearson needs a reliable labor source, and Americans aren’t interested in seasonal work. “We can’t mechanize peach growing,” he says. “Everything must be done by hand – the pruning, picking, thinning.” The magical harvesting window is extremely narrow, and workers might have 48 hours at the most to get peaches off trees and into boxes. This means that Pearson relies on migrant workers, mostly Mexican, to pick his crops. But though his workers have come to him legally for years under a guest worker visa program, they’re ineligible for legal status. “It really turns my stomach,” Pearson says. “A lot of guys have been coming to my farm for 15 years in a row and following the rules.” A better system, he says, would give every immigrant the same opportunity to apply for permanent residency.
Pearson insists he’s grateful for the guest worker program that provides temporary visas to 100 workers on his farm from February through August. In the 1980s, his family used migrant crews that would follow the crops from Florida every season, but they starting thinning out after a crackdown by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Still, the guest worker program is expensive and cumbersome. Employers pay for workers’ housing, transportation, visa and border crossing fees – about $800 for each person. Plus, they must pay $10.59 an hour, which is substantially higher than Georgia’s minimum wage of $7.25. “I don’t like having to deal with all these regulations,” says Pearson, adding that it would be easier on his bottom line to pay workers the higher wage if he didn’t have to pay so many fees. “But this is the only way I can get my crop picked.”
Pearson wants to see the visa program reformed to make hiring less bureaucratic. This year, his workers arrived a week later than he wanted because there were delays at the consulate. “I need flexibility, but it’s the best option I have,” he says. “I can’t go into the year not knowing where my help will come from.” He also hopes immigration reform will benefit his workers who follow the rules, because he wants to see them treated well. “At the end of the day, I’m always worried about my people,” he says. “I need them.”