Shorthanded

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

Texas remains the third largest citrus producer in the country, and all of it is grown in the Valley. Some consider the area's Rio Red grapefruit, known for its high sugar content and deep red interior, the best in the world.

Though citrus growers largely have not been affected by a labor shortage, industry leaders say that could change.

"Farmers in the Valley may be in for a real surprise," says Prewett, pointing out that the unemployment rate for much of the region has dropped to single digits for the first time in more than a decade.

Following the trend toward industrialization in the Rio Grande Valley, Fred Schuster is converting his 70-year-old family farm into a mixed-use development.
Todd Spivak
Following the trend toward industrialization in the Rio Grande Valley, Fred Schuster is converting his 70-year-old family farm into a mixed-use development.
Labor recruiter Benito Olivarez says most field workers are either illegal immigrants or convicted criminals with few options.
Todd Spivak
Labor recruiter Benito Olivarez says most field workers are either illegal immigrants or convicted criminals with few options.
In October, workers at the largest citrus shipping facility in Texas began sorting and packing fresh oranges.
Todd Spivak
In October, workers at the largest citrus shipping facility in Texas began sorting and packing fresh oranges.

After surviving a series of freezes in the '80s that killed most of the Valley's fruit trees, growers today are being driven out by rapid industrialization. In just the last decade total acreage for fresh-market citrus in Texas has dropped from 80,000 to fewer than 30,000. During the same period cantaloupe acreage has decreased from 13,000 to 5,000.

Many Valley natives and winter Texans remember the crudely built packing sheds that once dotted the landscape. Most of those have either been razed or absorbed by larger operations.

Even representatives at Healds Valley Farms in Edinburg -- the largest citrus shipper in Texas, responsible for growing and packing about one-third of the state's grapefruit and half its oranges -- have a dim view of the industry's future.

"Our facility may one day become a warehouse for Mexican grapefruits," says Richard Walsh, the company's marketing director.

Schuster, meanwhile, is in the process of shutting down the area's last remaining vegetable-packing shed.

He gave in after the state announced plans to build a six-lane highway with frontage roads running parallel to the Rio Grande through parts of his farmland. Threatened by eminent domain lawsuits, he's in the early stages of converting his 5,500 acres into a mixed-use industrial, commercial and residential development.

"It's time," Schuster says. "We can't fight it any longer."


As a teenager, J Carnes wanted nothing to do with the family farm. He figured his degree in finance from the University of Texas in Austin was his ticket out of Uvalde.

"I went to college thinking I'd never step foot here again," the 32-year-old says.

He was lured back by the prospect of running his own business and continuing a family tradition begun by his grandfather and great-uncles.

Carnes, like many farmers, is a sentimentalist. But he insists it's not just his family heritage or even the large sums of money lost this year that led him to protest in D.C. and bend the ears of congressmen across Texas.

Carnes and many others in the agricultural industry perceive the labor shortage as a national security threat since farmers face getting run out of business at a time when much of the country's fresh produce is already being grown on foreign soil.

"We need a domestic natural food source," he says, warning of water-quality issues south of the border, the possibility of the nation's food supply getting cut off and the potential for terrorist attacks carried out on imported foods.

Carnes has gotten some hate mail since he began publicizing these issues from people who tell him to simply pay his workers better.

"I'd love to pay people what they want," he counters, "but we'd go out of business trying."

This spring, when the cabbage and onion harvests overlap, Carnes will need as many as 450 fieldworkers a day.

In years past, he could find them hanging around bridges at nearby border towns such as Eagle Pass or Del Rio. But those areas are now desolate. Even legal day laborers are staying home rather than face the newly long lines at border crossings, he says.

In a pinch, he could entice workers from nearby farms by offering a small bump in pay. But that likely won't fly either, he says, as the labor pool continues to diminish.

Carnes isn't sure what to do. Maybe he'll cut back on acreage. Maybe he'll advertise for workers in San Antonio. Or maybe he'll close up shop.

Unable to see a future in farming, it may be time for him to put that finance degree to use.

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