St. Clair tomato fields remain abandoned
by DAVID ATCHISON
Oct 14, 2011 | 3626 views |  3 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tomatoes lie rotting between rows of vines in a field on Chandler Mountain Friday.
Tomatoes lie rotting between rows of vines in a field on Chandler Mountain Friday.
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PELL CITY — St. Clair County officials say they want to help Chandler Mountain tomato farmers who were affected by the state’s new immigration law.

“The bottom line is, I don’t want farmers to lose their crops,” said St. Clair County Circuit Court Judge Jim Hill. “We will do anything we can to help them.”

Skilled immigrant workers abandoned St. Clair County tomato fields for fear of arrest and deportation after state legislators passed what some opponents have said is the toughest immigration law in the county.

The mass exodus of immigrant workers left farmers scrambling to get their tomatoes off the fields before they spoiled.

“If they need workers, we have people who need work,” Hill said Thursday.

Harvey Bell, executive director for the St. Clair County Community Corrections, said he met with Chandler Mountain farmers on Tuesday and Wednesday, offering an option to farmers who need workers.

Bell said it’s too late to help farmers this season, but farmers could train unemployed workers in the community corrections program before the growing season begins next year.

“This year’s crop is already gathered or ruined out on the field,” he said Thursday. “I talked with farmers and let them know that we can offer another option.”

Bell said he walked away from his meetings with farmers with a better understanding of the dire need for skilled farm workers.

“I listened to them and the procedures they have to follow,” Bell said. “It’s so much more than I realized, more than anyone realizes. It’s a bit more than just picking tomatoes.”

He said the immigrant workers are highly trained at what they do.

However, Bell said it is possible unemployed workers in the community correction program can be trained by farmers before the next growing season.

“We’re trying to help,” Hill said. “These people (in the community corrections program) are going to have a good attitude and show up. They also are also going to be drug free.”

Bell said farmers are looking at all their options.

He said one farmer called it quits. He said other farmers, who are third-fourth generation tomato farmers, have talked about closing their operations here and moving to another state, where there are no or less stringent enforcement of immigration laws.

He said the tomato planting season starts in February/March and the season generally ends in November. Farmers need 15-20 employees at the start of the season, 20-30 workers during the growing season, and 50 workers when the tomatoes are ready to come off the field.

Bell said there are 8-10 tomato farms on Chandler Mountain, so there is a need for 400-500 trained workers.

He said St. Clair County Community Corrections has about 616 people in the program. About 30 percent or 150-160 people in the community corrections program are unemployed.

“Our primary concern is next year,” Bell said. “There is urgency, because you have to get skilled labors trained before next spring.”

He said some immigrant workers are third and fourth generations of pickers and many have their own specialized equipment.

“That’s all they’ve done,” Bell said.

He said it could take a year or two before newly trained workers could reach the level of proficiency farmers are accustom to.

Bell said immigrants workers would leave Chandler Mountain at the end of the growing season and head south to work in the orchard groves of Florida, returning to Alabama when the tomato season begins again.

Contact David Atchison at datchison@dailyhome.com.