John McMillan, Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries commissioner, told the Montgomery Advertiser Thursday that inmates, through a work-release program, could be a labor source for farmers who are concerned that crops will rot in their fields now that Hispanic migrant workers are fleeing the state.
As a state with an economy based on agriculture, the exodus of skilled, Hispanic migrant workers has left Alabama crops unharvested, which has resulted in multi-million dollars losses.
We are optimistic that by Monday we will have some help for farmers, said McMillan.
Alabama, along with Arizona and Georgia, recently passed an anti-immigration law that a federal judge in September left mostly intact, upholding the toughest provisions.
These provisions allow law enforcement officials to detain suspected illegal immigrants and school districts to check immigration status of children.
Immigration Law Hurt Farmers' Access to Labor
The provision that has hurt farmers' access to labor requires businesses to use the federal E-Verify system to check employees' status.
The Alabama Farmers Federation said the McMillan's efforts to bring inmate labor to farms as a short-term solution is appreciated.
Relative to the federal side, our efforts continue in working with Congress to improve the current H2A and H2B guest worker programs to get farmers and business the legal labor they need, the organization said in a statement, referring to visa programs.
Using prisoners to pick up the slack is likely to fall short in addressing the labor issue, if Georgia--a state that also saw Hispanic agricultural workers flee over the anti-immigration law--is any guide.
This is the second attempt from Gov. Nathan Deal to get inmates into fields, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. An earlier program tried to get probationers to do farm work.
The plans for Alabama and Georgia are similar: use non-violent offenders to voluntarily sign up to work on farms picking fruits and vegetables. The pay would be set by farmers, according to reports.
More Than Unskilled Labor
Jon Huffmaster, the Georgia Farm Bureau's legislative director, wouldn't criticize any proposal that addresses the labor shortage, but doubted its effectiveness.
Farm labor requires more than muscle and a need for work, Huffmaster told IBTimes. The work is grueling and laborers are in outdoors with temperatures reaching nearly 100 degrees.
A lot of people have an idea that work on farms is no-skill labor, that anybody who just walks up can do it. That's just not the case, Huffmaster said. You have to be able to keep up to move from field to field... That's some of the things we ran into when it came to the probationers.
Using probationers failed to address the farmers' labor problem. Georgia's agriculture commissioner told a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday that the program only produced a few reliable workers, and they weren't as productive as migrant workers, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution report.
There's also a pay problem that arises when using inmate labor, said Huffmaster. For farmers who pay a piecemeal rate-based on the amount harvested-inmates unaccustomed to farm work may be unable to make more than minimum wages.
You have to be able to produce enough to get paid enough, or you're just going to get minimum wage and you're not getting a crop harvested, said Huffmaster.
The labor shortage has already caused an estimated $140 million in losses during Georgia's spring and summer harvest, according to an industry-funded study the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association released this week.
The data collected for seven crops-blueberries, Vidalia onions and cucumbers, for instance-totaled $75 million in losses, but the loss figure reached the $140 million level to account for all growers of each commodity.
Further, many farmers responded that they'll cut their acreage or buy mechanical equipment to alleviate the problem. More than half of the vegetable growers who responded said their acreage will decrease.
McMillan, the elected Alabama agriculture commissioner and a Republican, is aware of the challenges Georgia's farmers faced when they used probationers. He stressed that a long-term solution for Alabama's farm labor shortage must be developed, according to the Montgomery Advertiser's Friday report.
That is why I'm emphasizing that this is a short-term solution to get the current crops up, said McMillan. Then, we'll look at the long term.