New pressures force U.S. farmers south of the border
Tougher immigration control and stricter environmental and food safety regulations are prompting US firms to move farms to Mexico, Brazil, and everywhere in between.
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Six years later, standing among neat rows of lettuce, he holds the same job with the same company. But he's back in Mexico.
His employer, Vegpacker de Mexico, opened lettuce and broccoli farms in central Mexico in 2006 in response to tighter US enforcement of undocumented immigrants. In doing so, this firm joins a growing number of US farm operations moving south of the border, to Mexico and beyond.
To a degree, this is a cyclical trend. American farmers have sporadically moved south in search of cheaper land and labor, more fertile ground, and different growing seasons. But some analysts say that recent moves are driven by new pressures – such as stricter environmental and food safety regulations – and indicate an agricultural system in need of repair.
"You may see companies putting more of their growth dollars into Latin America," says Joe Horner, a dairy and beef economist at the University of Missouri. "There is labor availability, resource availability, and you don't have massive compliance issues like you have here."
There's no evidence that the exodus is large, but pressures on US farmers are not expected to let up any time soon, particularly on the labor front.
Under a hot sun in the tiny central Mexican town of Comonfort, Fidel Rosales toils in a pristine lettuce field of Vegpacker de Mexico – a job he got after being deported from the US in November. He had worked for the same company in California, and so made his way south after hearing the company had set up operations in Mexico, too. He earns half of what he did in the US, he says. "But for now this is the best option."
How many farmers are expanding abroad? According to a recent snapshot survey by the Western Growers Association – a US agricultural trade association whose 3,000 members grow, pack, and ship 90 percent of the fresh vegetables and nearly 70 percent of the fresh fruit and nuts grown in Arizona and California – 25 members reported farming over 84,000 acres of land in Mexico and employing over 22,000 workers.
It is a fraction of the land farmed for similar produce in California, but the figures have doubled in the past year.
Last year, a dozen respondents to the Western Growers Association showed 40,000 acres being farmed in Mexico. Farmers cite multiple reasons for Mexican operations, including tougher US regulatory costs, the diversification of crops throughout the seasons, water shortages, and migratory restrictions on labor.
The president of Vegpacker de Mexico declined to comment for this article, but he has said publicly that a labor shortage from tighter immigration is one of the driving factors in expanding south of the border. "There are more and more [vegetable and fruit producers] considering and moving into El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico," says Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League, a California group representing growers there. "It started about three years ago. If they have to move to another country to continue farming, that's what they will do."
The lure of Brazil's 'cerrado'
Grain farmers from the Midwest have also been expanding into Latin America, buying land in the frontier "cerrado" of Brazil, one of the largest tracks of arable land in the world. Many bought land in Argentina after the economic crisis of 2001 and are increasingly looking at Paraguay, where the industry is less developed.