Shorthanded

Foreign pickers aren't getting through the post-9/11 barricades to harvest U.S. crops

J Carnes felt queasy looking out at the rows and rows of rotting cabbage heads marked by cracked black leaves. The pungent odor -- like boiling cabbage, but worse -- made him retch.

Even as the sun faded into the horizon, small clusters of migrant workers remained stooped in the fields. They moved fast, cutting the last good crops out of the dirt and dropping them into burlap sacks strapped across their chests.

But there weren't anywhere close to enough workers. And, anyway, it was already too late.

Foreign pickers aren't getting through the post-9/11 barricades to harvest U.S. crops.
Todd Spivak
Foreign pickers aren't getting through the post-9/11 barricades to harvest U.S. crops.
Vegetable farmers Ed and J Carnes lost big bucks on wasted crops this spring because they couldn't find enough field workers.
Todd Spivak
Vegetable farmers Ed and J Carnes lost big bucks on wasted crops this spring because they couldn't find enough field workers.

"The fields had a dark, ugly, death-look to them," Carnes recalls, "like they'd been abandoned."

Carnes (whose first name really is the letter J) and his father, Ed, oversee one of the largest fresh-market vegetable shipping plants in Texas. They're based in Uvalde, set midway between San Antonio and Mexico in an area home to thousands of acres of commercial vegetable farms.

This spring marked the first time growers in the region couldn't find enough workers to harvest their crops.

Carnes estimates the size of his work force dropped by 40 percent -- a figure supported by several other area farmers. He lost a half-million cabbage heads and large sections of onion fields, costing the company some $250,000.

"Finding workers is always a headache," Carnes says, "but this is the worst I've seen it."

Fruit and vegetable growers across the country have come forward with similar stories.

Millions of dollars have been lost on unpicked apples in New York, oranges in Florida and pears in northern California. Even farmers within a stone's throw from the Rio Grande -- including growers of cantaloupes in South Texas and lettuce in Southern California -- complain their crops have turned to mush because they can't find workers.

Many blame federal immigration policies enacted since 9/11 -- including business raids, beefed-up border patrols and calls for a border wall -- and fret that their industry will be wiped out unless they can bring in more foreign workers. But their cries for a guest-worker program have gone nowhere.

In September Carnes flew to Washington, D.C. to rally with hundreds of other disgruntled farmers. A buttoned-down Republican in a largely conservative industry, Carnes is an unlikely activist. "We're not the picket-line types," he insists, wincing at any suggestion that he marched on Washington.

But he stood on the Capitol lawn holding a basket of fresh produce to show what's at stake if Mexicans can't cross the border. Other farmers chanted and raised banners, predicting the collapse of American agriculture.

"We're at the edge of a very serious situation," says Ray Prewett, head of the Texas Vegetable Association, which represents 250 commercial farmers statewide. "If we can't get labor, we can't operate."


Desperate for field workers, Bernie Thiel turned to Spanish-language AM radio. Last summer he ran a dozen ads every day for a month, offering a pay bonus to anyone who stayed through the entire harvest season.

Few showed up. And the ones who did stuck around for a couple days, then disappeared.

"Americans absolutely will not do this type of work," says Thiel, a commercial vegetable farmer for 35 years based in Lubbock and the state's largest grower of fresh-market squash.

Ask Thiel or most any other farmer if they hire undocumented workers and you'll get an indignant "Absolutely not!" But ask them about the farmer down the road and you'll hear a very different story.

Truth is, most commercial farmers rely heavily on an illegal work force. A recent government survey estimates more than half of the country's two million farm workers are undocumented. Industry leaders say that in some areas it's often closer to 90 percent.

It's also true that Americans aren't exactly lining up to do manual labor for minimum wage. Farmers may dole out $8 to $10 an hour for a few weeks at peak harvest, but the majority of fieldworkers straddle the poverty line.

Some economists say farmers are addicted to cheap labor. A wage increase, they argue, would solve their problems.

"Americans will work in coal mines, they'll work in the most menial, dirty and dangerous jobs, but they expect to be paid accordingly," says John Keeley of the D.C. -based Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes a guest-worker program.

Farmers who can't afford to pay more, Keeley says, should close up shop: "If we come to the point when our apples come from Mexico, so be it."

Texas farmers have been barreling headlong in that direction for the last ten years thanks largely to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which eliminated tariffs on most imports. "Since NAFTA," Prewett says, "there's not a major grower or shipper in Texas who isn't working both sides of the border."

In Texas, the three major regions conducive to commercial fruit and vegetable farming are centered in Uvalde, Lubbock and the Rio Grande Valley, the narrow 60-mile strip of fertile delta at the state's southernmost tip. Farm acreage in each of these regions has shrunk significantly in recent years as growers have outsourced their operations or sold out to developers.

"We're always going to have some fruit and vegetable production in Texas but our days as a major player are ending," says Frank Dainello, a professor of horticultural sciences at Texas A&M University in College Station. "Much of it has already dwindled down to nothing."

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