JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — With Southern governors and legislatures in a hurry to enact strict immigration enforcement measures, worries have arisen across the region that farm crops will wither in the fields without enough immigrant workers to harvest them.
That prospect has set up a potential fight in Mississippi between legislators who want to take a hard line against illegal immigrant workers and agricultural leaders who say scaring them off could cost the state the same tens of millions of dollars in crop losses endured in recent months in Georgia and Alabama.
Mississippi lawmakers failed to adopt an immigration ID law last year but will try again in January.
Just how much is at stake for Mississippi's agricultural industry depends on who is doing the talking.
Ken Hood, an agricultural economist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said Magnolia State farmers would see some labor losses but nothing like what their counterparts in Alabama and Georgia are experiencing.
By contrast, Randy Knight of the 198,000-member Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation says the losses from a labor shortage could run into "hundreds of millions of dollars" over the course of years in which the immigration crack down would unfold.
Hood said the difference between Mississippi and its Alabama and Georgia counterparts is the small size of the state's perishable fresh fruit and vegetable industry.
"Our specialty crop (the vegetables and fruit and the like) is only about 2 percent of the value of our agriculture," he said. "In Georgia, it's over $500 million. We're below $100 million."
The average specialty crop farm is fewer than 200 acres, though the harvesting is typically done by hand.
Although it's important to get the crops to market quickly while still fresh, Mississippi's small specialty farmers aren't as prone to use illegal labor as are the larger specialty growers in Georgia and elsewhere, according to Hood.
"The smaller guys won't take the risks that some of the larger specialty crop operations in other states do," he said.
Hood said, however, that a smaller all-around supply of farm workers could force some specialty crop growers to pay more for labor
On the other hand, most of Mississippi's farmlands are devoted to row crops, which are harvested mechanically and require far less labor than do specialty crops, Hood said.
Knight said he is not convinced Mississippi crops can avoid a hit similar to one taken by Georgia, where a dearth of laborers led to spring fruit and vegetable losses estimated by the University of Georgia at upward of $180 million.