In 1979, I moved to Meigs -- which is about 7 miles south of Pelham. Yes. Both those places are in Georgia -- but just barely.
Local residents claimed, in those days, that Pelham was the Tomato Capital. I'm not sure if they meant of the whole world or just Mitchell County, but there were lots and lots of tomatoes growing around Pelham and when harvest time rolled around, lots and lots of Mexicans came through town to pick them.
They packed themselves into the tattered rooms of the Major Pelham Hotel and cooked spicy food on hot plates. They left the windows open and the aroma of spicy dishes permeated the entire downtown area during picking season.
Other than seeing the migrant pickers piled into the backs of old pickup trucks, riding to and from the fields, I never ran across many of them and never gave a moment's thought to whether they were documented or undocumented or in Mitchell County legally or illegally. I never heard anyone else ponder those questions, either -- but I suppose the farmers of the area would have been in quite a quandary if the pickers didn't show up one summer.
Apparently that is precisely what is happening this summer in parts of south Georgia. There seems to be an extreme shortage of temporary agricultural laborers, and people are blaming the shortage on the fact that Georgia recently passed a new law aimed at actually enforcing the immigration laws that have been on the books for years. Migrant workers seem to be avoiding our state and agricultural leaders claim that hundreds of millions of crops are in jeopardy.
This in a state, understand, where unemployment is just less than 10 percent.
Maybe I'm just slow, but there are thousands of jobs out there. And the jobs pay around $12.50 an hour. That's probably more than I make teaching school if you add together all the hours I pour into my profession.
And folks who are unemployed won't fill those jobs because the work is hard and temporary. Hello. That's why they call it work, and folks who are out of work and won't take such jobs get little sympathy from me -- or anyone else, I'll warrant, who has ever worked on a farm or in a cotton mill for a living.
As you might expect, the situation with the migrant workers -- or lack thereof -- has caused a big political brouhaha across the state. One side -- the side that is against the new immigration law -- says that the lack of farm workers is proof positive that the bill Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law was a mistake. They say that the law should be repealed or that, at the very least, provisions should be made to assure those illegal immigrants who are good enough to come into our state and gather our crops that they will not be arrested.
Others insist that the law is long overdue because illegal immigrants are driving down wages, taking jobs away from citizens and legal aliens and draining our state of much needed revenue and resources. What to do, what to do?
As a big fan of food, I certainly hope that some solution is found. Having no first-hand knowledge of the situation in the fields, I suppose I have to rely on the forthrightness of our elected officials -- always a risky proposition, that -- and Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black who says the labor shortage is as bad as he's ever seen it.
Obviously, we have to take steps to protect the economic interests of our farmers, because every bite of food I've ever eaten was produced by a farmer of some description.
I have witnessed, firsthand, the results of the influx of illegal residents into our state, however; and I am in full support of the new immigration law that will take effect on July 1 -- and if having a stiffer law against illegal immigrants in Georgia keeps illegal immigrants from coming to Georgia -- well, wasn't that sort of the whole idea?
I realize that the onions and tomatoes and peaches and soybeans and other crops grown by Georgia farmers won't pick themselves, but I don't ever recall seeing crops rot in the field for want of people to harvest them, either. I especially haven't seen that in an economy with 9.9 percent unemployment.
Only time will tell how the whole thing will play out. One thing is for certain. It's going to be a long hot summer. And if you know someone who needs a job, tell them the farmers are hiring.
Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/darrellhuckaby.