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BRYAN TOLAR: Time for a viable guest worker program

Fruit picked when it is ripe is food perfection. Where the fruit is picked is the question. Foreign workers will pick the crops that end up on dinner tables across the United States, but it is our Congressional leaders that must act if we are to grow and serve "locally grown" crops instead of crops that will come from Mexico and other countries.For years, agriculture has sought a workable system to access foreign guest workers for these tasks when local labor is nowhere to be found. Agile, skilled hands are needed to help plant, harvest, package and ship the best farm produce the world has to offer. The federal government has heard the pleas of agriculture, yet has failed miserably to acknowledge the economic realities that are consequences of their inaction. Only a handful of farmers in Georgia and across the country have utilized broken federal guest worker programs, because the program is more red tape than farmers are able to endure.

State immigration laws caused many farm workers, documented and otherwise, to leave the state. In fact, a study released by the University of Georgia last week indicates that our state lost $140 million due to these labor shortages. To be exact, Georgia growers reported having 40.5 percent fewer employees at peak harvest times than those needed to effectively harvest fruit and vegetable crops. Even with unemployment rates well over 10 percent in these rural areas, workers failed to fill these jobs.

During the peak of harvest, state agencies, at the urging of Gov. Nathan Deal, began a program to get probationers to work the fields. Few of these workers lasted a single day in the fields, but some farmers reported positive results from this initiative. It is certainly not a long-term substitute for the labor needs of these farmers.

The patchwork state immigration enforcement laws have sparked a debate in our nation's capital. Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the need for a workable guest worker program. He discussed Georgia's immigration situation and spoke in favor of a program that works for Georgia's citizens and non-citizens alike. He mentioned that his agency carries out many tasks delegated to them by the federal government, so why not allow Georgians to manage a guest worker program to fit the needs of Georgia.

This program would require those in the country illegally to pay a fine for breaking the law. It would give them a biometric identification card that would allow the state of Georgia to track their whereabouts and keep up with their employer. It would make them go back to their home country periodically they would truly be guest workers. Commissioner Black's comments were clear that these foreign workers would not receive amnesty and they would not be on a path to U.S. citizenship. It is a solution that has merit on all sides, as it would incentivize illegal immigrants to come forward, pay their fine, get an identification card, and work in our country for a set period of time safely and legally.

By enacting a guest worker program that meets the needs of Georgia farmers, Georgia-grown products will continue leading the country and our consumers will have an opportunity to not only know where their food comes from, but have the peace of mind in knowing that the food they purchase at the grocery store or farmers market is creating jobs for Georgia citizens and making an economic difference.

Georgia agriculture is itself an economic "tree-ripened fruit." We have matured over the years, investing in technology and resources to work in our favorable climate to produce the best crops in the world. Congress can install a viable national guest worker program or let Georgia create its own program for our farm economy. Unpicked fruit eventually withers on the ground, which is what will happen to our farm economy. Let's harvest the fruits of our labor.

Bryan Tolar is president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, a chamber-like organization representing 740 businesses across the state of Georgia.