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Alabama farmers are facing a labor crisis because of the state's new immigration law as both legal and undocumented migrant workers have fled the state since the strict new rules went into effect last month.
So far, piecemeal efforts to match the unemployed or work release inmates to farm jobs are not panning out, and farmers are asking state lawmakers to do something before the spring planting season.
Farmer Guiseppe Peturis has a small operation — growing mostly vegetables on his family's 20-acre farm in Belforest, Ala. — and selling them on the corner in front of his house. His retail business has suffered since he appeared on the local news saying Alabamians don't want to do hard farm work.
Peturis says he's a Republican, but is no fan of Republican Gov. Robert Bentley's plan to get jobs for out-of-work Alabamians by passing the nation's toughest immigration law. Among other things, it calls for police to detain suspects if there's reasonable suspicion they are in the country illegally.
Peturis says he's tried to hire through the state unemployment office before, but didn't have much success.
"Two of them left in 30 minutes; didn't even tell us they [were] going to leave," Peturis says. "One worked an hour and says it was too hard on his back."
The Impending Planting Season
In Baldwin County on the Gulf Coast, strawberry planting season is just a few weeks away. Farmers are wondering if they'll have the crews to get the plants in the ground.
"We need help doing it and we need help that's going to come back every day," says Mark Krupinski, whose family farms about 900 acres in Foley, Alabama. He says the work is hard, and when local people ask him about a job, they want to drive tractors, not labor in the fields.
"That isn't the kind of job most of us want to do," he says. "I don't blame them for not wanting to do [it], but somebody's got to do it if we're going to keep eating for the price that we are eating at."
Alabama Agriculture Commissioner John McMillian says there's no doubt the immigration law has left farmers in a lurch. He says they're concerned about where the labor is going to come from since legal immigrants are leaving along with the illegal ones.
By the time the prime harvesting season rolls around in late spring and early summer, McMillian says farmers will need thousands of workers, and he's not sure the unemployed can fill the demand.
"A lot of the unemployed people, certainly the heaviest concentration of unemployed people are in our cities. And in most cases, you're talking at least an hour of travel one way to get to the farming operations," McMillian says.
Independent efforts to bus job seekers from Birmingham to farms have only had about a 10 percent success rate.
A Plea From Farmers
It is unclear if the governor's new job match program is working. As of Friday, there were 278 people looking for farm work, and 49 agricultural jobs available, but the state doesn't track placements.
Now, farmers are pleading with Alabama lawmakers to do something.
In north Alabama, more than 200 growers came to an agriculture center in Oneonta last week to meet with their state representatives. Jeremy Calvert, a young farmer from Cullman, was worried he won't find anyone to work his vegetable fields and catch his chickens.
"Without a viable labor source we can't survive," Calvert said. "When you've got payments to make and a family to feed and a farm and land that may have been in your family for 5 generations, there's a lot on your shoulders."
Because the farmers can't plan ahead, they aren't doing the business they normally would here at the end of the season. The farmers co-op isn't getting seed orders and the tractor dealer says large equipment contracts are down.
Chandler Mountain tomato grower Theresa Smith says the state's plan is flawed because out of work Alabamians need full-time jobs, not temporary farm work.
"We're going to go out of business," Smith said to the assembled group. "And it's not just going to hurt us, but everyone in this state is going to feel it economically."
But Republican state Rep. Elwyn Thomas told them the law is here to stay. He said it was "pitiful" that they've come to a point in Alabama where the state has to use a law that is seemingly too regressive and in many ways overkill.
"But that's where we are," said.
The message here is that the farmers are going to have to get creative — training work release inmates or unemployed Alabamians, or forming co-ops to apply to federal guest worker programs.
Republican Jeremy Oden represents many of the farmers at the meeting, yet stands by the bill. He said he doesn't think it was a mistake simply because the state had to do some something to address illegal immigration.
"An individual who goes to school in our state, costs $10,000 to educate ... so as a state did we go too far? I won't say that," Oden said.
A $5.5 billion agriculture industry is now at stake, but Oden said it is not up to the state to reverse the law, but the federal government to come up with an answer.
"Look, we need a federal program, a migrant program that we can apply in our state and get these skilled laborers to stay and help these people out," he said.
There's growing pressure for the state to create its own guest worker program, but the Alabama legislature doesn't go back into session until February.
Many of the farmers here see little hope coming from either the state or the federal government. It's disheartening for 23-year-old Cody Smith, who just returned to his family's Cullman farm after getting an agriculture degree.
He says the day after the law went into effect his 25-man sweet potato crew was down to six. Smith doesn't understand the motivation behind the crackdown.
"You got people's been living here 25 years. They've raised families here, they've got a residence; they've made a life here," Cody Smith said. "I've got very good friends, almost like family, that's been working for us for years and years. I don't think that's right."
He doesn't think the federal guest worker program is a viable option even if he could come up with a $1,000 or more to pay a contractor to process the paperwork.
"You have to pay them higher wages, you have to find them a place to live, you have to construct somewhere to live and it has to be approved by the government," he said. "That's tough. We don't have a lot of disposable income to be spending on such a thing."
But even if he could afford it, the time is a factor — Smith said he's got sweet potatoes in the ground that need digging right now.