"Workers won't go home, and the workers that do go home will not come back because they're afraid," Cunha said.
The problems have exacerbated spot shortages of migrant workers all across the nation.
Many say the answer is to overhaul the H-2A federal guest worker program so visiting farmworkers can stay in America and work toward legal immigration status.
The H-2A program allows employers to hire temporary foreign workers to fill seasonal labor shortages if there's a lack of available domestic workers. But a recent survey by the National Council of Agricultural Employers found that 72 percent of program users said the guest workers arrived an average of 22 days after they were needed, making the program too slow and cumbersome for the time-sensitive harvest season. That's why growers largely avoid the program, which provided 64,000 visas in 2008, its peak year.
Though there are proposals in Congress to revise the H-2A program, lawmakers aren't likely to take any action this year.
Because labor makes up nearly half the production cost for fruit and 35 percent for vegetables, farmers who face labor shortages are switching to crops that require less manpower, such as corn, soybeans, cotton and peanuts.
"You don't make as much money on them, but you don't put nearly as much into them and you don't have the labor costs," said Frank Gasperini, the executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.
Torrey's farm has followed the trend. She grows field corn, which is used for grain, on 3,500 acres today, up from 2,000 acres 10 years ago. Labor accounts for only 5 percent of corn's production cost.
"It's pretty common around here," she said. "I'm talking like in a four-county area going 70 miles each way, you don't see new packing sheds. You see shiny new grain bins."
The shortage affects not only farmers but also their surrounding communities, as convenience stores, gas stations and restaurants that cater to farmworkers begin to close or to shed employees.
"Now, when the hospital foundation calls and says, 'You know, you gave us $50,000 last year. Can we count on you for that again this year?' The answer will be no, because I don't have those 100 employees there anymore. You can only have $5,000," Gasperini said.
A University of Georgia survey estimated that worker shortages cost Georgia growers $70 million in crop losses last year, when 12,000 seasonal workers were needed for the harvest and only 7,000 came. Many Hispanic labor crews avoided the state because of its new immigration law, House Bill 87, which allowed police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspected might be in the country illegally.
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal appealed for jobless Georgia residents to work the fields, but transportation to rural areas proved difficult, as did the grueling nature of the work. Across the country, American-born workers have been unwilling to work the fields.
"A harvester has to be conditioned like an NFL football player has to be conditioned to get out on the field," said Charles Hall, the executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association. "You're working eight to 10 hours a day in the heat, stooping, lifting and picking. It's not an easy job."
Hall said Georgia's labor problem hadn't been as bad this year because a federal judge had blocked enforcement of House Bill 87's "show-me-your-papers" provision. But the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to allow immigration-status checks by police in Arizona could open the door to renewed enforcement in Georgia.
"We know that some people (in rural southeast Georgia) have been stopped and asked for papers during minor traffic violations and ended up in deportation centers here," said Debra Sabia, a political science professor at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro.
Sabia said the news traveled through the grapevine.
"All it takes is stories of police creating roadblocks and asking for licenses, insurance cards and identification, and word will quickly spread along the migrant labor stream and people will avoid coming here to work," she said. "And that's exactly what has happened in our fields."
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