Tomato farmer discusses limitations, misconceptions
by Kenny Farmer
Oct 21, 2011 | 11779 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
STEELE — Tomatoes are rotting in the fields on Chandler Mountain, as most agricultural workers have left the area following implementation of Alabama’s new immigration laws. Tomato farmer Brian Cash says that his farm lost more than $100,000 in sales because of their departure.

“We probably left 15,000 boxes in the field,” said Cash. “It’s just wasteful.”

“We pretty much just threw the towel in and said we’re done,” he said. “Because some of these guys, most of them have families. I knew if we said, ‘We’re going to keep picking; y’all can stay if you want to,’ then they would continue to take a chance because they want to make money and they want to provide for their families. So we just said we’re going to all but quit, other than cleaning the fields up. So if you need to go, go.”

Cash said that without being able to count on having a workforce, he plans to plant “a lot less” next year. He said he would be comfortable planting a third of his usual crop next year, about 40 acres.

He noted that three families live on the income from his farm, and there is no way three families can survive on 40 acres worth of crops. He said that might be possible in a good year, but in a bad year “there’s no way. You’re bankrupt.”

He said that farmers gamble with their livelihoods every time they plant a crop. Producing tomatoes costs thousands of dollars per acre, but a hailstorm could wipe it out in any season. “It’s just like going to Las Vegas for us, just a lot less fun,” he said.

“I’m taking this risk to feed my family, but when it comes down to it, farmers feed the country,” Cash said.

Tomato production contributes $1.6 billion a year to the state’s economy, but without immigrant labor, that money will disappear he said. “We grow it. Hispanics pick it. That’s just the way it is. If you do away with them, you’re going to do away with us, and everything’s going to be outsourced to other countries.”

Cash said the public has many misconceptions concerning farmers. One of those is the belief that their immigrant workers are underpaid.

Cash says that he is “not even close” to underpaying his employees and that he “goes exactly by wage and hour laws.”

“When (inspectors from the federal Wage and Hour Division) come up here, they’re government and they’re hardcore. They come up here and look at the wage statements, and it’ll take them about two minutes, and they’ll say, ‘y’all are good,’ and hand them right back.”

“It’s blowing minimum wage out of the water,” said Cash. “It’s not even close.”

Cash pays his employee $2 for every box they fill. He says his workers made $25,000-$40,000 for their work in July, August September and October. The work is physically demanding, Cash acknowledged, but the amount a worker earns is determined by his own efficiency.

Another misconception Cash believes people have about tomato farmers is that they receive farm subsidies and government bailouts.

“We don’t get any. Grain crops, row crops — they get all the subsidies. We do not get a dime. Never.”

Cash said that the only way he could get financial assistance from the government is to put his land in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s soil conservation program. He said that would require him to terrace all of his fields, and that would not allow him to lay plastic on the ground as he needs to do to warm the soil, control weeds and reduce evaporation of irrigation water.

“It’s not feasible for us to do it because it takes so much of our land. We’ve got about 400 gross acres. All that would have to be sown down. We’d maybe get $10,000 out of all that. So, split that three ways — we’d be bankrupt quick.”

“We do I-9s (federal immigrant employment eligibility forms), we deal with the USDA, the chemical people — we have to deal with all these regulations, and we’re still willing to put that kind of money out there to take a chance on. We’re fighting Mother Nature, and now we’ve got to fight a law like this that takes our workforce. It just gets to a point with us where we’ll just say, how much more of a chance are we willing to take?”

Cash said local farmers are getting no help from the state, either. He said that

Alabama is “the worst one of them all” when it comes to wanting to “run off” illegal immigrants.

Cash said that if one looks only at the fact that many of the Hispanic farm workers are illegal and, therefore are breaking the law, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Cash knows he can’t win that argument. But he pointed out that the federal government has allowed the illegal immigrants to come into the country and stay for many years, and farmers have become dependant on the immigrant farm workers.

“What good do you think you’re going to do?” asked Cash. “It just comes down to common sense. These people are already here, but we’re willing to starve our country just to get rid of them.”

Cash said he would use the federal E-Verify system to confirm the legal status of his workers, but it would put an additional financial burden on him that he does not believe he should have to bear.

“Why should I, as a business person, have to pay money to verify whether somebody is legal? They’re in this country, if they’re walking around and they’re willing to do the work, I should be able to hire them. Because if the government did their job, and shut the border off, then I wouldn’t have to worry about the person being here. So it’s not my place to do any of this.”

Cash said the E-Verify process costs about $150 per prospective employee. An employers must pay the $150 to check the worker’s status, and he gets none of that money back if the worker is found to be here illegally.

“If you’ve got 10 that don’t make it, that’s $1,500. If you’ve got one that made it, and you just spent $1,650, you’ve still just got one employee.”

Cash said for him this process would continue until he reached 60 workers, enough to work his tomato farm. He said that, even if every one of his employees was in compliance with the E-Verify system, he’d still be talking about a lot of money.

“How much more can you do before I say ‘no mas?’ I’m done. Adios, amigo.”

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