In 2011, Jerry Spencer had an idea.
As the founder and CEO of Grow Alabama, an organization that worked to promote the state’s farmers using a community-supported agriculture model, he witnessed firsthand how the passage of the state’s strict immigration law had hurt its farms.
Many Alabama farmers witnessed the abrupt departure of their workers, many of whom were undocumented immigrants that feared deportation. In their wake, many farmers — especially those who grew fresh produce like tomatoes and blueberries — were left without the workers they needed to harvest their crops.
Farmers throughout the country, in light of President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to deport potentially millions of undocumented immigrants, are concerned they might soon meet a similar fate. What happened next, in Alabama in 2011, could serve as a warning of what’s to come.
In response to the labor shortage prompted by the state law, Spencer promptly sprang into action with an experiment of his own making. He worked to recruit dozens of unemployed U.S. citizens to replace the missing immigrant workers, driving them an hour north of his Birmingham home to a tomato farm in Chandler Mountain.
The problem? According to Spencer, who is now retired, it was a total bust.
As media outlets like Mother Jones and the Associated Press reported at the time, only three workers lasted through the entirety of Spencer’s month-long experiment.
“It really showed no comparison,” Spencer, who lives in Birmingham, told HuffPost. “The American workers could not do what the Mexican workers did. They were physically and mentally incapable.
The 2011 Alabama immigration law, HB 56, was deemed the nation’s strictest anti-immigration law — even harsher than the controversial Arizona law that inspired it and shares an author, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. And it’s hard to find a local industry that was more impacted than Arizona’s farms.
As a result of the labor shortage, many crops simply rotted in the fields that year, costing farmers tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.
In the years that followed, Spencer says, many of the dozens of farmers he worked with at Grow Alabama chose to retire early. Others, he explained, switched from labor-intensive fruit and vegetable crops to grow trees instead. Most of the farmworkers appear to have never returned.
Now, six years later, fruit and vegetable production in Alabama is a mixed bag.
Production numbers are still down for some types of fresh produce. According to the latest available data, tomatoes appear to be down 6 percent from their 2010, pre-HB 56 numbers, and watermelons are down 65 percent. Production of both blueberries and peaches, meanwhile, has increased slightly, though the overall value of the state’s fruit and vegetable crops are still vastly outstripped by crops like grains ― including wheat and soybeans ― and cotton.
“It’s sad. The situation is really dire,” Spencer explained. “I was trying to bring farmers back to the state, but I was fighting a lot of unworkable situations. We lost a lot more farmers because of that situation.”
Of course, Alabama wasn’t the only state to approve legislation intended to crackdown on undocumented residents in 2011 and shortly thereafter.
That same year, Georgia approved a similar law. As a result, University of Georgia researchers estimated, about 40 percent of the state’s agricultural workforce disappeared and an estimated $140 million worth of crops were lost.
Now, farm groups fear that the Trump administration’s talk of increased immigration enforcement and the building of a border wall could similarly eliminate much of its workforce — except, this time, it would happen on a national scale.
In recent weeks, President Trump has spoken of shifting to a “merit-based” immigration system, but it remains unclear whether such a system would create exceptions for immigrant farmworkers who represent an estimated 50-70 percent of the workforce that certain farmers, particularly dairy, fruit and vegetable farmers, rely on.
As a result of this uncertainty, farmers from Maine to Michigan to California are expressing anxiety over who will be working in their fields this year. The H-2A temporary visa program that many farmers rely on to legally hire seasonal workers is already expensive to use, overburdened and delay-prone, farm groups say. And hopes for comprehensive immigration reform that could create a path to a legal status for workers appear to be dim.
The situation is a serious one. As Spencer’s experiment in Alabama showed, U.S.-born workers simply do not appear to be interested or able to fill immigrant farmworkers’ shoes. The likely results could include more food waste, higher food prices and an increased reliance on imported, rather than locally-grown, fresh produce.
Deportations of farmworkers “could have a devastating effect on the sector,” Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, told HuffPost last month.
“Agriculture businesses will not be able to produce food and there will be food shortages,” Goldstein said. “We will lose the food security we have in this country.”
How, exactly, will the Trump administration address the problem? Officials have thus far offered few details about their farm policy plans.
For Spencer’s part, he has little faith in the president and his nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture, former Georgian governor Sonny Perdue, whose mysteriously delayed installation is also providing little solace to anxious farmers.
“There’s just no question it’s going to affect farming,” Spencer added. “I hope they [the farmers] do have people fighting for them, because somebody like Donald Trump has no idea of what it takes on the ground.”
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food, water, agriculture and our climate. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email email@example.com.