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Farmers put in the middle of debate, Ga. ag commissioner says

Gary Black

Gary Black

CONYERS -- Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said federal guest worker policies must be revised or completely rewritten to address concerns he's hearing from farmers, ranchers and dairy operators about an unstable work force for agricultural jobs.

Black spoke Thursday to the Rotary Club of Conyers to discuss initiatives he's started since taking office in January. Afterward, Black said recent immigration laws passed in Arizona, Alabama and Georgia have brought attention to national policies on illegal immigration.

But also, the new laws, like House Bill 87 passed by the Georgia General Assembly this year, have placed the agricultural industry in the middle. Black said the biggest concerns he's hearing from farmers is "where will the workers come from?"

"We need a legal and stable work force for agriculture, and the only way you can fix that is to revise or rebrand, remake the federal guest worker program," he said. "That's one of the good things that's come out of House Bill 87. The states are fed up with the feds, and that's why the states are doing what they are doing."

"I don't understand how you can manage an enterprise but don't know what your budget is. Now, they have a budget and a business plan, and the object, ladies and gentlemen, is to have more coming in than going out."

HB 87 is described as a tough anti-illegal immigration law that penalizes people who use fake identification to get jobs in Georgia and requires many employers to use a federal work authorization program called E-Verify. That program helps employers ensure their new hires are eligible to work in the United States.

In June, a federal judge temporarily put other parts of the Georgia law on hold after civil and immigrant rights groups challenged their constitutionality. One of the halted provisions would punish people who harbor illegal immigrants. The other would empower police to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects.

Black spoke to the local Rotarians about some of the changes he's begun at the state Department of Agriculture. Black, a Republican, succeeded Democrat Tommy Irvin, who was in office since 1969. Though Black did not mention Irvin, he described a culture change in the department.

"We've only known it one way, and respectfully, that's the way it's been," he said. "So, we have an opportunity to do some things that are a bit different. We're beginning a journey that we've never been on before."

He appointed a chief operating officer, chief service officer and chief financial officer who report to him. Black said that was necessary to get a handle on the department's budget and service to consumers and farmers.

He also spoke of better communications inside the department. An example given was of three managers of three different state farmers' markets, each with over 15 years of experience in their positions, who had never met until he came to office.

"They've been kept in silos where they wouldn't talk. We brought them together to challenge them. Now, they know they have a budget, they didn't know what their budgets were," Black said. "I don't understand how you can manage an enterprise but don't know what your budget is. Now, they have a budget and a business plan, and the object, ladies and gentlemen, is to have more coming in than going out."

Black also spoke of service with a joke. An inspector visits a farmer, who lets him in but warns the inspector not to go behind a certain gate. The inspector shows the farmer his badge and says it allows him to go anywhere he wants on the man's farm.

Later, the farmer hears the inspector scream. He had gone behind the gate and was being chased by a bull.

"What do I do?" the inspector asks the farmer. The farmer replies, "Show him your badge."

"That's what government does a lot. Yes, we have laws to enforce and we do, but we also have to work with people, we need to serve people," he said. "We've instituted this thing called 'yes, sir,' 'no, sir,' 'yes, ma'am,' 'no, ma'am,' 'thank you, it's my pleasure.' Service is a big thing for me, and we're going to have a team that's going to serve people and do so professionally and politely, and I think you can gain a lot of things when that happens."