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Fewer peaches means fewer workers

Frost killed nearly 80% of Georgia's crop, so a town faces a summer without its annual influx of Latino laborers.

June 10, 2007|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

FORT VALLEY, GA. — Food Depot is slower this summer. A hot, frazzled mother lingers in front of a tower of banana moon pies; a man in overalls pecks change for a 77-cent bag of ice. Cashiers gossip, then sigh. They miss the Latinos who loaded their checkout belts with flour tortillas, thick golden cornhusks and tamarind sodas as sweet as iced tea.

Nearly 80% of Georgia's peach crop was destroyed when a severe frost spread across the Southeast in early April. Without peaches, the orchards clustered around this sleepy railroad town 80 miles south of Atlanta have little work for Latinos.

In April, nearly 1,500 Mexican laborers who were supposed to come to the United States legally on the federal H-2 "guest worker" program were told there were no jobs for them at peach farms across Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.

Georgia has relied on Mexican workers to pick and pack its state fruit for almost a decade. Some Mexican towns are so dependent on these jobs that they hold peach fiestas when the men return.

But in Fort Valley, the county seat of Peach County, few of the 8,000 residents got to know these Latino workers. Many came here every summer for the last nine years but made few connections: They lived on government-approved camps, did not own cars and spoke little English.

Still, their absence is felt.

"I used to look forward to Friday nights" when school buses brought hundreds of farm workers to Food Depot, said manager Allen Buchanan. After jostling in a produce aisle, they lined up to hand their hard-earned dollar bills to a row of cashiers.

A few buses still come, but the store is making about $25,000 a week less than it expected.

"Take away 500 workers and it has a huge impact on a town of 8,000 people," said James Khoury, 58, owner of Khoury's Fine Clothing and chairman of the Peach County Board of Commissioners. "People say they send all their money back home, but they have to eat and they have to buy clothes."

The tiny taco stands, bakeries and ice cream stores that cater mostly to Latinos -- 4% of the town's year-round population -- are especially feeling the pinch.

Perhaps no one is more disheartened than Eudoxia Garcia, 40, who two months ago fulfilled her longtime dream of opening Panaderia, a bakery in a tiny brick building on Main Street.

Garcia figured her sweet concoctions would be something everyone would enjoy, but with the drastic drop in the number of temporary Mexican workers, she has not sold many pineapple empanadas or strawberry yoyos. Already, she has cut the price of a bag of 11 pastries from $8 to $6 and plans to introduce American-style products such as cheesecake and cupcakes.

"People keep telling me not to close," she said with a wan smile. "I'm trying to stay positive."

Emma Barragan, who runs a taco stand at Lane Packing Co., has seen her weekly earnings plummet from about $400 to $90. At 12:15 on a recent weekday, just two men waited for lunch outside her bright-orange concrete shack festooned with Budweiser and Miller Lite signs.

The freeze caused $258 million in damage to Georgia crops, with a $28.1-million loss of peaches. It was not the most damaging freeze -- Georgia farms lost almost all their peaches in 1955 -- but it is the first involving H-2 guest workers.

Georgia's peach industry took off after the Civil War, when the emancipation of slaves caused farmers to diversify and rely less on cotton. For much of the last century, young African Americans picked peaches while young whites worked in the packing sheds.

But now the region's economy has diversified, and workers from Mexico are counted on to do those jobs.

For Al Pearson, owner of Big Six Farm, canceling the workers meant a heap of additional bureaucracy and painful phone calls across the border.

By the time the freeze hit, many of his workers had already been bused to Monterrey, Mexico, and were awaiting temporary visas.

"Those were not easy phone calls to make," said Pearson, whose farm is missing 150 workers.

"These men have lives to support in Mexico. All of a sudden they lost their income."

Though the Farm Service Agency has approved federal loans to assist Georgia farmers, there is no compensation for the foreign workers who had planned to work here.

Under the H-2 program, some 120,000 guest workers entered the United States in 2005, about 32,000 for agricultural work and 89,000 for jobs such as landscaping, construction and forestry. Federal law mandates that they be paid a minimum of $8.51 an hour, and farms are required to provide transportation and accommodation.

In his 2007 State of the Union Address, President Bush called for legislation that would allow more temporary workers into the United States.

Yet some people complain about the way guest workers are treated under the current program.

The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report this year describing the federal guest worker program as "modern-day slavery," with workers bound to their employers and threatened with deportation if they complain of abuse.

This summer, the mood is forlorn at all the Fort Valley farms' camps.

Just a few workers are staying in Big Six's old farmhouses and Lane Packing Co.'s converted military barracks.

"It's like being in a different town," said Jessie Rangel, a shipping and receiving supervisor at Lane.

At night, he misses the jokes and the laughter, the thud of soccer balls booted into the thick Georgia air and the boomboxes playing Mexican music before the 10 p.m. curfew.

At Big Six, two workers who did not speak English huddled on the wooden steps of a once-grand front porch as crew leader Raul Hernandez, 31, who is earning $400 a week instead of $600, struggled to sum up their situation.

"Let me tell you something," he said. "This year was just really, really bad for everybody -- the men who came and the men who were left behind."

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