October 23, 2011

Alabama finding legal farm workers scarce

By ALICIA A. CALDWELL and JAY REEVES, The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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Titus Howard of Birmingham, Ala., pulls plastic from fields as he tries his hand at field work in Steele, Ala., last week. Howard took on the job after migrant workers fled the area because of the stiff new Alabama immigration law, leaving many farmers without enough help to harvest their crops. Farmers say the Americans who do come to work are often unwilling to stick with it.

The Associated Press

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Migrant worker Fellipe Chacoa of Mexico talks about his desire to continue to harvest produce during a meeting last week of farmers and state officials in Oneonta, Ala., to discuss the impact of the Alabama immigration law on their livelihoods. Chacoa said he had picked tomatoes for 26 years and that the new immigration law is scaring Hispanic workers into leaving the state to find work elsewhere.

The Associated Press

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"There are plenty who could do it, but would they? I don't know about that. I don't see why they wouldn't, as bad as the economy is right now," Martin said.

Relatively high unemployment rates -- about 9 percent in the U.S. and 9.9 in Alabama -- are not likely to push Americans toward farm work, said Demetrios Papademetriou, president and co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute. He suggested the problem may be more deeply rooted.

"This is a sector and an industry ... that a long time ago, going back to the 1940s and probably before that, was abandoned," Papademetriou said. "It was abandoned to foreign workers."

Stan Eury, executive director of the North Carolina Growers Association, said location matters, too.

"Agriculture jobs are primarily in remote, rural areas. We see higher numbers of unemployed people in the big cities," he said.

Tomato farmer Wayne Smith said he has never been able to keep a staff of American workers in his 25 years of farming.

"People in Alabama are not going to do this," said Smith, who grows about 75 acres of tomatoes in the northeast part of the state. "They'd work one day and then just wouldn't show up again."

At his farm, field workers get $2 for every 25-pound box of tomatoes they fill. Skilled pickers can make anywhere from $200 to $300 a day, he said.

Unskilled workers make much less.

A crew of four Hispanics can earn about $150 each by picking 250-300 boxes of tomatoes in a day, said Jerry Spencer, of Grow Alabama, which purchases and sells locally owned produce. A crew of 25 Americans recently picked 200 boxes -- giving them each $24 for the day.

It may make sense for some to sit on the couch. Unemployment benefits provide up to $265 a week while a minimum wage job, at $7.25 an hour for 40 hours, brings in $290.

Spencer said the Americans he has linked up with farmers are not physically fit and do not work fast enough.

"It's the harshest work you can imagine doing," Spencer said.


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Keith Smith
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“I’ve had people calling me wanting to work. I haven’t turned any of them down, but they’re not any good. It’s hard work, they just don’t work like the Hispanics with experience.” - Keith Smith, Alabama potato farmer

The Associated Press


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