Along US-Mexico border, not enough hands for the harvest

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The nature of farming is that it comes with many unknowns: weather, pests, competition from abroad, effectiveness of new machinery. Rick Rademacher isn't clear why the labor pool needs to be another one – especially since so many day laborers from Mexico would be eager to work in his lettuce fields here in the midst of America's "winter salad bowl."

Lifting a calloused hand to shade his eyes from the sun's glare, Mr. Rademacher gazes over a 40-acre field where nearly 40 migrant workers pluck or wrap or pack the leafy green heads. With about six weeks to go in this season's harvest, the fourth-generation grower is crossing his fingers and hoping he'll have enough workers to bring the crops in.

"We struggle daily," he says. "We just hope every day that we can fill the orders."

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Empty stations on the harvest lines are more common this year throughout this swath of Arizona farm country, says Rademacher, who serves as president of the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association. The reasons are many: a 40,000-person limit on the number of foreign guest workers allowed into the US, tighter borders that are discouraging illegal crossings, and rising demand for day laborers in other industries, such as higher-paying construction work.

The shortage of farm workers has been driving wages higher. Last season, base pay for day laborers working in this area was $6.50 an hour. Now it's $8.50. Rademacher says it may go higher because farmers here can't attract enough employees.

He'd like to see an expanded guest-worker program to ease the labor crunch here, just five miles from the border. It would ensure that he can get his crop in – and sell it to supermarkets at a price that is competitive with prices of vegetables from overseas.

Congress is considering such a move, but not in time to reduce this season's uncertainty.

Because this 41,000-acre patch of the Southwest produces 95 percent of the nation's home-grown winter lettuce and 90 percent of its winter vegetables, its labor issues have ramifications far beyond these leafy fields.

A key one is how much consumers must pay for fresh greens. A 10 percent increase in labor costs on the farm results in a 6 percent jump in the price of a head of lettuce, according to research by Albert Kagan, a professor at Arizona State University who works on the National Food and Agricultural Policy Project (NFAPP), which is based at the school. He has run economic models for other labor-intensive produce as well, such as strawberries and table grapes, with similar results.

The NFAPP has also examined how farm labor costs at home affect the market for farm imports. If it costs 10 percent more to produce a US-grown head of lettuce, for example, lettuce imports are likely to increase by 3 percent, according to Dr. Kagan's research.

The math puts farmers like Rademacher in a bind.

"We have to offer more to get the workers, but we try to keep our costs in line, too," he says. "If we set the price [of vegetables] too high, one of our competitors will get the business, or the [super]markets will get the vegetables from out of the country."

Not all of Rademacher's harvest machines are fully staffed, despite the higher pay. Octavio Felix, a foreman overseeing the crews on two machines, sees one solution.

"Lots of people [in Mexico] would come to work if they could get permits," says the US citizen, who returns each weekend to San Luis Río Colorado, the town across the Mexico border where his grandparents still live.

The work here is labor-intensive, though the harvest machines, at about $250,000 a pop, have eliminated most of the heavy lifting. Both of the machines Mr. Felix supervises are fully staffed with 38 migrant workers. Two others at the far end of the field have only half that number.

Down the road, at gigantic broccoli and celery patches, two more harvest machines are running with crews that are half-staffed.

There are 11,130 documented migrant workers in Arizona and about 84,270 in California, according to figures from the Pew Hispanic Center. But there are also 9,870 undocumented farm workers in Arizona and 74,730 in California.

Identical bills known as AgJOBS, now wending their ways through committees in the Senate and House of Representatives, may eventually alleviate some farm-labor problems. The legislation would confer "blue-card status" on any foreign worker who meets four requirements: 1) performed agricultural work in the US for at least 863 hours, or 150 workdays, during the 24-month period ending Dec. 31, 2006; 2) applied for blue-card status during the 18-month application period (which would begin seven months from the day the law is enacted); 3) is otherwise admissible to the US; and 4) has not been convicted of any felony or a misdemeanor that involved bodily injury, threat of serious bodily injury, or harm to property in excess of $500.

These bills aren't a panacea for America's illegal immigration problem, but they represent a step in the right direction, growers say.

"Agriculture has ... made its case for sensible immigration reform which would result in a legal, stable workforce for the industry," said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of the Western Growers Association in a Jan. 10 statement. "We now have an opportunity to proceed with reform which will be beneficial for farmers, workers, enforcement officials, and the entire nation," he said of the AgJOBS legislation.

"This country has got to get a successful immigration policy," Rademacher says. "We have work for people in Mexico who want work."

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