Fewer hands in the fields

Labor contractor Don Pedro — like farmers across Georgia — is worried that the state’s tough new immigration law is scaring away an illegal immigrant workforce.

Richard Fausset

Like farmers across Georgia, labor contractor Don Pedro is worried that the state's tough new immigration law is scaring away an illegal immigrant work force. The law is set to take effect July 1.

This feature requires that JavaScript be enabled and the Flash plug-in be installed.

June 18, 2011

Reporting from Wray, Ga. — It was a Tuesday afternoon at the height of blackberry season, and the Paulk family farm was short 100 pickers. It was Don Pedro's job to find them.

Pedro Guerrero, 54, the smiling, soft-spoken man in black cowboy boots whom everyone calls Don Pedro, was barreling down two-lane roads in a compact Chevy on a hunt for his own people. He was searching amid the trailers and tumbledown rental houses and mercados that have sprung up since the 1990s, when waves of Latinos began arriving in Georgia to harvest food, serve it in restaurants and scrape it from soiled plates.

Don Pedro kept one hand on the wheel. The other sorted paper scraps stuffed in the pocket of his Western shirt. On a flip phone, he punched in numbers for guys named Felipe and Miguel and Sixto, surfing an analog network of cousins and friends of friends and old sources who might know where the hard workers were.

“Si, Miguel, como esta?” he said. How are you? “How many can you get us? Twenty-five? We need all the people you've got, because we're running behind.”

He clapped the phone shut and drove on, hopeful he could find another 75 to join the 155 already in the Paulks' fields. Temperatures have been scorching this spring, and the delicate blackberries have been ripening fast, some withering on the vine.

Don Pedro — like farmers across Georgia — is worried that the state's tough new immigration law, set to take effect July 1, is scaring away an illegal immigrant labor force.

The New Latino South

The Latino population in the South has grown dramatically over the last decade. This is one in a series of occasional stories chronicling the lives of Latinos in a changing region.

More in the series:

Guatemalan man with a U.S. family is threatened with deportation

By the numbers - Georgia's Latino population increased dramatically between 2000 and 2010.

The Georgia Department of Agriculture this month released a survey of farmers who said they needed to fill more than 11,000 positions lasting from one day to a year. Critics of U.S. farming practices have long said Americans would take such jobs if they paid better.

Don Pedro said his job has never been so tough, nor workers so scarce. His boss had told the state Labor Department he needed pickers, but he had received no responses. He wasn't surprised, even though the jobless rate in Irwin County was 13%. Few here believe that native Southerners, white or black, wish to return to the land their ancestors once sharecropped or tended in bondage.

The Paulks, like many of the large landowners in these parts, are white, and have been working their fields since the late 1800s. For years, they grew row crops tended by African American sharecroppers using mule power: cotton, then tobacco, then peanuts.

As that farm work became mechanized, many sharecroppers moved away. But in the 1970s, the Paulks switched to delicate fruits — mostly muscadine grapes, and later blackberries — and needed field hands once again. Latinos like Don Pedro were eager to help.

He arrived in 1988, an illegal immigrant from the Mexican countryside who had spent some time in California. He knew his way around a farm, he spoke some English, and he worked hard. Soon he was working for the Paulks as a crew leader and state-licensed labor contractor.

It was a pinnacle of sorts, and a position of stature. Nearly every Latino around here has been hired by Don Pedro or has a relative who has. He is the godfather to many of their children.

He earned his citizenship and eventually saved enough, with the help of a Wal-Mart job on the side, to buy a little 9-acre ranchito. Gary Paulk, one of the planter family's more gregarious scions, became a friend and benefactor, helping the Guerreros navigate American bureaucracy, and stopping by on special occasions to sample goat-meat birria and blood soup.

The five children Don Pedro and his wife raised in Georgia, ages 14 to 30, all work at the farm, full or part time. Son Jesus has an associate's degree; son Eric, 19, is in college. Daughter Nancy, 18, plans to attend in the fall. The five are as much Georgian as Mexican, gliding between Spanish and a Southern-inflected English: When they are about to do something, they are most likely fixin' to do it. When they yell, they holler.

They are some of the most rooted members of an otherwise rootless population. But they too are worried about what the new law might mean for them. With no laborers, what use is a labor contractor?

Don Pedro did not get where he is by complaining, and in this stressful season, his children have not seen him sweat. In the hunt for workers this Tuesday, equanimity would mask the urgency, a broad smile spreading often under his matinee-idol moustache.

Sacred work

At the height of blackberry season, farm labor contractor Pedro Guerrero makes a call as he drives from town to town in the south Georgia countryside in search of farm workers. It's blackberry season and he's short 100 pickers. He says migrant workers are scared of a proposed Georgia state law cracking down on document verification and have left the state. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

At the height of blackberry season, farm labor contractor Pedro Guerrero makes a call as he drives from town to town in the south Georgia countryside in search of farm workers. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

To Don Pedro, leaving a crop in the fields can seem less like a business setback than a moral failing — an act of inexcusable waste, a lost opportunity to feed a consumer's family, and the family of a field hand.

He calls it “trabajo sagrado” — sacred work.

Before his search for new hands, he was among his recruits Tuesday morning, gently directing their slow movement across the blackberry fields. The picking itself is not strenuous. But the 10-hour shifts in the powerful Georgia sun can be grueling, and dangerous.

Don Pedro demands perfection. He tells them, “Only pick the berries you would be proud to give your girlfriend or your boyfriend.”

The pickers, under federal law, must present identifying documents to work. Farmers acknowledge that some IDs must be phony, but as the Paulks' office manager said, “I don't know what a fake one looks like.”

They stood straddling the bushes, working fast and quietly to harvest berries that will be shipped to Sam's Clubs, Costcos and other stores on the East Coast. They were young and old, men and women. Some had pulled tube socks over their arms to protect against the sun. Some wrapped their faces in bandanas. They were almost all Mexican or Guatemalan.

Two workers stood out, both white high school dropouts. Michael Shelton, 17, goateed and crew-cut, had a girlfriend and a young baby to support. He said more native Georgians might head to the fields if the immigrants left.

“They would if they don't have no choice, like me,” he said.

Jesse Vickers, 18, in a Pink Floyd T-shirt, was thrown out of the house at 16.

“They can work better than us, that's for sure,” he said of the Latinos. Native-born Americans, he figured, are on a steep slide to laziness. Take music: Instead of learning guitar, the kids today play “Guitar Hero.”

“That's not even real guitar,” he said.

Slim pickings

Hilberto Parra, 23 from Douglas, Georgia deftly snatches ripe blackberries from the vine. Even though it's 97 degrees, he protects his head and arms from the relentless south Georgia sun. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Hilberto Parra, 23 from Douglas, Georgia deftly snatches ripe blackberries from the vine in the 97 degree heat. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Many other farmers have turned to Don Pedro this year. He found workers to pick Lynn McKinnon's blueberries, but had to lure them over to the Paulks' farm before the job was done, forcing her to finish the job by machine. Blueberries, unlike blackberries, can be machine-picked, but it is not as efficient as hand-picking.

“That made me lose 30% of my fruit,” she reminded Don Pedro, who had stopped by to pick up some checks she owed his workers.

McKinnon had been passing out fliers in Florida, promising workers free transportation to Georgia, and free motel stays. She had no takers.

Blueberries were not her only concern. Soon the tobacco would need to come in.

“Are you gonna have tobacco people this year?” she asked him.

“I'll give you a call.”

He drove on, past the Tienda La Bonita and Big Dan's Army-Navy store, stopping at the Super Mercado Tarahumara. Alongside fliers calling for chile pickers, he posted fliers advertising the new prices his boss, J.W. Paulk Jr., had just set in hopes of luring workers: $3.50 and $4.50 per box, depending on the size, up a quarter from a week before.

The large boxes hold 96 ounces of berries, and the fastest pickers fill five boxes an hour, earning $22.50 an hour before taxes. Most make considerably less.

Back in the car he made another call and got a lead on a crew of eight. Now he was up to 33 workers, sort of. “They might come tomorrow, and they might not,” he said.

Later, he combed the streets of tiny Nicholls, Ga., looking for an unofficial crew leader named Ricardo and his white van with Florida plates.

He found a Jeep Cherokee parked in front of a house. Maybe Ricardo didn't have a van anymore. “It's a Florida tag — it could be them.”

“Oh, no,” he said seconds later, spying two women and a man on the porch, “cause it's white people.”

He stopped and inquired, with a flourish of politesse, about the white van.

“You could go to the police station,” the man said. “They know everybody there.”

That wasn't going to happen. Don Pedro kept crawling in a low gear until he found the van and Ricardo, who was sitting on a porch with his six-man crew, a ranchera tune bleeding through the screen door.

Ricardo was noncommittal. If his men were going to work, they would need a rental house closer to the Paulk farm. He didn't want to risk running into law enforcement driving 45 minutes each way.

Dealing with the law

Blackberry pickers wait their turn as their just-picked fruit is inspected for quality and weight at J.W. Paulk Farms in south Georgia. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Blackberry pickers wait their turn as their just-picked fruit is inspected for quality and weight at J.W. Paulk Farms in south Georgia. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

At 7 p.m., Don Pedro was in Douglas at St. Paul Catholic Church, where an activist from the League of United Latin American Citizens was organizing a petition drive to demand that the governor repeal what she called a “racist” law.

The law, like others around the country, will force many employers to check potential employees' legal status using the federal E-Verify database. It will also give police the power to check the immigration status of criminal suspects. On Monday, a federal judge in Atlanta will consider the argument of immigrant rights activists that the law is unconstitutional and should be blocked.

The activist said farm owners had signed on in solidarity against the law. Tonight, J.W. Paulk was the only farmer in attendance.

The Paulks have been talking about moving to less labor-intensive crops, or using a federal guest-worker program, a move they say will cut into their profits. For now, they need pickers.

“A lucky day,” Don Pedro told his boss. “I find some workers.”

“Oh, good,” Paulk said. “Great.”

About 30 Latinos had come to the meeting. Police had already become more aggressive, they said, with more traffic stops and more arrests. We are not rateros, a man said, not criminals. If we go back to Mexico, said a woman who has lived in Georgia for nine years, what will we go back to? We are from here, she said.

During those testimonials, state troopers had caught one of Don Pedro's workers, Heriberto Ceron, at a road block, arresting him for driving without a license. Don Pedro drove to the station at 9:30 p.m. A deputy there told him to return in two hours. At 11:30 p.m., they told him to wait longer still. Sometime about 1 a.m., Pedro, then at home, was roused by the young man's phone call. He drove back a third time to pick Ceron up.

He always picked them up. He felt obliged to. And, after all, it was one more set of hands.

Few hands

At the end of another 10-hour day picking day, farm labor contractor Pedro Guerrer manages a smile as he drives through the blackberry farm telling his crew that it's time to quit. In spite of the long hours and the skilled pool of migrant workers, he's still short 100 workers. He's forced leave some fruit to rot on the vines. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

At the end of a 10-hour picking day, Pedro Guerrero drives through the farm to tell his crew it's time to quit. Still short 100 workers, he's forced to leave some fruit to rot on the vines. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

At 7:30 a.m. the next morning, the pickers were assembling at the Paulk loading bay, which is painted with a message: JESUS SAYS I AM THE VINE YE ARE THE BRANCHES.

A worker was pointing the scanner gun they call “El Check-In” at the ID cards of the day's workers: Erika, Valentin, Zenia, Ariana, Guillermo, Karla.

Once again Don Pedro was on the phone, asking about those 25 workers. “Are they coming? When? OK, we'll wait for them.”

But the 25 workers did not come. Neither did the eight. Neither did Ricardo's crew. The two young white men were no-shows, though they would reemerge at the job later in the week, surprising the Guerreros.

Don Pedro rode out to the fields. That afternoon, he said, he might go looking for workers in Tifton. Or in Moultrie.

A week later, another small cohort of blacks and whites would show for work — about 10 of them. Meanwhile, Gov. Nathan Deal would announce that Georgia was considering a new solution to the labor shortage. Perhaps the work could be done by unemployed probationers.