Alabama Harvests The Bitter Fruit Of Its Harsh New Immigration Laws: Tomatoes Dying On The Vine

It's not like they weren't warned. There was already the example of Arizona, whose wrecked economy lies in ruins in the wake of SB1070 and the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that came with its passage. People warned Alabamans that if

[Video via WJHG]

It's not like they weren't warned. There was already the example of Arizona, whose wrecked economy lies in ruins in the wake of SB1070 and the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that came with its passage.

People warned Alabamans that if they went ahead and passed their own version of anti-immigrant legislation, they would suffer similar economic consequences. But they did it anyway. Now, the state's anti-immigration laws -- which involve using schoolchildren as proxies for enforcement -- are easily the most draconian and vicious anti-immigrant laws in the country.

And guess what? They are now paying the price. Not only are the schools suddenly emptying of Latino children, more tellingly, the state's tomato farmers are in crisis because there's no one available to harvest the fruit. And the authors of the legislation are just telling them, "tough luck":

STEELE, Ala. -- A sponsor of Alabama's tough new immigration law told desperate tomato farmers Monday that he won't change the law, even though they told him that their crops are rotting in the field and they are at risk of losing their farms.

Republican state Sen. Scott Beason of Gardendale met with about 50 growers, workers, brokers and business people Monday at a tomato packing shed on Chandler Mountain in northeast Alabama. They complained that the new law, which went into effect Thursday, scared off many of their migrant workers at harvest time.

"The tomatoes are rotting on the vine, and there is very little we can do," said Chad Smith, who farms tomatoes with his uncle, father and brother.

"My position is to stay with the law as it is," Beason told the farmers.

Beason helped write and sponsor a law the Legislature enacted in June to crack down on illegal immigration. It copied portions of laws enacted in Arizona, Georgia and other states, including allowing police to detain people indefinitely if they don't have legal status. Beason and other proponents said the law would help free up jobs for Alabamians in a state suffering through 9.9 percent unemployment.

The farmers said the some of their workers may have been in the country illegally, but they were the only ones willing to do the work.

"This law will be in effect this entire growing season," Beason told the farmers. He said he would talk to his congressman about the need for a federal temporary worker program that would help the farmers next season.

"There won't be no next growing season," farmer Wayne Smith said.

"Does America know how much this is going to affect them? They'll find out when they go to the grocery store. Prices on produce will double," he said.

Good question. No doubt these good Republicans will find a way to blame it on President Obama.

This is where the rubber hits the road when it comes to conservative ideology, just as it does when Randian fantasy meets reality -- which is to say, it quickly comes apart. The right-wing nativists want to pretend that undocumented immigrants are taking away jobs that Americans want to be doing, but the reality is they are largely filling unskilled-labor positions that involve back-breaking work -- the kind of work Americans simply are incapable of performing nowadays, regardless of pay.

Another report on the crisis in Alabama delves this point:

[oldembed width="425" height="380" src="http://c.brightcove.com/services/viewer/federated_f9?isVid=1" flashvars="omnitureAccountID=gntbcstwxia,gntbcstglobal&pageContentCategory=video&pageContentSubcategory=&marketName=Atlanta, GA:11alive&division=Broadcast&SSTSCode=&videoId=1200425715001&playerID=34619011001&playerKey=AQ~~,AAAAB_0PyCk~,_pBlGqvGs04Tc8UUwQF4CFKPQB-OCvyg&domain=embed&dynamicStreaming=true" resize="1" fid="22"]

From 11Alive in Atlanta:

CHANDLER MOUNTAIN, Ala.-- Chad Smith's family grows tomatoes on a mountaintop in rural northeast Alabama, and ships them from to Canada.

The summer's crop has been good. But Smith sees thousands of overripe tomatoes rotting alongside his vines, and sees only trouble.

"As of right now, we could lose probably fifty percent of what we have left for the year," Smith said.

That, said Smith, is because of a stiff shortage of field hands, traditionally Hispanic migrant workers. And Smith doesn't sugar-coat their status.

"Farmers across the whole country and every state (rely) on illegal immigration workers to do this kind of work," Smith said, "because that's the only people that's willing to do it."

Like Georgia, this year Alabama enacted a tough new immigration law designed to squeeze out people working and living illegally in the US. By the time Smith's crop started ripening in July, he says most of his usual workers had disappeared.

Chad Smith says he's tried local workers.

"It ain't about the money, it's about the work physically. If a person can't do the work, they can't do it no matter how much you pay them," Smith said.

"As of next year, if nothing changes, there won't be a tomato grown here."

It appears that many of the Alabama workers are fleeing to Florida, which has more sane immigration statutes on the books.

Meanwhile, the farmers have been trying to talk sense into state officials, but to no avail:

"Give us hope, give us something," said farmer Jeremy Calvert, who served as moderator at the meeting. "We feed more people than ever before. We have to have a labor force. There are no machines to pick fresh tomatoes or cucumbers. We use Hispanic labor because we have to. We're caught between a rock and a hard place."

Calvert's words were repeated often concerning the largely Hispanic workforce that harvests the state's and nation's crops.

Keith Smith, a Gold Ridge area farmer who helped organize the event, said the labor issue extends beyond the agriculture community. He said other industries rely heavily on Hispanic labor because of necessity.

As the farmer in the video above observes:

FARMER: I was at a meeting at the Greenbriar restaurant in Huntsville several weeks ago, and there were several senators and legislators there ... Some of them spoke and said where were we at when this law was being debated. They heard from 80 percent of the people that said they were in favor of this law. Well, there's a fundamental problem with that. Eighty percent of the people that's for this law doesn't understand that the 1 percent of us feeds the United States. Our voice is small because we are small. ,,, But we have to have a labor force.

This is all very reminiscent of what's happened when there have been previous outbreaks of xenophobic hysteria. One prime example of this occurred during World War II, when an even more intense outbreak of hysteria in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor led Americans to incarcerate 120,000 Japanese Americans in various internment camps.

As it happened, Japanese Americans provided a substantial portion of the nation's fresh produce supply, particularly on the West Coast, but also in the Midwest. And when we shipped them off to concentration camps, we lost all that production -- even though the nativists who ardently pushed for the evacuation had dismissed this concern beforehand.

I explored this in some detail in my book Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community. The question first was raised when the idea of removing all Japanese Americans to the interior was being debated by the public:

The removal would not be without problems, warned some. “Approximately 95 percent of the vegetables grown here are raised by the Japanese,” noted J.R. Davidson, market master for the Pike Place Public Market in Seattle, where Eastside Japanese sold many of their goods. “About 35 percent of the sellers in the market are Japanese. Many white persons are leaving the produce business to take defense jobs, which are not open to the Japanese.” Letter writers to the local newspapers raised the same concern.

Their fears were quickly derided. Wrote Charlotte Drysdale of Seattle in a letter to the Post-Intelligencer:

It has been interesting to note how many contributors have been afraid we would have no garden truck if the Japs are sent to concentration areas. We had gardens long before the Japs were imported about the turn of the century, to work for a very low wage (a move for which we are still paying dearly) and we can still have them after we have no Japs.

Isn’t that discounting American ability just a little too low?

These concerns were raised during the congressional hearings that preceded the internment episode too:

Floyd Oles, a spokesman for the Washington Produce Shippers’ Association, warned the committee that the state’s vegetable and fruit production would suffer if the Japanese were evacuated and urged the members to reconsider. He was told that plans were already being formed for replacement farmers to take over the operation of the Japanese farms. And he was questioned about his business connections with Japanese produce cooperatives, including Bellevue’s.

The result was anything but pretty:

The day after Bellevue’s Japanese residents were loaded aboard the train for evacuation, the May 21 edition of the local weekly, the Bellevue American, noted their departure with a front-page story headlined, “Bellevue Japanese are Evacuated Wednesday -- Sent to California.”

On the same page was a smaller item headlined, “No Strawberry Festival This Year.” The story put a wartime face on the reasons presented for ending the city’s main summer attraction, a 16-year tradition: “With the rationing of gasoline, all agreed that the Festival would have to be abandoned this year. Other reasons given were: the shortage of sugar, conservation of tires, avoidance of large crowds and the war effort that is keeping so many busy.”

A simpler explanation, of course, was that 90 percent of Bellevue’s agricultural workforce -- the people who provided the Strawberry Festival with strawberries -- was riding a train to Pinedale, Calif. That loss became painfully obvious in the next week’s paper. A front-page headline read: “200 Workers Needed Now to Care for Crops in Overlake Area.”

The Japanese farmers, under threat of law, had maintained their crops through the spring. At the time they were evacuated, the lettuce crop was ready for harvest, peas were a week or two away, and strawberries were red and ready for plucking. Tomatoes and the second crop of lettuce were due for harvest by the end of July.

Western Farm and Produce Inc., which had stepped in as the wartime substitute for the Japanese, received a Farm Service Administration loan the day of the evacuation for $32,107, mostly to cover the costs it incurred in purchasing the remaining crops, and equipment to grow and harvest them, from the 33 lease farmers who had signed agreements. The company also set up operations at the Midlake warehouse the Japanese growers owned.

But it quickly became apparent that the company was going to have trouble raising enough labor to work the fields. H.C. Van Valkenburgh, the lawyer who formed the company and managed it, pleaded for help through the story in the American. “Labor is the biggest immediate problem because of the highly perishable nature of these crops, which are maturing rapidly,” the story reported. “The pay is much higher than in normal times, and many of the good people who are helping with such fine spirit, consider the money as secondary to the national need of preserving these foods.

“Most of these foods are going to the armed forces, according to Van Valkenburgh, who pointed out that a carload of cauliflower has just been shipped to men in Alaska, and another carload of lettuce has just been shipped to Chicago for the armed forces.” Van Valkenburgh told the reporter he needed 100 workers immediately for picking strawberries and another 100 to care for other crops.

A week later, Van Valkenburgh still needed 100 workers for the strawberry harvest. The following week’s story in the American made no mention of the other crops, but simply appealed for labor. “ ‘We much prefer to employ local help,’ said Mr. Van Valkenburgh Wednesday night. ‘Local help proves more reliable, transportation difficulties are avoided, the number of workers can be regulated, there is more interest aiding a local industry, workers can be trained into steady year-around jobs -- and, of course, we would much prefer to keep the money here.’

“ ‘Consequently, we are making an urgent appeal to all who want to aid in harvesting and caring for these crops to notify us at once, so that we can organize our labor. If insufficient local labor is available, we can get the workers from Seattle, but we want to know how many to send for.’ ”

Actually, the ready labor pool in Seattle was not merely short; it was practically nonexistent. Local Filipinos were already in place on Bainbridge Island farms, and the larger White River land tracts were also sapping the usual workforce. Few white farmers would touch the small Japanese tracts, and other laborers were signing up to join the war effort, which had the advantages of better pay and considerably greater glory.

Berry pickers were paid by the carry -- a wooden tray that held a large number of smaller berry crates, which meant that the fastest pickers were paid the most. The company also hired tomato planters and weeders, who were paid 50 cents an hour. Truck drivers to haul the goods were paid the best: $1 an hour.
But Western Farm and Produce lost a large portion of the strawberry crop to wet weather conditions, so returns on its first harvest were a considerable disappointment. Soon, it was cutting back its operations.

Confusion soon set in, especially as the Japanese leasees began to settle into the camps. In most cases, the farmers had reached agreement with Western Farm to continue paying them through the harvest, so they could in turn make their lease payments to the landowners. A few had been released of their lease obligations altogether, and so the company itself became responsible for paying the rent.

But Western Farm fell down on both accounts. First, it began receiving letters of complaint from the landowners who had released the Japanese from their leases, demanding rent for the land the company was working. The company paid up for a few months in some cases -- it contested others -- and then quit paying altogether after the summer.

Then the Japanese internees, with War Relocation Authority officials backing them, began demanding their unpaid rent. In some cases, the company made partial payments, but even those ended after 1942.

And, with only a handful of workers available for the harvest, it became clear that Van Valkenburgh’s grand scheme to become “the successor to the Bellevue Vegetable Growers Association,” as Western Farm and Produce Inc.’s letterhead suggested, was a money-losing proposition, and the operation quickly dried up.

The crops were abandoned. The company kept hiring tomato planters and weeders through July, but there is no indication that either the tomatoes or the second lettuce crop were ever harvested.

When the Nisei came back three and four years later, it was obvious that only a fraction of the crops they had planted were harvested. The farms had lain fallow since they had left.

And the Strawberry Festival, that great gathering in tiny Bellevue of thousands of people from all walks of life and from all around the Puget Sound, was gone forever.

Similarly, you have to wonder what will happen now to Alabama's tomato-farming industry. Once it gets blown away like this, it may take years to recover -- if it ever does.

About David Neiwert

Comments

We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.