Shortage of workers imperils Yuma crops
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 21, 2006

Farmers point to lack of a guest-worker law

Daniel González

YUMA - C.R. Waters practically lives in his pickup now that harvest season has begun for the winter vegetable capital of the United States.

As the farm manager for a major vegetable distributor, he makes sure everything from iceberg lettuce to broccoli is ready to pick at precise times throughout the season.

"This one should be ready the first week of January," Waters said one recent morning, stepping out of his pickup into a field of romaine lettuce.So far, good weather has created ideal growing conditions, but Waters is worried that when the vegetables are ready, there won't be enough laborers to get crops to market.

Waters, president of the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association, said it will take 30,000 seasonal workers to harvest the sea of winter vegetables grown in Yuma County, where the fruit-and-vegetable crop was valued at $745 million in 2004. The area produces 90 percent of the winter vegetables consumed in the U.S. and Canada, and 98 percent of the iceberg lettuce.

If growers can't find enough workers, some crops may go unpicked. That could hike prices at the supermarket and create substantial financial losses for farmers.

Last year, however, some growers overproduced, so prices stayed low even though some labor contractors reported a 30 percent shortage of workers.

In other parts of Arizona, pepper farmers and others struggled to hire enough hands, as well. Yuma growers won't know how severe the labor shortage will be until the harvest kicks into high gear just after Thanksgiving. To hedge their bets, they planted 15 percent fewer acres this year.

Labor scarcities are common in the agricultural industry: Picking vegetables by hand stooped under the hot sun is tough, backbreaking work.

But growers and farm advocates say the shortages, even with thousands of legal Mexican laborers, have become more severe as stricter immigration enforcement, tighter border security and increased competition from construction and other industries have shrunk the pool of seasonal workers.

The shortages are not just limited to the Yuma region. Vegetable growers in Colorado, pear growers in northern California, and apple growers in Washington, all have lacked workers.

Many growers blame conservatives in Congress for failing to pass legislation that would have expanded a guest-worker program for agriculture. If the labor troubles continue, they warn, more growers will move crops to Mexico and other countries with access to cheap labor.

In the meantime, the harvest season has created a sense of urgency in Yuma.

"You can have the best crop in the world, but if you don't have the labor to harvest it, it's going to rot in the field," Waters said.

Workers harder to find

Situated between the Coloradoand Gila rivers, Yuma is blessed with fertile
land and abundant water.

Because of its proximity, 20 miles from the Mexico border, Yuma also has
what few other agricultural regions do: access to a large pool of legal
immigrant workers like Jose Navarro, 45, and Martin Contreras, 32.

They are among the thousands of Mexicans who have gained U.S. citizenship or
legal permanent residence but live across the border in San Luis Rio
Colorado, Mexico, where the cost of living is cheaper than in the U.S.

Every day during harvest season, they stand in long lines for two hours or
more to pass through the U.S. port of entry in San Luis, Ariz., where
customs agents in blue uniforms examine their documents.

At 4:30 one morning in the predawn darkness, the town's main street was
already alive. Thousands of farmworkers in hooded sweatshirts and
wide-brimmed hats filled the sidewalks on the Arizona side. Navarro and
Contreras stopped at a taco stand to buy last-minute coffees and burritos
before climbing onto one of the dozens of old school buses idling in parking
lots, waiting to transport workers to the fields.

From the border, Navarro and Contreras still faced an hour and a half bus
ride to work on a thinning crew near Wellton, east of Yuma. On the way, they
would pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 8, where agents
would climb onboard and check their documents again.

Navarro and Contreras said they would earn $6.25 an hour that day working
the lettuce fields.

During the harvest, lettuce pickers earn a base pay of $8 an hour, plus
bonuses the faster they pick. The best lettuce pickers can earn as much as
$12 to $14 an hour.

For years, these workers have served as the backbone of the labor force in
Yuma. But many farmworkers, drawn by steady jobs that often pay better, have
left the fields to work at housing developments and construction sites
sprouting up around Yuma.

The long waits to cross the border also are driving workers to leave
farmwork, while the increased presence of Border Patrol agents has scared
some already in the U.S. away from Arizona.

In the past, migrant farmworkers, including many undocumented immigrants who
get jobs with fake papers, followed the harvest from Californiato Arizona
and back. Rather than risk arrest passing through Border Patrol checkpoints
that ring Yuma, many migrants avoid the state.

"In the past, there were a lot of undocumented doing this work, but now
there is so much border enforcement," said Glafira Sanchez, a lettuce crew
foreman for Valley Pride, a vegetable harvester in Yuma.

Tighter enforcement

Yuma became a hotspot for illegal immigration after tighter border security
in eastern Arizona and California squeezed traffic through the area.

On a recent tour, Border Patrol Agent Maranda Weber maneuvered an SUV
through unpaved desert roads south of Yuma. On one side was the U.S.-Mexican
border, on the other, thousands of acres of crops.

As the vehicle bumped along, she pointed out new measures to try to reduce
illegal immigration. Along a levee, National Guard troops stationed every
half-mile stood watch for signs of human smuggling and drug trafficking.

Farther south, Weber drove alongside new triple-layer fencing and glinting
metal tube barriers that stop smugglers from driving vehicles across the

In the past year, the Border Patrol also doubled to 551 the number of agents
assigned to the Yuma Sector. An additional 200 are on the way. The buildup
is having an effect, the Border Patrol says. Arrests for fiscal 2006, which
ended Sept. 30, declined 14 percent, to 118,549 from 138,438, the year

"As we gain more operational control, they (smugglers) are seeking other
routes," Weber said.

No solution in sight

Waters said growers welcome the increased border security. Most migrants
crossing illegally near Yuma are headed to other parts of the country and
don't seek work in the area's fields.

This week, customs officials will open four pedestrian crossing lanes at the
San Luis port of entry, increasing the number to six, Levin said. The new
lanes, plus two temporary lanes that can be opened as needed, should
alleviate the long waits for workers.

Some experts say growers would have less trouble finding workers if they
paid more. But growers such as Doug Mellon, 61, scoff at that notion. With
unemployment low, there simply aren't enough workers, he said. On top of
that, most Americans shun farmwork.

"I don't care if you paid $40 (an hour), they'd do it about three hours and
say, 'That's not for me,' " Mellon said.

Many growers say the long-term solution is an expanded guest-worker program
for agriculture. Earlier this year, the Senate passed comprehensive
immigration reform, legislation that included a provision known as AgJobs,
which would have created a new temporary-resident status for seasonal
farmworkers and given long-term farmworkers a chance to apply for permanent

During negotiations in Congress this year, Yuma farmers offered to test a
scaled-down version that would have allowed Mexican workers to commute daily
across the border with temporary work visas.

Conservative Republicans in the House, however, refused to consider
comprehensive immigration reform, angering growers, who tend to vote

Now, growers hope the new Democrat-controlled Congress will revive
guest-worker legislation next year.

As for this year's harvest?

"It's too late," Mellon said.