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Alabama farmers cut back produce planting

A farm worker prepares a tomato field for

A farm worker prepares a tomato field for planting at K&D Farmers near Oneonta, Ala. The farm is among the operations in Alabama where farmers say they are cutting back on planting produce because of labor uncertainties caused by the state's tough law on illegal immigration. (May 10, 2012) Credit: AP

ONEONTA, Ala. -- Some Alabama farmers say they are planting less produce rather than risk having tomatoes and other crops rot in the fields a second straight year because of labor shortages linked to the state's crackdown on illegal immigration.

Keith Dickie said he and other growers in the heart of Alabama's tomato country didn't have any choice but to reduce acreage amid fears there won't be enough workers to pick the delicate fruit.

Some farmers lacked enough hands to harvest crops because immigrants fled the state after Gov. Robert Bentley signed the immigration law last fall, and some said they fear the same thing could happen this year.

"There's too much uncertainty," said Dickie, who farms with his brother on a ridge called Straight Mountain, about 40 miles northeast of Birmingham.

State agriculture officials said the law has created chronic labor shortages since it was passed last year by the Republican-controlled Legislature, where sponsors said they wanted to drive illegal immigrants from the state by making it difficult for them to live in Alabama.

Aside from requiring all employers to register with a federal citizenship-verification system called E-Verify, the law barred residents from conducting basic business transactions if they lacked citizenship papers and required schools to check the citizenship status of new students.

Federal courts have blocked parts of the law in response to lawsuits by the Obama administration and others, prompting Bentley and GOP leaders to support what they say are tweaks to the law.

The Legislature has stopped efforts to repeal the law, with Republican backers saying they want Alabama to still have the nation's toughest law on illegal immigration once the legislative session ends in a few weeks.

Georgia has a similar law on the books, and farmers there have had similar concerns about finding a workforce to pick crops. Some farmers there have also said they were scaling back their acreage, fearing they wouldn't find the workers to pick the crops.

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