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Gathering to handle ag labor concerns

Participation in the H-2A program in the lower Southeast has drastically increased in past years.

Brad Haire

January 9, 2024

2 Min Read
laborers harvesting blueberries in Georgia
Brad Haire

He organized a meeting between a few other farmers and the district’s congressman. They wanted to discuss a growing problem. I was just getting started in this business. The farmer invited me to the meeting 25 years ago.

The H-2A foreign labor program and the major labor problems farmers faced at the time remain very present today. 

Southeast farmers then were having a hard time finding enough domestic, local labor to help them produce the food the country needed, especially the fruit and vegetables we all know we need more of in our daily diets. The H-2A is the federal program farmers can use to find and hire foreign labor, mostly from Central and South America, to fill the positions. 

Today’s H-2A program was born in the mid-1980s and was an evolution of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, which allowed a vehicle for farmers to find and bring foreign laborers to temporarily fill jobs on the farm. 

Participation in the H-2A program, especially in the lower Southeast, has drastically increased over the last decades. Foreign laborers now are the primary hands that handle many essential crops, from planting to packing. Florida and Georgia are in the top five states that use the program. In Georgia, more than half of all agricultural jobs are filled by H-2A labor. 

The program is costing growers more. New Adverse Effect Wage Rates, or AEWR, for growers who use the H-2A program went into effect Jan. 1. Following a 21% increase in the wage in the last 14 months. Georgia’s AEWR is now set at $14.68 for H-2A workers for 2024. The increases could place an additional $150 million in wage costs on growers already facing increased costs of production and pressure from unfair marketing practices in other countries, according to a Jan. 3 release from the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

The history of something can predict a lot about the future. Ag labor is intertwined in the web of our national immigration strategy, which remains a political punching bag for both sides of the divide in Washington. That’s not going to change. 

One thing that is different from today than it was 25 years ago. Southeast fruit and vegetable growers are better organized with a stronger unified voice to address their concerns about labor and other matters. And some of that voice was started decades ago by a few farmers and congressmen getting together on farms across the region to discuss things of concern.

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