December 2011
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Farmers Need “Certainty” In Facing Labor Shortages

 

Representative Elwyn Thomas, fourth-generation poultry farmer Dennis Maze and Representative Jeremy Oden listen to Kyle Hayes, Alfa liaison with state and federal programs.

"We need some certainty," Cullman County farmer Jeremy Calvert emphasized. "Without certainty, we can’t do anything."

Calvert was one of the more than 250 farmers and agriculture-related business persons who gathered at the Blount-Oneonta Agri-Business Center October 20th to plead with governmental officials to provide immediate help with problems caused by the state’s passage of the new immigration law.

Calvert noted he was in the "extreme minority" as a farmer who was under age 40, farming 25 acres of vegetables, a small peach orchard and two broiler houses.

"There’s not one aspect of my operations this law hasn’t affected," Calvert noted about the shortages of workers.

  Blount County Probate Judge David Standridge (center) talks with Blount County Co-op Manager Chris Elliot (left) and Assistant Manager James McAnnally.

 
   

"For us it’s all about survival. We have payments to make. A family to feed. With many of us on farms that have been passed on for generations. If you read newspaper articles, you might think we’re just greedy because we want cheap labor…

"Folks need to remember that 80 percent of them are being fed by less than one percent of us. We can’t pay a lot more unless food prices go up."

Noting he and other farmers don’t usually have benefits, some are stressing they should be mandatory for farm workers, Calvert noted that some of his workers "made more money than we did."

Other workers haven’t come forward to take the place of immigrants who either fled the state because they were illegal or left the state because they were no longer comfortable with the atmosphere they perceived the new immigration bill exemplified, Calvert and others said.

Calvert’s experience with Latino workers has been that they are "number one, good at what they do, and number two, dependable."

 

Chandler Mountain farmer Teresa Smith pleads with legislators to act immediately to correct the problems caused by the state’s new immigration law.

He noted farmers already face numerous fumigation regulations and safety measures expensive and time-consuming, and the uncertainty caused by the new immigration laws have left many farmers uncertain if they can continue their livelihoods.

Greg Payne, customer service representative for Snead Ag’s four John Deere locations in Northeast Alabama which has 80 employees, said the law is causing a "trickle down" effect on businesses like theirs.

Farmers who need to update specialized equipment like large tractors which have a six to eight-month turnaround are fearful to place orders because they don’t know if they’ll even be able to harvest their crops next season.

"All we’re asking for is that everything to be fair and legal," Payne said.

Veronica Zavala echoed the trickle-down complaints noting she’d had folks in her newly-opened Oneonta insurance office crying because they felt they were being forced to leave the state.

Veronica Zavala, who recently opened an insurance agency in Blount County, pleaded with legislators and other officials to work with the community in improving the immigration process, noting the “trickle down” way her business is being adversely affected by the state’s new immigration law.

 

"I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay open," she said.

Southern States Mel Wade spoke for others who supply locally for farmers.

"Tomato growers provide 34 percent of our business," Wade said. "And that doesn’t even count those who grow other vegetables and fruits like our county’s peach crops. If you take away 34 percent of our business, I don’t know if we can stay in business."

His figures were also matched by Blount County Farmers Co-op Manager Chris Elliot and Assistant Manager James McAnnally.

"When it hurts the farmers, it hurts us because we ARE a business of farmers," McAnnally said.

Representative Jeremy Oden, who represents parts of Cullman, Morgan and Blount Counties and who said he was not unhappy to have signed the recent law, noted, "One of the biggest reasons we’re here is because the federal government has ignored this problem for the past 20 years."

Rep. Oden indicated that Utah has recently passed a guest worker-type program, but "they will have to get a waiver from the U.S. government and it doesn’t go into effect until 2013."

Several farmers questioned housing provisions that would be required. Rep. Oden, along with Rep. Blaine Gallaher, Etowah, and Rep. Elwyn Thomas, Blount, said farmers must work with them to see what changes can be made to get needed workers back to the farms.

 

Rodolfo Alvarez, CEO of an Arizona company trying to match legal workers and farmers, speaks with Alabama Representative Jeremy Oden.

Rep. Thomas said many aspects of current guest worker programs were "too regressive and in many ways overkill.... There’s a federal law prohibiting us from having a guest worker program in Alabama that would relieve some of this problem."

Rep. Gallaher also stressed contacting those in federal government, including "the Obama administration," to correct the immigration problems by protecting law-abiding immigrant citizens while still securing our borders.

Straight Mountain farmer Amy Dickie said the problem is not generally that Americans can’t do the work, but that many can’t afford to work at skilled positions only available four to five months per year.

Dickie said the current new law meant many of Alabama’s skilled farm workers had left for other states — meaning they’re now helping states currently in competition with Alabama’s farmers.

"Now we’re not even on the same playing field," Dickie said to much applause.

When told of a program where some of Alabama’s current unemployed would have to be "taught" to do the farm labor during the off-season, Dickie replied, also to much applause, "It’s hard to teach somebody how to pick a tomato if they’re not on the vine.

"We’re regulated and we’re being forced out of business."

Noting 20 currently-unemployed workers who had been brought to one Chandler Mountain tomato farm picked 127 boxes.

"20 people should have picked 2,000 boxes," Dickie explained.

Felippe Chacon, who has worked as a laborer on farms for more than 28 years and who is now a supervisor, noted, "If something is not done, where I work in St. Clair County, there just won’t be anybody to do the job."

Snead poultry farmer Dennis Maze, whose son is now the fifth generation to work on their farm, asked all governmental officials to continue to work with and listen to local farmers.

"People’s lives are affected. Let’s look at the glass as being half-full instead of half-empty," Maze requested.

With many of the farmers and business persons saying discussions are good, no conclusions and answers were brought forth at the meeting to rectify any of the farm-labor shortages.

Bett Hall, Deputy Commissioner with Department of Agriculture and Industries John McMillan’s office, noted, "There’s no panacea. There’s no magic wand in government or in our office. But everybody wants to figure it out. We have to have a solution and we have to do it on an expedited basis.

"There’s not one person in the Department of Agriculture who doesn’t have this on their hearts and doesn’t pray about it every night. I’m so sorry this has all happened."

Hayden’s Jimmy Witt perhaps summed up a lot of emotions as the two-hour meeting ended, "We have to look at the whole picture. It took us 30 to 40 years to get into this and it can’t be fixed overnight."

Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County. She can be reached through her website at www.suzysfarm.com.