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.

Sara Miller llana
Moved: Workers toil in the lettuce fields of Vegpacker de Mexico, an American produce company that has recently moved farms from the US into Comonfort, Mexico.

Like so many before him, Claudio Morales crossed illegally into the US and found his way to the vegetable-producing fields of California.

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.

Brian Willott, who grew up on a farm in Missouri, moved to Brazil in 2003 as part of a wave of cotton and soy farmers from the Midwest expanding there.

He says that he could never expand a farm in the US like he could in Brazil, where he started with about 1,000 acres. Since then the farm's size has doubled, and he has plans to expand further this year. "The land was cheap, the opportunity was there, it was a frontier, there was a huge draw," he says. "Brazil has that magic to it."

At that time, the price of land was a deal. These days Willott says prices have almost doubled, to about $2,000 an acre today, and in some cases tripled. That is still cheaper than many places in the US. Chris Hurt, an agricultural economist at Purdue University in Indiana, says that agricultural land prices in his state have gone up from $3,162 an acre in 2006 to $3,688 last year; they anticipate that by 2010 prices could double from four years prior.

But accessibility of land is the biggest draw, especially since a commodities boom is spurring expansion. "If you want to expand your farm operation in the US, if you are the son of a farm family and want to spend your life farming, that's almost impossible. You simply cannot gain access to land," says Phil Warnken, the president of AgBrazil, which runs tours for prospective investors in Brazil.

Mr. Horner says that the costs of environmental and safety compliance and permitting, and the growing clout of activists, have also pushed investment, particularly in the livestock industry, outside the country. "The ease with which special interest groups can create activists in a community to shut down a viable operation has made more and more in the livestock sector invest outside the US," he says, "so we will have to buy more food from overseas."

Whether in Mexico or Brazil, or anywhere in-between, the risks can outweigh lower costs, however. Mr. Willott says that land deals have waned with the decline of the dollar against the Brazilian currency, the real. Now profits are increasing again, but murky contracts and cultural norms can make farms less productive.

Farmers think twice too, even if moving operations abroad means just 20 miles over the US border. Rick Rademacher, a vegetable farmer in Yuma, Ariz., says he once considered opening green onion production south of the US-Mexico border. But he reconsidered. "It's a whole other deal farming down there. You need someone who understands it very well."

US farm industry under threat?

Analysts say the fastest trend is agribusiness investment, both from traditional multinationals and investors from all over the world who are buying land to grow grains, sugar, and cotton, and positioning themselves as players in a biofuels market – a trend that has sparked some nationalist sentiment in Brazil. "They realize it's the breadbasket of the 21st century," says Peter Goldsmith, director of the National Soybean Research Center at the University of Illinois.

Some say the future of the US farming industry is at stake. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California is behind an agricultural reform bill to legalize the migrant workforce. She maintains that the US could lose $5 billion to $9 billion to foreign competition because of farms shutting down and, in some cases, shifting production overseas.

Not everyone agrees that the situation is dire. Philip Martin, a farm expert at the University of California at Davis, disputes that a labor shortage even exists. He adds that even if production moves abroad, the majority of fruits and vegetables, for example, will come from the US in the foreseeable future. "We are living in a globalizing world. Fresh fruits and vegetables are part of that," he says. "But that movement is going to be evolutionary, not revolutionary."

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