Steffanie Rivers

*One of the fondest memories I have of my grandmother is when she, my mother and I would sit in the back yard removing the husks from the corn that we had gone to the fields to pick earlier that day. It’s called “shucking corn.”

Although I looked forward to driving to the outskirts the city with my grandmother to pick strawberries, beans and corn at the local farms, my mother preferred to skip that part. She said she didn’t like the bugs, she didn’t like the heat, she didn’t like the sun and the work was too hard.

Just like my mother, most families prefer to get their produce from the grocery store and to avoid the farm altogether.

But as the saying goes: It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it. Tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have been doing it for decades. They harvest the crops sometimes for less than minimum wage. And farm owners get the work done while saving money along the way.

But the threat of deportation and the rising tide of illegal immigrant intolerance in Georgia means fewer farm hands to work in the fields. And that means millions of dollars in produce could rot on the vines if it’s not harvested in a timely manner. So Georgia’s governor Nathan Deal is putting unemployed probationers to work in those fields.

It’s an effort to fill the thousands of available field labor jobs in that state and to give work to Georgia’s unemployed offenders who, by law, must work during probation. The jailbird to farmbird program – as I have so affectionately named it – started earlier this month. And so far most of the farmbirds have flown the coop. Their excuse? They don’t like the bugs or the heat or the sun and the work is too hard. It’s the same excuse that my mother used. The difference is that she has more than forty years of work and military history and doesn’t have a criminal record that keeps people from hiring her if she wants to work. She has options. Many of these people don’t.

More than 100,000 people are on probation in Georgia and most of them say they can’t find jobs. And they’re probably not allowed to leave the state to work anyplace else. Add to that the state’s ten percent unemployment rate and it’s easy to see why residents and law makers might complain about illegal immigrants taking jobs from citizens who need them more. But when given the chance to work and make $7.25 an hour which is minimum wage, it only took two days for all the probationers to quit on one farm. And it confirms what some illegal immigrants have said all along: Most Americans, if given the chance, won’t do the work illegals are paid to do.

The flaw in this program is giving criminals the option to do the farm work, especially if they can’t find other gainful employment. Plus it’s a way to help Georgia’s agricultural business thrive and it helps people on probation meet their work requirements. The program should be mandatory for probationers and parolees who can’t find jobs either. And if lawmakers require high school students to perform minimal hours of community service working on a farm it might create more respect for the industry and those young adults would be less likely to commit crimes once they realize field labor might be their only employment option in the future.

Steffanie is a freelance journalist. Send questions, comments or requests for speaking engagements to Steffanie at [email protected]. And see the video version of her journal at youtube.com/steffanierivers.