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Unwelcome Harvest

It’s no mystery why 80 to 90 percent of Alabama’s migrant agriculture labor has disappeared, says Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan. “They don’t have to go any farther than Florida to get the same kind of work and be welcomed.”

John McMillan, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries

John McMillan, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries

The new Alabama immigration law—officially, the Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act—started driving farm workers from Alabama fields and processing plants when it passed the Legislature in June. But the flight of farm workers—legal and illegal—only increased at harvest time, following a Sept. 28 ruling by U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn that upheld most of the provisions of the law.

On Oct. 7, we spoke about the new law with John McMillan, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries.

A former state legislator from Baldwin County, McMillan also has been commissioner of the state Department of Conservation & Natural Resources. He was executive vice president of the Alabama Forestry Commission for over 20 years before being elected to the top agriculture office in November last year.

McMillan also noted other concerns among Alabama farmers regarding national policies—especially the threat of cutbacks in crop insurance.

I’ve had a firsthand look at every agriculture sector and the immigration law is having a pretty dramatic impact. My educated guess is that up until Judge Blackburn’s ruling, about 50 percent of the labor had left, and since her ruling, it’s a lot worse than that. I would hazard to guess 80 to 90 percent. One of the things we’re seeing is that documented workers are leaving, as well as undocumented. It’s because of family ties, cultural and social reasons, and the fact that other states are welcoming them with open arms. They don’t have to go any farther than Florida to get the same kind of work and be welcomed.

Using work release employees is not a solution for the long run. It’s just a short-term, stop-gap measure, focusing on trying to salvage the final harvest. We’ll have to worry about the long term later on. Unless there’s a successful appeal—and that will be a long time coming—we’ve got to assume we’re going to have to deal with it from now on, certainly for a year or so. One aspect of this is that—whatever you think about the law, for better or worse—you’ve got too many programs out there that give people incentives not to work, especially in what people call undesirable jobs.

Yes, it was a surprise. I knew there was immigration legislation pending, but I did not—nor did anybody—know the scope of it until it came out of a conference committee. While it was not unprecedented, the scope of it was. It came out of the committee pretty quick, which is not unusual in the Legislature.

Somehow, we hope we will be able to persuade the Legislature to change the law. And, then, this is a national issue. Ultimately, it will have to be addressed nationally. I expect that one positive that will come out of the Alabama, Georgia and Arizona immigration laws is that it will provide the impetus for our federal government to go ahead and address the issue. But I don’t see that happening until after the presidential election.

A few weeks ago, I attended a national meeting of commissioners of agriculture in Salt Lake City, and, next to the Farm Bill, immigration policy was the number one topic. We developed a position paper that was three parts. Number one: The borders have to be secured. Two: We need a nationally reliable guest worker program. Three: The undocumented immigrant issue has got to be addressed. And, basically, that’s my position, as well.

In Salt Lake City, the USDA told us they estimate that, nationally, 75 percent of farm labor is undocumented workers. Personally, my observation is that it’s not that high in Alabama: maybe in the 60 or so percentage range. As one commissioner said, directly or indirectly, these folks have been invited here.

I have never made any comment advocating using illegal immigrants. But I have tried to make folks realize this law is having a dramatic economic impact on Alabama’s farm economy. That having been said, when I do make a comment like that, I get a little hate mail.

We have a number of poultry processing plants that are affected. They are pretty labor intensive, and they have a lot of employees. It’s basically year-round work, not seasonal. For the poultry grower, the labor component is primarily in catching the chickens, to move them from the houses to the processing plants. That’s a key job. It’s hard work, and it happens between midnight and 6 a.m., because, in the darkness it’s easier to catch them.  Right now (early October), the crops that need to be harvested are tomatoes, peanuts to some degree, and cotton, and fall watermelons and sweet potatoes, and a few apples, up on Crow Mountain, in Jackson County. And satsumas are coming in soon in the Mobile area. We deal with the seafood industry only in regard to safety, but the seafood processing industry has certainly been impacted, as well as agriculture. Being from Baldwin County, I know the seafood processors use basically the same type of labor.

At the meeting in Utah, there was a lot of concern about the amount of money that will be available to farmers. Alabama farmers are especially concerned about crop insurance—their safety net—particularly in light of the drought we’ve had over the last few years. The safety net affects peanuts, cotton, soybeans, corn and traditional crops. The Wiregrass was particularly hard hit by the drought, and over the last five to eight years, many of them have depended on crop insurance to have a crop the next year.

The delay in passage of Free Trade Agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea is affecting us harshly, not only in agriculture but in manufactured goods and other area. I think we’re close to wrapping those up. They passed the House and are in the final steps. Last night, Sen. Mitch McConnell said they were on his list of the two or three things he wants to see the Senate address in the short term. I’m optimistic they will go through. 

No, I don’t think these trade agreements open Alabama farmers to unfair competition from those countries, because the seasons are different and the markets are different. And these agreements will open up export markets for us: selling, for example, peanuts to South Korea, and beef to almost anywhere.

The hold up has been that those agreements were negotiated under the Bush Administration, and, since President Obama took office, organized labor has been opposed to those agreements unless they got guarantees of wage supports. Finally the House Speaker Boehner and President Obama made a deal, and that’s why they are now traveling to passage.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

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