Business

Four Middle Georgia farms looking to hire over 200 workers

At least four midstate employers are looking for scores of skilled workers this summer. And while the pay is pretty good, the jobs are not suited for those with weak muscles or lack of stamina.

The employers are farmers who need temporary help, mostly with tending to peach and pecan orchards and harvesting the crops. As with most farm work, the jobs -- more than 200 total -- involve manual labor and the ability to withstand Georgia’s summer heat.

“We try to work with as many locals as we can,” said Duke Lane, president of Lane Southern Orchards in Fort Valley. “The work is challenging, and a lot of people just can’t do this kind of work.”

The work could include planting, cultivating, harvesting, grading or packing peaches as well as ongoing orchard maintenance, including pruning and thinning peach and pecan trees.

The positions at all four farms pay $10 an hour or, in some cases, pay various piece rates to trim, prune or harvest peaches by hand, whichever is higher. Housing is provided at no cost if workers are outside the commuting area.

Experienced workers know how to handle various fruits and vegetables so they are not damaged, said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. And they can earn more than the minimum wage.

“A good picker can earn $15 to $20 a hour because they know what they are doing,” Hall said.

The local jobs require workers to be able to lift and carry up to 50 pounds and in most cases, “hoist up to 30 pounds overhead and support 35 pounds over the shoulder while walking for prolonged periods of time.”

Some growers demand drug testing, and negative results are required before starting work.

All applicants need to apply through their local Department of Labor career center office.

The farms and some of the other details included in the employment ads specific to each farm are:

Lane Southern Orchards is hiring 60 temporary workers to work in Crawford, Houston, Macon, Peach and Washington counties April 15-Aug. 24. Workers should able to climb 8-foot ladders. Three months of verifiable fruit orchard work experience is required.

Dickey Farms in Musella is hiring 48 workers to work in Crawford, Peach and Monroe counties April 6-Aug. 15. Workers should be able to use a stool or 2-foot ladders. Two months of horticultural pruning and thinning and fruit orchard experience is required.

Mason Pecans in Kathleen is hiring 15 workers to work in Peach, Macon, Houston and Taylor counties, beginning Tuesday through Jan. 15, 2016. Workers should be able to climb 6-foot ladders and use 25-foot lifts. Two months of verifiable pecan pruning experience is required. Workers may receive an end of season bonus if they complete the contract.

Taylor Orchards in Reynolds is hiring 90 temporary workers to work in Taylor, Macon, Schley and Peach counties, beginning Wednesday through Aug. 20. Workers would manually cultivate, harvest, grade and pack peaches, green beans, peppers and yellow and green squash. Two months of verifiable horticultural pruning and thinning and fruit orchard experience or experience in grading fruits or vegetables is required.

EXPERIENCED WORKERS ARE KEY

While the farmers apply for help through the federal H2A program -- which provides temporary work visas for foreign workers brought to the U.S. for seasonal agricultural jobs -- growers hire experienced local workers when they can find them. In fact, the H2A program requires farmers who sign up for it to advertise for local or domestic workers.

“We advertise locally to get all the workers we can,” said Lane. “But it’s just like playing sports. Some people can’t come in and do the work that’s required. We give them a certain amount of time to catch on, ... but at times the work just doesn’t suit them. Then we are forced to use the H2A program to get workers.”

Lane said while the business is looking for at least 60 temporary workers, “that depends on the crop, and it depends on the local availability of labor.”

Most of the farms have year-round workers because after the harvest is over, there is a lot of maintenance work to be done.

That work includes mowing, spraying for disease, removing an orchard, planting an orchard and applying fertilizer.

Cynde Dickey, co-owner of Dickey Farms, said even though the farm is looking to hire 48 temporary workers this year, “sometimes you might not get all you ask for” through the H2A program.

Dickey said its contract with H2A specifically states they want workers from Mexico because the field supervisor is from Mexico, it helps with communication and a lot of the workers are repeat workers.

“They come back year after year, and we don’t have to retain them,” she said.

However, if Dickey Farms is able to hire 48 qualified local workers, Dickey could decide if they wanted to keep the H2A workers and put 96 people to work or tell the H2A workers they are not needed.

“If you want to work on our farm right now, you have to be willing to do any of the jobs in the ad,” she said. “That’s the same with other growers. You have to be willing to work in the field. You can’t say ‘I only want to work in the packing house.’”

Some job applicants quickly change their minds about the work.

“One guy that I trained and did all the paperwork and took him into the field, he beat me back from the field ... and left,” Dickey said. “I spent two and half hours with him, and he left.”

Hall, with the fruit and growers association, said less than half a percent of temporary agricultural workers typically come from the local area.

A few years ago, his group and others lobbied to get the U.S. Department of Labor to change the regulations and allow farmers to advertise for experienced workers. Before that was added to the H2A program, anybody could apply for a job, and the grower had to hire them because there was no experience rating.

“One grower I’m familiar with in south Georgia employs about 400 H2A workers a season,” Hall said. “He hired almost 1,000 local workers during his nine-month season ... At the end of the season he had two people (remaining) of the local group.

“While people think it looks nice in the (newspaper ad) and they apply for a job, they can’t do it, particularly if they’re not used to working outside. They just can’t hold up in the weather.”

Right now, there are no main issues with the H2A program, Hall said. But more growers have had to join it “just because of the overall issues with labor,” he said.

Unless there is a severe weather event, workers should have plenty of peaches to harvest this year.

The peach trees got the chill hours needed this winter, and they are nearly finished blooming, Lane said. Harvesting is just weeks away.

“I told someone the other day, the peaches are as tired of the cold weather as we are,” he said.

He and Dickey said they hope the cold snap this weekend would not last long enough to hurt the crop. They both said if they can get through Easter without a major weather issue, the peaches should be fine.

“We are anticipating a big crop, and we got enough cold hours this winter,” Dickey said. “I’m glad to see the sunshine. At least we’ve had good weather.”

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