Earlier this year, Alabama passed a tough immigration law that prompted thousands of migrant workers to flee the state.
Shortly after, NPR spoke with Jamie Boatwright, a fourth-generation tomato farmer in Steele, Ala. When the law was passed, about 20 of Boatwright's farmhands — all of them from Mexico — left and his business was devastated.
Boatwright tried to hire legal workers, but of the 11 Americans he hired that came and sought work, only one returned the for a second day of work.
"That person picked four boxes of tomatoes, walked out of the field and said: 'I'm done'," Boatwright said at the time.
It's been a few months now, and Boatwright's crops are finished for the season so he doesn't have any harvesting labor issues. But he can't get started on next year's crop.
"A lot of people don't realize it really takes the fall before — doing all of the planting, reordering seeds and supplies — and we haven't done any of those things," Boatwright tells All Things Considered host Guy Raz.
Boatwright says unless the law changes, he can't get enough workers to start on his next season's crop. He figures he needs about 60 people, at the minimum, working to keep his farm running. Currently he as none.
In order to grow his full crop of about 100 acres of tomatoes, Boatwright says he needs to plant his seeds by Feb. 20. But because he doesn't have enough workers, he might only be able to plant about 15 or 20 acres, he says. And that's not enough to pay his bills.
He's been trying to figure out a solution, but right now Boatwright doesn't have a plan. He's tried to get some of his workers back, but all are in Florida working.
"They all tell me the same thing: 'When the law is gone, we'll be back. Until then, we're not coming back to Alabama,' " he says.
Boatwright says his farm can't continue without the help of migrant workers, but it's not because he's not willing to hire Americans. His fourth-generation farm used to have all Americans tending the fields, but there weren't enough people willing to do the work, so they started hiring migrant workers.
"The Mexicans slowly worked in because they would show up for work, they would be here on time and they showed up every morning and they'd be ready to go to work," he says.
Without workers to begin the next planting season, Boatwright is worried about his crop and his business if the law doesn't change.
"But worse, I'm worried about how I'm going to take care of my family," he says.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
Earlier this year, Alabama passed a tough immigration law that prompted thousands of migrant workers to flee the state. Shortly after, we spoke with Jamie Boatwright. He's a fourth-generation tomato farmer in Steele, Alabama. Back then, Boatwright told us that about 20 of his farmhands - all of them from Mexico - left after the law was passed, and it devastated his business.
And so Jamie Boatwright tried to hire legal workers. Here's what he told us back then.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
JAMIE BOATWRIGHT: Since this law has went in effect, I've had 11 - a total of 11 people that were Americans to come and ask for work. A total of one of those actually came back the next day. I told him, yeah, be here at eight o'clock in the morning. That person picked four boxes of tomatoes, walked out of the field and said: I'm done.
RAZ: That was Jamie Boatwright back in October. We spoke with him this past week from his farm on Chandler Mountain in Steele, Alabama, for an update. Jamie, how are things going now?
BOATWRIGHT: Well, right now where I'd say, the crops are finished, so, you know, we're not having any laborers just because we're not doing anything at this time. But we're unable to plant next year's crop.
RAZ: You cannot plant next year's crop.
BOATWRIGHT: Correct. Because a lot of people don't realize - they think you start in March or April and you start planting, but it really takes the fall before - doing all of the planting and reordering seeds and supplies - and we haven't done any of those things.
RAZ: You haven't done those things because you can't get enough workers to work on your farm?
BOATWRIGHT: Unless the law changes, we cannot.
RAZ: So after the law was passed, most of your workers left. They were worried that they would be deported, right?
RAZ: How many people do you need to keep your farm up and running?
BOATWRIGHT: A minimum of 60 people.
RAZ: Sixty people. How many do you have working for you now?
BOATWRIGHT: Right now, none.
RAZ: None. Do you suspect that you may not grow any tomatoes at all next season?
BOATWRIGHT: Well, I'll probably grow some. It may be instead of growing my normal 100 acres of tomatoes, it may be like 15 or 20 acres.
RAZ: Will you be able to pay your bills with that few tomatoes?
RAZ: So what are you going to do?
BOATWRIGHT: I don't have a plan right now. I have studied on it, tried to figure on it every way I can. And right now, I do not have a plan of action that I am comfortable with.
RAZ: Have you tried to convince your former workers to come back and hope for the best?
BOATWRIGHT: You know, I talk to some of them on a every couple of week basis. They're in Florida working right now, and they all tell me the same thing: When the law is gone, we'll be back. Until then, we're not coming back to Alabama.
RAZ: Jamie, I know this might be a difficult question for you to answer because of your circumstances, but can some part of you understand why this law was passed? I mean, of course, there's very high unemployment in the United States, and many Americans are frustrated at the idea that, you know, there may be illegal immigrants doing jobs that they could do.
BOATWRIGHT: Well, that's a hard question to answer. I do have an answer for it, but most people wouldn't understand it. But the reason the illegals are here working now is because Americans wouldn't do the job to begin with. This is a fourth-generation form, and we originally - it was all Americans working, and then we could not get enough help, and the Mexicans slowly worked in because they would show up for work, they would be here on time and they showed up every morning and they were ready to go to work.
RAZ: So essentially, you cannot continue to do what you do without help from migrant workers.
BOATWRIGHT: There's no way.
RAZ: Are you worried about this next year and about your livelihood?
BOATWRIGHT: Yeah. I'm real worried about how, you know, we're going to stay in business. But worse, I'm worried about how I'm going to take care of my family.
RAZ: That's Jamie Boatwright. He's a tomato farmer in Steele, Alabama. We originally checked in with him in October. Jamie, thank you so much for updating us. And, of course, we wish you the best.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.