- Associated Press - Sunday, May 13, 2012

ONEONTA, Ala. — Some Alabama farmers say they are planting less produce rather than risk having tomatoes and other crops rot in the fields a second straight year because of labor shortages linked to the state’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

Keith Dickie said he and other growers in the heart of Alabama’s tomato country didn’t have any choice but to reduce acreage amid fears there won’t be enough workers to pick the delicate fruit.

Some farmers lacked enough hands to harvest crops because immigrants fled the state after Gov. Robert Bentley signed the immigration law last fall, and some told the Associated Press they fear the same thing could happen this year.

“There’s too much uncertainty,” said Mr. Dickie, who farms with his brother on Straight Mountain ridge, about 40 miles northeast of Birmingham.

On nearby Chandler Mountain, another prime farming area, Jimmy Miller said he cut back on produce because of possible labor shortages and instead planted more cotton and peanuts, which can both be harvested by big combine machines that require minimal labor.

It’s unclear how many farmers are changing their planting patterns this year because of the law and whether consumers might see food shortages on the produce aisle at supermarkets. Some growers say they aren’t making any changes from years past, and neither the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries nor the Alabama Farmers Federation has compiled statistics yet for the year.

State agriculture officials said the law has created chronic labor shortages since it was passed last year by the Republican-controlled Legislature, where sponsors said they wanted to drive illegal immigrants from the state by making it difficult for them to live in Alabama.

Aside from requiring all employers to register with a federal citizenship-verification system called E-Verify, the law barred residents from conducting basic business transactions if they lacked citizenship papers and required schools to check the citizenship status of new students.

Federal courts have blocked parts of the law in response to lawsuits by the Obama administration and others, prompting Mr. Bentley and Republican leaders to support tweaks to the law. The Legislature has blocked efforts to repeal the law, with Republican backers saying they want Alabama to still have the nation’s toughest law on illegal immigration once the legislative session ends in a few weeks.

A major squash producer in north Alabama is cutting back production and moving some crops to Tennessee because of uncertainty over the law.

John Aplin, a fourth-generation farmer who serves on the state board that oversees farmer markets statewide, said he planted his regular crops and is hoping he can get them out of the fields when his first large tomato harvest begins later this month.

Like other farmers, Mr. Aplin said he has had little luck finding Alabama natives who could or would perform the grueling field work that Hispanic immigrants have done for years.

“They’ll work a morning and come up at lunchtime and say, ‘I’m done,’ ” Mr. Aplin said.