Georgia's dearth of peaches brings blight to the economy

Lack of fruit means lack of migrants to work -- and spend

June 10, 2007|By Jenny Jarvie

Fort Valley, Ga. -- Food Depot is slower this summer. A hot, frazzled mother lingers in front of a tower of banana Moon Pies; a man in overalls counts change for a 77-cent bag of ice. Cashiers gossip, then sigh. They miss the Hispanics who loaded the checkout belts with flour tortillas, thick golden cornhusks and tamarind sodas.

Nearly 80 percent of Georgia's peach crop was destroyed when a severe frost spread across the Southeast at Easter. Without peaches, the orchards clustered around this railroad town 80 miles south of Atlanta have little work for migrant laborers.

In April, nearly 1,500 Mexican workers who were supposed to come to the United States on the federal H-2 guest-worker program were told there were no jobs for them at peach farms across Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.

Georgia has relied on Mexican workers to pick and pack its state fruit for almost a decade. And some Mexican towns are so dependent on these jobs that they hold peach fiestas when the workers return.

But in Fort Valley, the county seat of Peach County, few of the 8,000 residents got to know these migrant workers. Many came here every summer for the past nine years but made few connections: They lived in government-approved camps, did not own cars and spoke little English.

Still, their absence is felt.

"Take away 500 workers, and it has a huge impact on a town of 8,000 people," said James Khoury, 58, chairman of the Peach County Board of Commissioners. "People say they send all their money back home, but they have to eat, and they have to buy clothes."

The tiny taco stands, bakeries and ice cream stores that cater mostly to Hispanics - 4 percent of the town's year-round population - are especially feeling the pinch.

Emma Barragan, who runs a small taco stand at Lane Packing Co., has seen her weekly earnings plummet from about $400 to $90. At 12:15 p.m. on a recent weekday, two men waited for lunch outside her bright-orange concrete shack festooned with Budweiser and Miller Lite signs.

The Easter freeze caused $258 million in damage to Georgia crops, with a $28.1 million loss to the peach crop. It was not the most damaging freeze ever - Georgia farms lost almost all their peaches in 1955 - but it is the first involving foreign guest-workers on the H-2 program.

Georgia's peach industry took off after the Civil War, when the emancipation of slaves forced farmers to diversify and rely less upon cotton. For much of the last century, young African-Americans picked peaches while young whites worked in the packing sheds. But now the region's economy has expanded, and workers from Mexico are counted on to do those jobs.

For Al Pearson, owner of Big Six Farm, canceling the workers meant additional bureaucracy and painful phone calls across the border. By the time the freeze hit, many of his workers had been bused to Monterrey and were awaiting temporary visas.

"Those were not easy phone calls to make," said Pearson, whose farm is missing 150 workers. "These men have lives to support in Mexico. All of a sudden they lost their income."

Though the Farm Service Agency has approved federal loans to assist Georgia farmers, there is no compensation for the foreign workers who had planned to work here.

Under the H-2 program, 120,000 guest workers entered the United States in 2005, about 32,000 of them for agricultural work. Federal law requires that they be paid a minimum of $8.51 an hour, and farms are required to provide transportation and accommodation.

In his 2007 State of the Union address, President Bush called for legislation that would allow more foreign workers to work temporarily in the United States. But some complain about the way guest workers are treated under the program. The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report this year describing the federal guest worker program as "modern-day slavery," with workers bound to the employers who import them and threatened with deportation if they complain about abuse.

This summer, the mood is forlorn at the Fort Valley farms' camps. Just a few workers are staying in Big Six's old farmhouses and Lane Packing Co.'s converted military barracks.

"It's like being in a different town," said Jessie Rangel, a shipping and receiving supervisor at Lane.

At night, he misses the jokes and the laughter, the thud of soccer balls and the boom boxes playing Mexican music before the 10 p.m. curfew.

At Big Six Farm, two workers who did not speak English huddled on the wooden steps of a once-grand front porch as Raul Hernandez, 31, a crew leader who is earning $400 a week instead of $600, struggled to sum up their situation.

"Let me tell you something," he said. "This year was just really, really bad for everybody - the men who came and the men who were left behind."

Jenny Jarvie writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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