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


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.


Migrant 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."

Total acreage for fresh-market vegetables in Texas has decreased by 75 percent in the last 30 years, Dainello says. In the decade since NAFTA, it has dropped from 160,000 acres to fewer than 70,000, according to statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Even in the Houston area, rice and vegetable farming was prevalent as little as 20 years ago. "It was all ranch land and rice land from Jersey Village west to the Cypress area all the way out to Katy," says William Kalbow, vice-president of the Harris County Farm Bureau Board and the operator of a small produce stand north of the city.

Texas continues to lead the country in some agricultural production, such as cotton, hay, wheat and sorghum. These crops -- as well as fresh-market produce such as carrots, green beans and spinach -- are not affected by labor shortages since they are mechanically harvested. But the technology does not yet exist for performing other tasks, such as picking off soft fruit or clipping onion roots, which must be done by hand.

Thiel, who produces three million pounds of fresh-market squash a year -- much of which is sold to H-E-B and Wal-Mart -- says the labor shortage especially hurts farmers whose crops must be picked almost immediately after maturing.

Onions, he says, have about a ten-day window for harvesting, while cantaloupes should be picked within 24 hours after ripening.

When Thiel's green and yellow zucchinis reach the desirable size, about six to eight inches, he has 48 hours to get them out of the ground. Otherwise, nobody wants them because they've grown too large. "On the third day it's a loser," he says.

Last summer, after his radio ads failed to bring in workers, Thiel spent a week hauling out five-pound, foot-long zucchinis. His losses totaled about $75,000.

"It's very emotional," he says. "You have a certain amount of time to get it done and if you don't get it done, that's it, it's over."

A lifelong Republican, John McClung served as spokesman for the USDA under Ronald Reagan, and a photo of him posing with the late president hangs prominently in his office. These days, however, his loyalties are wavering.

"I'm so unhappy with the House Republican leadership," says McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, "I'm about ready to divorce the whole party."

McClung and other agricultural industry leaders say they felt betrayed by the Republican-led House for not passing a guest-worker program this year.

The Senate proposed a plan to reform the existing H-2A guest-worker program, which critics say is too complex and has burdensome requirements. For instance, farmers must provide workers free housing, meals and transportation. Nationwide less than three percent of agricultural workers use the visas.

The new guest-worker plan, known as AgJOBS, would let undocumented workers become legal permanent residents if they remain employed in agriculture for another three years. That would give farmers a stable work force while they transition from undocumented labor.

But with mid-term elections approaching, House leaders bowed to conservatives who think such programs steal jobs from Americans and create an underclass of foreign workers.

"Some think it's swell that brown-skinned people come to our country and work for half the wages," Keeley says. "It's a repugnant economic model, a bastardization of our immigration heritage."

The bracero program, prompted by labor shortages during World War II, was the last major guest-worker program between the American and Mexican governments. More than four million Mexicans crossed the border from 1942 to 1964, mostly to work in agriculture. Widespread reports of exploitation hardly discouraged the influx of workers, who often did not receive the housing, meals and wages they were promised.

Antonio Garcia, who was 16 when he crossed into Texas as a bracero, said his supervisors treated workers "like slaves," according to a 2003 interview he gave to the University of Texas at El Paso as part of an oral-history project. "They didn't want us to kneel or to put our hands on our knees, they would use abusive language when they addressed us and they would threaten to send us back to Mexico," Garcia recalled.

To prevent such abuses today, guest workers should have portable visas letting them transfer to different farms if problems arise, according to Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and leading advocate of immigration reform.

The next major immigration initiative occurred under Reagan, who granted amnesty to 2.6 million illegal residents. But the Immigration Reform and Control Act failed to prevent new arrivals. The estimated number of illegal immigrants in the United States has nearly tripled to 12 million since 1986, and roughly 40 percent arrived just within the last five years, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

The majority of today's illegal immigrants neither swam across the river nor trekked through the desert. Rather, they simply overstayed their visas, causing many to question the usefulness of the multibillion-dollar border wall initiative President George W. Bush recently signed into law.

Similar efforts in the '90s to close off the borders using high-tech surveillance ran into major technical and contracting debacles. A test of ground sensors showed they couldn't distinguish between animals and people, and cameras were paid for but never installed.

McClung and many farmers he represents along the border strongly oppose a border wall -- which in Texas would span east to west from Brownsville to Laredo, Del Rio to Eagle Pass and El Paso to New Mexico -- calling it an insult to Mexico, a waste of money and a strain on their livelihoods.

These issues have put farmers in a rare adversarial position with the local leaders they helped get elected.

Carnes, the cabbage farmer in Uvalde, had always voted Republican in major contests until this year. Fed up with Texas Gov. Rick Perry for campaigning on border enforcement without also stressing the need for a guest-worker program, he reluctantly decided to cast his vote for Democratic long shot Chris Bell.

"I'm leaning to the other guy," Carnes says. "What's his name? Not Kinky but the other guy."

On a recent morning at Rio Queen, a citrus farm in the Rio Grande Valley, 18-year-old Americo Tobar sits a few feet away from the orange groves, filling out an employment application.

As a high-school junior, Tobar was suspended for fighting and never went back. Pressed by his family to earn some money, he is following his grandfather, father and uncles into the fields.

Tobar has heard all about the hardships of migrant life. How it's ten degrees hotter in the groves and the wind never blows. How the body strains under the weight of a 70-pound sack. And how the mind rebels the next morning when it's time to start all over again.

Tobar doesn't know if he'll ever go back to earn his degree. And he has no idea what he might be doing in ten or 20 years. But this much he knows for sure: "I no work in the fields forever. Just temporary."

The United Farm Workers of America estimates as much as 15 percent of the agricultural work force leaves the industry every year. Many go into construction, where wages are two or even three times higher. Others go into the hospitality and service industries, where the work is far less labor-intensive.

Diana Ramon, a labor recruiter, follows the onion harvest every year, traveling from farms in the Valley to Uvalde to Colorado. She hires about 900 field laborers a year, but estimates her work force lately has been cut in half.

"We've had to push extra hard on the labor we do have," says Ramon, who this year increased wages from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour and offered to reimburse workers for rent if they stayed the entire harvesting season. "Farmers are putting pressure on me to get workers, but there's no place to find them."

Farmers aren't supposed to hire illegals, but a loophole makes it easy to skirt the law. Employers must ask workers for documentation, but the law doesn't require them to verify its authenticity. Ramon admits she often spots phony IDs and Social Security cards but accepts them anyway.

Many of Ramon's most loyal and dependable workers are families. Kids must be older than 12 to join their parents in the fields, she says. But as the parents get older, they are less willing to travel. And their children are ascending to easier, often better-paying jobs.

"Nobody wants to do stoop labor," McClung says. "The children of migrants are very proud to work in a car wash or a fast-food joint. To them, anything is better than the fields."

Veteran labor recruiter Benito Olivarez estimates as much as 80 percent of his legal work force is comprised of convicted criminals with little education and few options.

"The people working in the fields can't get work elsewhere," he says. "They're mostly young kids in trouble."

Children of migrant workers aren't the only ones bailing out of agriculture.

Fred Schuster has spent much of his life fighting off freezes and droughts, not to mention developers who have sought to gobble up the farmland owned by his family since 1933.

Schuster owns one of the largest vegetable farms left in the Rio Grande Valley. And if it was up to him, he would go right on growing.

"I'm so bonded with the soil," he says. "It's what I'm gifted to do."

But the Valley, once an Eden of citrus groves and vegetable farms, has changed dramatically in recent years as growers have sold out to make way for the now ever-present maquiladora industrial parks and the planned residential communities that have sprouted around them.

The Valley's main urban centers -- Brownsville, Harlingen, McAllen and Mission -- for the last two decades have comprised the fastest growing region in Texas. Its population, which is more than two-thirds Hispanic, has increased by 62 percent since 1990, from 700,000 to 1.1 million today, according to U.S. Census data.

Property values in some areas have more than doubled in recent years, says Mike Blum, a commercial real-estate broker and former city planner for McAllen. Land is selling for as much as $16,000 an acre, or $8 million for a 500-acre family farm, Blum says.

"Los Angeles was a string of little cities -- that's what we are," says Rod Santa Ana of the Texas A&M agricultural research and extension service in Weslaco. "It all comes together as a huge metropolis."

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.

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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