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Alabama farmers are facing a labor crisis because of the state's new immigration law. That law is being challenged in federal court, but much of it is being enforced. As a result, both legal and undocumented migrant workers have fled Alabama over the past month, and a state program to match the unemployed to farm jobs is not filling the void. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Under industrial-strength fans at his roadside produce stand in Belforest, Alabama, Giuseppe Peturis is trying to sell some freshly harvested sweet potatoes to Jeannette Adrey.

GUISEPPE PETURIS: Now, we have a 10-pound bag of sweet potatoes for three dollars.

JEANNETTE ADREY: Honey, I'd never go through that many sweet potatoes.

PETURIS: They'll keep.

ELLIOTT: She's the first customer he's seen in hours. His retail business has suffered since he appeared on the local news saying Alabamians don't want to do hard farm work.

PETURIS: It's killed our business.

ELLIOTT: Peturis has a small operation, growing mostly vegetables on his family's 20-acre farm in South Alabama and selling them on the corner in front of his house. He says he's a Republican but is no fan of Republican Governor Robert Bentley's plan to get jobs for out-of-work Alabamians by passing the nation's toughest immigration law. Among other things, it calls for police to detain suspects if there's reasonable suspicion they're in the country illegally. Peturis says he's tried to hire through the state unemployment office before.

PETURIS: Two of them left in 30 minutes, didn't even tell us they was going to leave. One worked an hour and says it was too hard on his back and the squash plants was scratching him.

ELLIOTT: In Baldwin County on the Gulf Coast, strawberry planting season is just a few weeks away. Farmers are wondering if they'll have the crews to get the plants in the ground.

MARK KRUPINSKI: We need help doing it and we need help that's going to come back every day.

ELLIOTT: That's Mark Krupinski. His family farms about 900 acres in Foley, Alabama. He says when local people ask him about work, they want to drive tractors, not labor in the fields.

KRUPINSKI: That ain't the kind of job most of us want to go do. Go to watermelon fields and pitch 25 melons all day in the heat of the day in the summer. That ain't fun work. I mean, it's just - it's things that American folks are spoiled and don't want to do anymore. And hey, I don't blame them not for wanting to do it, but somebody's got to do it if we're going to keep eating for the price that we are eating at, you know.

ELLIOTT: Alabama Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan says there's no doubt the immigration law has left farmers in a lurch.

JOHN MCMILLAN: The legal immigrants are leaving along with the illegals. And so we're very much concerned about where the labor's going to come from as we get into planting and prime harvesting season late next spring and early summer.

ELLIOTT: McMillan says farmers will need thousands of workers, and he's not sure the unemployed can fill the demand.

MCMILLAN: A lot of the unemployed people, in fact, certainly the heaviest concentration of unemployed people are in our cities. And in most cases you're talking about at least an hour of travel one way to get to the farming operations.

ELLIOTT: It's unclear if the governor's new job match program is working. As of Friday, there were 278 people looking for farm work and 49 agricultural jobs available, but the state doesn't track placements. Independent efforts to bus job seekers from Birmingham to farms have only had about a 10 percent success rate. Now farmers are pleading with Alabama lawmakers to do something.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If you will, come on in and be seated.

ELLIOTT: In north Alabama, more than 200 growers came to an ag center in Oneonta last week to meet with their state representatives. Jeremy Calvert, a young farmer from Cullman, is worried he won't find anyone to work his vegetable fields and catch his chickens.

JEREMY CALVERT: Without a viable labor source we cannot survive. And when you've got payments to make and a family to feed and a farm and land that may have been in your family for five generations, there's a lot on your shoulders.

ELLIOTT: Because the farmers can't plan ahead, they aren't doing the business they normally would here at the end of the season. The farmers' co-op isn't getting seed orders. The tractor dealer says large equipment contracts are down. Chandler Mountain tomato grower Theresa Smith says the state's plan is flawed because out-of-work Alabamians need full-time jobs, not temporary farm work.

THERESA SMITH: We're going to go out of business. And it's not just going to hurt us. Yes, we're going to be the first to feel it, but everyone in this state is going to feel it economically.

ELLIOTT: But Republican State Representative Elwyn Thomas tells them the law is here to stay.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE ELWYN THOMAS: Now, it's pitiful that we come to a time that we have to use in the state of Alabama a seemingly law that was too regressive and in many ways was maybe an overkill.

ELLIOTT: The message here is that the farmers are going to have to get creative - training work-release inmates or unemployed Alabamians, or forming co-ops to apply for federal guest worker programs. Republican Jeremy Oden represents many of the farmers at the meeting, yet stands by the bill.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE JEREMY ODEN: No, I don't think it was a mistake simply because we as a state had to do something as far as our immigration was concerned. An individual who goes to school in our state costs $10,000 to educate - close to $10,000. And so as a state, did we go too far? I won't say that.

ELLIOTT: Now a $5.5 billion agriculture industry is at stake, but Oden says it's not up to the state to reverse the law, but the federal government to come up with an answer.

ODEN: Look, we need a federal program, a migrant program that we can apply in our state and get these skilled laborers to stay and help these people out.

ELLIOTT: There's growing pressure for the state to create its own guest worker program, but the Alabama legislature doesn't go back into session until February. Many of the farmers here see little hope coming from either the state or the federal government. It's disheartening for 23-year-old Cody Smith, who just returned to his family's Cullman farm after getting an agriculture degree. He says the day after the law went into effect his 25-man sweet potato crew was down to six. Smith doesn't understand the motivation behind the crackdown.

CODY SMITH: I mean, you got people that's been living here 25 years. They've raised families here, they've got a residence; they've made a life here. They got friends. I got very good friends, almost like family, that's been working for us for years and years, and that's - I don't think that's right.

ELLIOTT: He doesn't think the federal guest worker program is a viable option, even if he could come up with the $1,000 or more to pay a contractor to process the paperwork.

SMITH: You got to pay them higher wages. You got to find them a place to live. It has to be - you'd have to construct somewhere for them to live and it has to be approved by the government. That's tough. I mean, we don't really have a lot of disposable income to be spending on such a thing.

ELLIOTT: And besides, he says, he's got sweet potatoes in the ground that need digging right now. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One party suing to block the Alabama law is the federal government. And last night Attorney General Eric Holder obliquely criticized the stringent new immigration statute. He was speaking in Birmingham at a memorial for the civil rights leader Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Attorney General Holder said too many people, quote, are willing to turn their backs on our immigrant past, and he vowed not to let that happen. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta has already temporarily blocked some parts of the law. The court is expected to hear full arguments next month.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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