Relinda Walker still can't believe what she heard. Incredulity seeps into in her slow Southern drawl as she repeats the price – only 60 cents for a pound of organic Vidalia onions. Incredible.
Walker, an organic farmer in south Georgia has seen great change in her industry, but this price, about 40 cents cheaper than she could ever conceivably charge, really gives her pause. She wants to pay fair wages to her American workers, and she's unwilling to take on the compromise made by some other Georgia farmers, using inmates to process her crop.
The affection for this crop isn't lost on Walker. "It's a labor of love," she sighs. The onions take up a lot of land and labor, and are prone to disease. Since she grows organically, there's also the matter of hand weeding, rather than relying on chemicals.
In a good year, she says, the crop makes her some money. But despite the low margin for profit and the backbreaking labor every September, Walker plants the onion seeds. She just plain likes doing it, she says. "In the winter when there's not a lot going on, you've still got those green shoots."
This year, those green shoots produced a good crop but she still can't get over those low prices she's hearing about. Like many farmers, Walker has a lot on her mind in addition to weather, weeds and water. While it’s great to have beautiful onions lined up row after row, they’re useless if you can’t get them out of the ground. Unlike other farmers, Walker says she never finds herself short of labor. The hard part is finding the money to pay fair wages for the hands that pick her crop.
For the past few months, the issue of farm labor has been front and center in Georgia. That's because last year, the state passed HB 87 - a tough immigration law modeled after Arizona's HB 1070. As a result, many farmers complained they had issues finding the farm labor they needed after HB 87 passed. It seemed that migrant workers didn’t even bother looking for jobs in the Peach State, and farmers were already having a difficult time filling positions with laborers on guest worker visas because of their cost and paperwork.
The farmers commissioned a study from the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development to determine the extent of damage the shortage had done. The study examined seven staple Georgia crops, Vidalia onions included. The findings were shocking: 18 Vidalia-producing farms lost an estimated $16,312,345 and 835 jobs. In total, the seven crops studied lost almost $75 million and more than 5,200 jobs because of the labor shortage.
The state stepped in, with the suggestion of using probationers to do the work. The plan has helped. Farmers were able to save some of their crops, and a section of society that often struggles to find work was given the opportunity to play a small role in solving a statewide problem.
This season, one onion farmer has turned to the state again - only this time, current prisoners are being allowed to help with the harvest. The program is small: just one farm using nine transitional center prisoners to help harvest and pack onions. The farmer initially granted media access to his farm but later declined CNN's request.
Stephen Everett, one of the men participating in the program did speak with CNN by phone. Everett, who is serving a multiple year sentence for burglary, volunteered to work on the farm and said he enjoyed "being in a work environment with other people."
The 42-year-old Georgia native is no stranger to farm labor; his family runs a cattle farm and he plans on working there should he be granted parole later this year. Everett and eight other inmates will have a few more weeks working with the onions, pulling down a minimum wage paycheck. The farmers get a subsidy from the government to cover part of the cost. They harvest, sort and ship the onions. Once the harvest is done, prison officials say they have no plans to work out similar arrangements with other farms or crops. So in Georgia, it's a small and temporary patch for what many farmers say is a larger problem with labor supply.
Given the recent Supreme Court ruling over Arizona’s controversial SB 1070, which Georgia’s law was modeled after; it’s clear that the issue will remain a prominent one. Relinda Walker is just happy there’s a cost-effective, albeit temporary solution. She regularly gets calls from local folks, American citizens, she says, looking for farm work. The problem is, she says, they’re too expensive to pay. She could hire laborers on a guest worker visa, but there are additional costs like transportation and housing that make that option an expensive one.
Then there’s the issue of verification. As of July 1, employers in Georgia with between 100 and 500 employees are required to use the E-Verify system for new hires. This system compares an employee’s information to Social Security and Immigration records and verifies citizenship. Though E-Verify is voluntary is some states, it is required for most employers in Georgia
While the politics of the matters are worked out hundreds of miles away in Washington, all Walker can do is look forward to next Vidalia onion season and hope she can afford the hands that harvest her labor of love.
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