Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Along US-Mexico Border, Not Enough Hands for the Harvest ; Arizona Farmers Cite Tighter Border Security and Limits on Guest Workers. They're Paying Field Hands $2 More per Hour

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Along US-Mexico Border, Not Enough Hands for the Harvest ; Arizona Farmers Cite Tighter Border Security and Limits on Guest Workers. They're Paying Field Hands $2 More per Hour

Article excerpt

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."

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. …

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