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For One Ala. Farmer, Workers Are Still Scarce

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
December 25, 2011

Earlier this year, Alabama passed a tough immigration law that prompted thousands of migrant workers to flee the state.

Shortly after, NPR spoke with Jamie Boatwright, a fourth-generation tomato farmer in Steele, Ala. When the law was passed, about 20 of Boatwright’s farmhands — all of them from Mexico — left and his business was devastated.

Boatwright tried to hire legal workers, but of the 11 Americans he hired that came and sought work, only one returned the for a second day of work.

“That person picked four boxes of tomatoes, walked out of the field and said: ‘I’m done’,” Boatwright said at the time.

It’s been a few months now, and Boatwright’s crops are finished for the season so he doesn’t have any harvesting labor issues. But he can’t get started on next year’s crop.

“A lot of people don’t realize it really takes the fall before — doing all of the planting, reordering seeds and supplies — and we haven’t done any of those things,” Boatwright tells All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

Boatwright says unless the law changes, he can’t get enough workers to start on his next season’s crop. He figures he needs about 60 people, at the minimum, working to keep his farm running. Currently he as none.

In order to grow his full crop of about 100 acres of tomatoes, Boatwright says he needs to plant his seeds by Feb. 20. But because he doesn’t have enough workers, he might only be able to plant about 15 or 20 acres, he says. And that’s not enough to pay his bills.

He’s been trying to figure out a solution, but right now Boatwright doesn’t have a plan. He’s tried to get some of his workers back, but all are in Florida working.

“They all tell me the same thing: ‘When the law is gone, we’ll be back. Until then, we’re not coming back to Alabama,’ ” he says.

Boatwright says his farm can’t continue without the help of migrant workers, but it’s not because he’s not willing to hire Americans. His fourth-generation farm used to have all Americans tending the fields, but there weren’t enough people willing to do the work, so they started hiring migrant workers.

“The Mexicans slowly worked in because they would show up for work, they would be here on time and they showed up every morning and they’d be ready to go to work,” he says.

Without workers to begin the next planting season, Boatwright is worried about his crop and his business if the law doesn’t change.

“But worse, I’m worried about how I’m going to take care of my family,” he says. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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