Gerald Long is a third-generation Georgia farmer who has come up with a unique solution to the challenge of finding enough workers to harvest his vegetable crops: About 30 years ago, he started inviting the public to pick his red Irish potatoes, squash and snap beans at his farm. For him, the approach keeps down labor costs and gives people the chance to see where their food comes from.
Yet access to a reliable and affordable labor pool is a constant challenge for his fellow farmers. As president of the Georgia Farm Bureau, the state’s largest agricultural organization with more than 300,000 member families across the state, Long frequently hears complaints about the current federal program that brings immigrant laborers to the United States to help farmers with their crops. “We are the voice of Georgia farmers, and our state agriculture industry economy depends on a guest worker program to produce fruits and vegetables,” he says. “Immigration reform is a priority issue for us.”
Georgia farmers are fed up with the current H-2A program, which provides temporary visas to foreign agricultural workers, because it contains too many regulations and doesn’t get workers to them when they need them. “Farm employers need a flexible program that addresses both seasonal and year-round needs,” says Long, adding that some farmers have asked that special consideration be given for experienced agricultural workers, many of whom have been coming to their farms for decades.
We are the voice of Georgia farmers, and our state agriculture industry economy depends on a guest worker program to produce fruits and vegetables. Immigration reform is a priority issue for us.
Until Congress passes new legislation to create more streamlined programs to bring immigrant workers to their farms, Long says agricultural organizations like the Georgia Farm Bureau have focused on helping farmers navigate the unwieldy program and prevents delays. For example, farmers using the H-2A program, which has nearly doubled in size—from 77,000 requests in 2011 to about 150,000 in 2016, must meet a long list of requirements to provide housing to workers and manage contracts and payroll.
Long says he hopes Congress will tackle immigration reform immediately to make life easier for farmers who already face other economic challenges, such as low commodity prices, that hurt their income. Farming is a way of life he wants to protect for his members and also his son, who will be the fourth generation of Longs to run his farm. “What drives me is a love of growing something from seeds into harvest,” says Long. “Working outdoors and feeding people with what we produce is a rewarding lifestyle.”