Harvest time is in dangerPublished 8:00am Saturday, October 15, 2011
Agriculture is a multi-billion dollar industry for our state, critical to our economy beyond the fields. The backbone of Alabama agriculture is still the family farmer, and for many October is harvest month, which is the most important time of the year.
For major Alabama staples like cotton and peanuts, this is the month to bring in the crops. For many family farmers, it also is time to pick perishable produce like tomatoes and sweet potatoes.
Yet, many family farmers are facing disaster this year, with crops rotting in the fields and the very real possibility of losing their farms. There simply aren’t enough migrant workers to pick time sensitive-produce. Migrants have either fled the state or did not come here at all, due to Alabama’s new immigration law.
The law is widely recognized as being the most punitive in the nation. It demands local law enforcement check the legal status of any person they suspect of being an illegal immigrant, and if they do not have the appropriate paperwork arrest them to hand over to federal authorities.
The Alabama law also does things no other state law does, like reporting the legal status of children in schools. While that may not affect the migrant workers that come only temporarily, the toughness of the law has certainly created a climate of fear and scared most migrants away.
Migrants follow the harvest season from state to state, including coming to Alabama in October. Family farmers have reported that migrant farm hands that have come for many seasons just never showed up. They have moved off to Tennessee or North Carolina, rather than stay in place where fear is growing.
Some proponents of the law say that is precisely what they wanted. They point to Alabama’s stubbornly high unemployment rate and say migrant labor can be replaced. Yet, there is a reason why migrants did field work: it is difficult labor for short money. It is easier, and often more profitable, to work in a fast food restaurant rather than pick tomatoes for $2 a crate.
A few officials have suggested that Alabama comb the unemployment rolls to look for field hands, with the idea that state benefits could be held if someone doesn’t take agricultural work. Yet, telling an out-of-work electrician or skilled secretary they must get into the fields as a condition of receiving unemployment insurance is absolutely wrong. Those who advocated for these laws aren’t out in the fields themselves.
The Alabama agriculture commissioner has been trying to arrange inmates from the Department of Corrections’ work-release program to be field hands. Alabama has prison farms, and also a very strong work-release program where inmates can work for standard wages during the day, then return to incarceration at night.
The program is voluntary, and the number of inmates that would sign up to work in the fields will not be enough to overcome the loss of migrant labor, but at least it could save some crops and farms in the process.
Some have suggested that we force prisoners to work in the fields. This would be a disaster on two fronts. First, any farmer will tell you that hard workers are the only people you need out in the fields, and coerced prisoners would not work very hard. Second is that Alabama has a sordid history of using forced prison labor, a virtual slave system throughout the first part of the 20th century. That experience should stop the state cold from trying coercive acts like that again. No chain gangs in the fields.
Organizing prisoners or the unemployed will not save this year’s crops, nor will it be a solution for the loss of migrant labor down the road. The fiercest advocates for the migrant crackdown certainly won’t get out and work the fields themselves. Meanwhile, produce rots and the state agriculture industry is threatened.
We reap what we sow. Sow fear and migrants leave, and then there is no one to reap when the harvest is due.
Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County. His column appears each Wednesday.