A Shortage of Mexican Laborers Threatens Arizona Farming

Photos by Jamie Peachey/New Times photo illustration

Santiago Gonzalez walks through his watermelon fields on an overcast morning in May, surveying the crops. Some of the melons are bright green; others still have a yellowish tinge. The lifelong West Valley farmer reaches down for one, splits it open with a pocket knife, and cuts a chunk from the center. The red, juicy melon melts in his mouth. It's sweet, but he knows it could be sweeter. And his trained eye knows the rind will get even brighter. He's still a few weeks from harvest.

It seems unlikely that the tough desert land near Phoenix could yield such nutrient-rich and delicate produce as watermelons, strawberries, tomatoes, and peaches. And yet it does.

From arugula to zucchini, farms produce dozens of varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables in Arizona, one of the few places where farmers can plant and harvest year-round.

Watermelons require at least three months of reliably hot weather to ripen. And what does Arizona have, if not reliable heat?

Arizona farmers produced almost 230 million pounds of watermelons last year, netting nearly $29 million in sales of the sweet but demanding fruit.

It starts in Gonzalez's fields as a small plant bearing a watermelon as tiny as your thumbnail. His workers plant on a mound of dirt to keep the plant's large, lobed leaves dry and free of fungus. The plant requires a lot of water, and just as much sun. The vines want to sprawl across the fields, tangling themselves as they stretch toward neighboring plants. Caretakers painstakingly untangle and tuck the vines and unripened melons back on the mound to protect them from the farming equipment that travels up and down the rows.

As labor-intensive as they are to grow, Gonzalez enjoys planting watermelons year after year. But even in a good year, he says, there isn't a lot of money to be made.

"It's not about the money," he says. "It's about the satisfaction of doing things your way. It's about creating jobs for people. My dad would always say that it wasn't about being rich, it was about living rich."

That's relatively easy for Gonzalez to say. He makes a good living as a farmer, raising potatoes, onions, alfalfa, and watermelons on 3,330 acres. Santiago and his family also own a farm in the Mexican state of Jalisco, where they grow agaves for their own line of tequila, 3 Amigos Tequila.

He considers the watermelons part of his farming family. And when it comes to raising watermelon, it takes a village. So, when his steady farm workers told him that they wanted to take Sundays off, he agreed, but he wasn't happy about it.

"What people don't always understand is that these are living beings," he says of his crops. "If you have a family, you're going to feed them and give them something to drink on Sunday. If you have animals, you can't say, 'I wanna take Sunday off,' and not take care of them. These are living plants, too, that need care."

And as family often can, the plants cause him heartache and stress.

Gonzalez lost half of his crop of watermelons this season to an underground fungus, and his farming business isn't likely to break even on the crop. His potatoes and alfalfa fields produced healthy, plentiful crops, which he hopes will help offset the losses.

Among the dozens of other fruits and vegetables raised in Arizona, potatoes are not as difficult to harvest because most of the heavy lifting is done with machines. Fewer workers mean fewer expenses.

Huge spiral blades cut into the ground to unearth the brown potatoes. But many other crops, like the watermelon, still require the care that can be delivered only by human hands — most of which belong to undocumented immigrants.

Those foreign-born hands also are busy in Yuma, a top producer of another crop that requires gentle handling: lettuce. Warm temperatures allow farmers to work with lettuce almost every month of the year — either planting or harvesting the greens, which are in season from November to May.

You might be surprised to know that Arizona is the nation's second-largest producer of head lettuce, leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, and lemons. Or that the state ranks third in the country in tangerine production.

Those numbers won't remain so impressive if labor woes continue. Laws in this state and across the country aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration are one of the reasons for the shrinking pool of field hands willing to perform the delicate yet back-breaking work.

While those measures don't aim to shutter farms, they certainly hit at the heart of an industry that relies on a workforce of mostly undocumented immigrants for seasonal harvesting.

American workers aren't stepping in to fill the void, even at a time when nearly 14 million people across the country are unemployed. That's because native-born Americans are generations removed from harvesting fields and tend to have higher educational levels.


Simply put, they aren't willing to pick crops.

Maria Machuca, a spokeswoman for the United Farm Workers in Washington, D.C., says hard labor in the fields isn't going to attract legal residents or native-born Americans who have other options that, for some, include waiting out a bad economy at home by collecting unemployment checks.

Santiago Gonzalez has not been able to escape the labor shortage.

This year, he planted a mere 10 acres of onions, down from a 700-acre crop two years ago. Planting 700 acres of crops is expensive — and Gonzalez couldn't find an investor willing to take the risk.

"It's a huge investment," he says, "and my usual partner was afraid that we wouldn't be able to find the workers."

Agriculture is a $10.3 billion industry in Arizona, which has seen a slight drop in its number of farms over the past three years. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that there were 15,500 farms operating in Arizona, down from 15,637 farms in 2007.

In 2010, there were about 17,900 fewer acres of Arizona land used grow the nation's food supply, compared to 2007.

Industry experts estimate that the labor shortage will only aggravate that trend and that it will have a ripple effect outside the world of farmers.

Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, a coalition of Southwest farmers, told congressional leaders that it wasn't just about America losing its farms, but that "for every farm worker job that goes, an additional two to three U.S. jobs in other industries will go with it. America could lose its domestic supply of fresh produce and accelerate the flight of farming to Mexico and beyond."

For now, Arizona farmers continue to produce.

Corn is grown on more farms than any other crop and sold during spring in Arizona, followed by squash and cantaloupe, according to the USDA National Agriculture and Statistics Service.

Arizona farmers are also busy each spring harvesting apricots, tomatoes, lemons, oranges, potatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, peaches, grapefruits, and onions.

In summer months, they deliver zucchini, radishes, tomatoes, watermelons, grapes, apples, radishes, sweet peppers, cucumbers, figs, pears, and black-eyed peas.

The fields in Arizona are worked just as hard in the fall and winter, when states in other regions are buried under snow. During the mild winter months, farmers are harvesting basil and broccoli, lemons and lettuce, spinach and squash, and key limes and kohlrabi (a German turnip that looks like a baby cabbage and tastes like crunchy broccoli).

Sustaining the industry has been a challenge for farmers in need of workers to harvest the land's produce. Not only are farmers at the mercy of Mother Nature, they also contend with state and federal lawmakers adopting ever-stricter anti-immigration measures.

Arizona and its stack of anti-immigrant laws have created new challenges for farmers as potential workers, fearful of deportation, relocate to other, more immigrant-friendly states.

The first of Arizona laws targeting illegal immigrants came in 2004, when lawmakers required voters to provide proof of citizenship to cast ballots, a way to ensure illegal immigrants weren't participating in the democratic process. Later, they crafted measures aimed at keeping undocumented immigrants off the payrolls in Arizona and from receiving public benefits, such as food stamps and unemployment pay, and making it harder for them to access education by demanding out-of-state tuition from undocumented college students.

The most controversial law, signed by Governor Jan Brewer a year ago, makes it a crime to be in Arizona without proper documents and mandates that local cops enforce federal immigration laws.

A federal judge has blocked the most stringent provisions of the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, known more commonly as SB 1070, until the courts can determine its constitutionality.

The law may be hung up in court, but some immigrants aren't waiting around to see whether it will be thrown out.

A study by the Public Policy Institute of California estimates that about 92,000 illegal immigrants fled Arizona from 2008 to 2009 as a result of the state's Legal Arizona Workers Act, a law that made participation in E-Verify mandatory for Arizona employers. And as word of the harsh laws spread, it also disrupts the flow of immigrants who would normally arrive in time to harvest Arizona's crops.

Several other states, including Georgia, Colorado, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, have adopted similar laws.

"Arizona agriculture is very labor-intensive," says Joe Sigg, a lobbyist for the Arizona Farm Bureau, adding that because fruits and vegetables grown here are sold as fresh produce, taking care not to damage their appearance carries greater importance. It also makes them that much harder to harvest.


"There is incredible hand/eye coordination that is required for harvesting these crops," he says.

In other states, like Florida, the citrus is grown to process into juices and other products; some of that labor can be done by machines.

Sigg says it's unclear how much these laws drive the labor shortage, but he knows that it's been a problem farmers have grappled with for years.

"I can say that even before these laws started to pop up, we were seeing a shortage of workers," Sigg says. "Our industry doesn't have an immigration problem, we have a labor problem. It's going to continue to grow and get greater in the future."

Santiago Gonzalez experiences that firsthand, and wonders who ultimately will be feeding America.

"Skilled workers are hard to find. And you can't pay what they're used to getting in construction," he says. "And, here, the land is feeding us, giving us our food. Who's going to pitch these watermelons? Or harvest the onions, the tomatoes?"

A faint breeze wafts across the farm fields on a cool, early morning in May, bringing a sweet fragrance of watermelon, an earthy aroma of wet dirt, and the sharp smell of the sweat-drenched men.

There are four seven-man crews moving up and down Santiago Gonzalez's watermelon fields, bending over, lifting, and pitching the giant fruit sideways to each other and up into a semi-truck hauling two massive bins.

Bending, lifting, pitching.

Bending, lifting, pitching.

Carlos Garcia and the other men in his crew gather the watermelons cut from their vines earlier in the morning by a group of expert cutters from Mexico, usually from the cities of Nogales or Sinaloa, who know when the watermelons have reached perfection. They learn the skills in their home countries, often in Mexico, at an early age.

Once cut, the watermelon rolls off the raised mound where it's been growing for about three months and settles in the rows of the field. Garcia and the others work quickly to preserve the quality of the fruit, which starts to soften under the rays of the blistering sun.

Garcia's jeans are damp with sweat, as is the bandanna draped over his neck for protection. He has been harvesting fruits and vegetables from Arizona farm fields for seven years, since he was 16 years old.

"I've picked lettuce, watermelon, onions," he tells New Times during a brief break.

A single food truck pulls up around 8:30 a.m. — about three hours into the workday — and Garcia and the other field hands flock to the metallic oasis. They line up for burritos, sodas, and bottles of water and sit in the dirt under the scant shade provided by desert bushes.

"We have to work," says Garcia, who is staying in a small apartment in Avondale, not too far from the watermelon fields. He shares the living space with a few other members in his crew.

The 23-year-old has lived in Arizona for seven years, moving around the state to pick produce.

"And this is not easy work. You don't see any Americans out here, and that's because it's not easy work. But we don't have a choice. My body gets used to it, but it still aches," he says. "The hardest part of the work is dealing with this heat."

The sun wrings sweat from the men's pores. As they move through the rows, some reach down and punch their fingers into discarded watermelons that have been split open by cutters who spot-check the fruit's ripeness. They scoop out chunks of the ripe-red seedless melon, dripping with juice, and bring it to their mouths as they scoop up and pitch the next melon.

Finding workers who are willing, and physically able, to perform such back-breaking work has been tough for farmers like Gonzalez, who plants and harvests crops on 3,300 acres of farmland near El Mirage, in the West Valley.

On a Wednesday morning in June, Gonzalez drives the bumpy dirt roads between the fields in a 1995 Ford truck, which already is pushing 400,000 miles. He is dressed in jeans and a plaid buttoned shirt, sleeves pushed up to his elbows. The 54-year-old spends most of his day in the field repairing equipment, operating irrigation systems, and ordering supplies on a BlackBerry he hasn't quite mastered.

The window is rolled all the way down, his arm rests on the door. His eyes scan the fields, and he spots a torn irrigation line squirting water. He calls a roving field worker to repair it. Later in the day, one of the trucks pulling the watermelon bins, each weighing several tons, gets stuck deep in the mud. He leaves his truck in the field and one of the workers gives him a ride back to the shop. He returns in the driver's seat of a powerful tractor. After about half an hour, he and the workers dislodge the truck, and the work continues.


Concern creases deep in his face as he surveys portions of his fields carpeted with shriveled vines and unripened exposed melons. An underground fungus activated by the season's extreme temperatures snuffed those plants. Gonzalez doused them with more than $100,000 worth of chemical remedies.

"We treated it five different times, and we just couldn't beat it," he says. "And when that happens, it really takes a toll on your yield."

He lost about half of the watermelons he planted on 400 acres of land. The loss doesn't just affect his bottom line, it also means less money for the workers, who typically get paid $10 per ton. That doesn't sound like much at all, but a good crew that works in synch — quickly pitching and catching the watermelons and loading them into the trailers — can earn about $150 a day per crew member.

On this morning, however, the Latino men who showed up for work grumble about the unusually barren rows. They talk about not finishing out the day, but Gonzalez agrees to pay them $9 per hour and that persuades them to stay.

Field workers know that, come late May, farmers are going to be looking for help to harvest watermelons. The work will go on for several weeks, and then it will be time to harvest onions and prepare the fields to plant more potatoes. They learn about the jobs through word of mouth, from their friends, seasoned field workers, or fellow day laborers waiting on street corners for jobs.

There are also crew leaders who put the word on the street. But, lately, response hasn't been strong.

Gonzalez recalls that a couple of watermelon seasons ago, when they were desperately short on workers, he went to a nearby Home Depot to pick up day laborers. The workers saw his truck pull up and quickly piled in its bed.

He told them that he needed help pitching watermelons in his fields, and most of the men jumped out just as quickly.

He chuckles as he tells the story, but not finding enough workers takes a serious toll on his businesses. He watches as the day wears on and his workers grow quiet and force their bodies to keep moving. With temperatures pushing 100 degrees and no shade overhead, the men can't help slowing down.

It's just after 11 a.m. when Gonzalez gets a call from a crew supervisor.

"Válgame," he sighs the Spanish expression of angst into his cell phone and shakes his head slightly.

The man on the other end of the phone tells him it's just too hot, and the workers have decided to leave at noon, two hours early. Although disappointed, Gonzalez tells New Times that he's glad they at least cleared the fields of the fruit already cut from the vines.

"We'll just try again tomorrow," he says. "We'll see if we can get them to stay longer."

While he maintains a positives attitude, the reality is that "it looks worse every day. We already don't have work for them year-round, so it's tough to keep them here."

There are a few workers whom Gonzalez has on the payroll year-round. They help him run the office, maintain waterlines, take care of the farming equipment, and, after a harvest, get the fields ready for the next crop.

Like other farmers, his demand for workers only spikes when the crops are ready to harvest, because, once ripe, the fruits or vegetables can easily rot in the fields if they are not harvested in time.

Delfino Castro and others who worked Gonzalez's fields didn't waste any time heading to Colorado to harvest onions.

"There weren't a lot of watermelons this time," he says, talking to New Times from his apartment in Colorado. "But I found a job cleaning onions. They pay by the hour, $10."

That's considered good money.

The 29-year-old has been working the fields for six years, and he says the work is so hard. He and his friends notice that fewer people are turning out for work. Some wait, instead on street corners, on the edges of home improvement stores' parking lots, or just outside landfills, in hopes of getting picked up for day labor.

A few weeks before the watermelons are ready, Jaime and Maria Herrera are among the workers moving the watermelon vines and tucking them under the plants so they won't get smashed by tractors during the harvest. For eight hours, they aren't doing any heavy lifting, but their bodies are hunched over at near-90-degree angles.

Gonzalez says that Maria, wearing a pink, long-sleeved top and a cap with a bandanna underneath, is going to try her hand at pitching watermelons this season.


It's rare to see a woman in the fields. He isn't sure that her slight frame can handle the job, but he gives her the go-ahead. Weeks later, when the melons are ready for picking, the couple is a no-show. Gonzalez doesn't seem surprised.

For years, industry leaders have been sounding the alarm that worker shortages will shutter farms and have a devastating impact on the economies of farm-dependent rural communities.

During recent testimony before Congress, Arizona Farm Bureau President Kevin Rogers said that "it is no exaggeration to say that the onslaught of federal regulations now confronting farmers and ranchers across America is truly overwhelming. A farmer trying to manage his land and his crops knows one thing — the federal government is making it tougher and tougher to make a living from the land."

Though it is primarily the farmers who are struggling, industry leaders say that consumers and communities will ultimately pay the price. The loss of American farms means the loss of American jobs, and the United States will grow increasingly dependent on foreign countries for its supply of fresh fruits, vegetables, and other raw goods.

The United States imports 60 percent of its fruits and nuts, about 25 percent from Mexico and the rest from Chile, Costa Rica, and China. Mexico also accounts for about 70 percent of all the fresh vegetables imported into the United States.

Before he died in 2008, a man named James S. Holt was regarded as a national expert on agricultural labor. He examined not only the production of fruits and vegetables in the United States, but also the nation's share of the global produce market.

In various publications, he noted that consumer demand for labor-intensive fruits and vegetables, such as melons and strawberries, was growing, but most of the demand was being filled by other countries.

America's share of those markets has been shrinking steadily over the past few years.

But concerns are falling on the deaf ears of politicians.

One measure being floated in Washington, D.C., would require all businesses across the country to participate in E-Verify, a federal database that checks whether someone is legally eligible to work in the country.

Mandatory participation in the program is already law in Arizona. That law took effect in 2008 and was promptly challenged in court. A federal judge ruled in favor of the law on May 26. The same day, at least 31 other states introduced similar legislation.

Though it is a broad measure meant to protect all American jobs from illegal immigrants, the agricultural industry argues it will be hard-hit by the measure since, as it readily admits, as much as 80 percent of its workforce across the country consists of unauthorized workers.

Finding enough U.S.-born workers to harvest crops isn't a viable option, and H-2A visas, the only ones designated for importing seasonal agricultural workers, are "unwieldy and bureaucratic . . . [and] pretty much designed not to work," according to the Arizona Farm Bureau.

In a February letter to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, one of the bodies vetting the E-Verify proposal, the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, reminded lawmakers that past efforts to recruit American farmworkers "have failed miserably, clearly demonstrating time and again that there is not a domestic workforce sufficient to meet the need."

Consider that in the late 1990s, state and county agencies in California launched a "welfare-to-farm-work" program in the state's Central Valley at a time when regional unemployment was as high as 20 percent in some areas. A massive campaign addressed training, transportation, and other obstacles to getting workers in the fields.

Though there were more than 100,000 potential workers, only three jobs were filled.

In Washington State, a labor shortage for the 2006 cherry harvest prompted an advertising blitz to recruit about 1,700 needed workers, particularly for the much larger apple harvest that was just around the corner. Only 40 people took jobs.

The following year in North Carolina, farm officials set up a statewide hotline to fill about 60,000 crop and livestock jobs.

"Two calls were received; one was from a grandmother who felt that farm work would be good for her grandson," the Agricultural Coalition wrote in their letter to federal lawmakers.

Most recently, the United Farm Workers kicked off a "Take Our Jobs" program with a media campaign in 2010 that even included airtime on the show of political comedian Stephen Colbert. By October, more than 10,000 people sought out more information, but only nine actually took jobs in the fields.

"Most of them quit after a few days or weeks," the Coalition reported.

Joe Sigg, who has been lobbying on behalf of the Arizona Farm Bureau for about a decade, says even that as farm wages continue to rise, performing hard labor outdoors is not for everyone.


"You do see a different work ethic in our neighbors [to the south] than you do in native-born American workers," he says. "It isn't a value judgment, but native-born American workers aren't interested in the jobs we have."

Despite farmers' concerns about laws that threaten their stable of workers, Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced the Legal Workforce Act (HR 2164) in June. It would require that all businesses across the country participate in E-Verify.

It's not that lawmakers are targeting the farming industry. In fact, Smith's proposal makes some concessions to the agriculture industry, a House Judiciary staff member tells New Times.

If the measure becomes law, U.S. employers would have two years to comply with the new regulations, but the farmers would have an additional year. And the rules wouldn't apply to current seasonal agricultural workers, only to those hired after the law's adoption.

It's not enough to assuage concerns.

"We are for secure borders, a legal workforce, employer sanctions, and an E-Verify system if we have a workable farm labor program that takes into account workers that already are here," says Nassif, on behalf of his coalition of Southwest farmers. "Under the currently proposed E-Verify system, our industry would be decimated."

Another problem for farmers is that the federal E-Verify system remains "vulnerable to identify theft and employer fraud," according to a December 2010 report published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Opponents of Smith's proposed law also point out that E-Verify is largely ineffective. The GAO, in analyzing the federal program, also found that more than half of undocumented workers vetted by E-Verify were incorrectly confirmed as being authorized to work.

Gonzalez and other farmers ask for the requisite paperwork and identification from employees, but the federal system isn't capable of flagging someone with a stolen identity.

"Undocumented workers are not going to leave the country because Congress makes it harder for them to work here," writes a policy analyst for the National Immigration Law Center, a Los Angeles-based think tank.

The Immigration Law Center suggests that, instead, employees "and their employers will simply find a way around E-Verify" and create an underground, cash economy that will rob federal, state, and local agencies of much-needed tax revenue.

And that is just part of the problem that agricultural lobbyists foresee.

When farmers plant fewer crops in anticipation of an unstable workforce, there isn't necessarily a shortage of that fruit or vegetable, because a farmer somewhere else is ready to fill the gap.

Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, says the new producers likely will be from another country.

"There is a stream of migrant workers that normally travels from Florida to Georgia," Regelbrugge says. "They pick peaches, peppers, and onions. But many are afraid to go, and the farmers end up with a shortage of workers. It destabilizes the farm . . . and, ultimately, production moves."

He says that once America loses that market share, it's very hard to get back, and it creates an economic ripple effect that goes far beyond the farm.

Fewer crops mean less income, making it difficult for a farmer to make payroll. Unpaid workers can't pay income taxes or spend money that drives sales tax revenues into local communities.

A farmer short on funds won't purchase machinery, will cut back on harvesting supplies, pesticides, and chemicals to keep the crops healthy, and will require fewer services from business that aid in the processing of the land's yield, including wood pallets used to stack and move around the produce, cardboard boxes for packing, and trucks and truck drivers to deliver the goods across the country.

"There is all this economic activity around farms," he says. "And it dries up if the farming does. In an effort to save U.S. jobs, they are actually killing our jobs."

Industry leaders say they are working with Congressman Smith and other federal lawmakers to develop a "workable guest-worker program."

"We're hopeful they'll work out a deal to provide a legal way for workers to come," says Wendy Fink-Weber, a spokeswoman for Western Growers, an agricultural trade association representing farmers in Arizona and California.

She says a guest-worker plan can't ignore the existing workers already working on U.S. farms.

Smith intends to introduce a guest-worker program in September, a House Judiciary staff member tells New Times.

"This will help the [agricultural] industry hire a legal workforce and help them to continue growing our crops and our economy — there is consensus that the current H-2A program is broken," the staffer says.

Santiago Gonzalez and farmers across the country know firsthand that Americans simply don't want the difficult jobs picking produce in farm fields with the sun beating down on them.


"It's hell," he says, speaking from experience. He grew up working in the fields, harvesting crops in Mexico when he was 9. When his family moved legally to Arizona, they continued working in the fields until they bought their own land and established G Farms, also known as San Bartolo Farms.

Just about every year, fatigued workers stumble off Gonzalez's fields and leave behind watermelons already cut from their vines. That's when Gonzalez rounds up everyone on the ranch, including his office staff, employees who normally work in the packing plants, and any family members he can find. Young and old take to the fields and work until all the watermelons are cleared.

"We just about die, but we do it," he says. "Many times we've had to set up floodlights and work into the night, but we get them all. We have to; otherwise they go bad and we can't sell them."

The Gonzalez family farm — G Farms — is a true family business, in which sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers are a significant part of the operation. Theirs are steadier, year-round jobs — running the office, readying the fields to plant the next crop, and creating new farming machines to make harvesting more efficient.

Gonzalez's sister, Feliciana Amezquita, is in her early 60s and lives in El Mirage. She stands for hours during potato season in front of a sorting machine. A small carpet cushions her feet as she inspects tiny potatoes in a processing plant all but built by her son, Guillermo, whom everyone calls Memo.

The potatoes, excavated just hours earlier, are washed by well water gushing from a pipe. They float down a long canal to different assembly lines depending on their size. The smell of starch and wet dirt is thick, even in the open-air processing plant.

Workers quickly pull out papas with gouges or torn skin.

Gonzalez's son is under an awning, working on the blades of a machine that unearths the potatoes. Memo's son, Anthony, a student at the University of Arizona, is driving a small forklift. A 16-year-old niece is sorting potatoes like her grandma.

"This is the way it is," Memo Amezquita tells New Times. "We work 16-hour shifts if we have to, and at this pace. And none of the workers gripe. If Santiago tells me we gotta do it, our workers leave at 8:30 p.m. and are back here at 5:30 a.m., already waiting."

Memo wanted to be an engineer, one who builds functional machines, but his family couldn't afford the college tuition. He eventually adopted the family trade and started helping Gonzalez.

Although he may not have earned a college degree, he was able to build farming machines for jobs such as bagging onions and sorting potatoes, saving the family hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A farmer's life isn't easy — early mornings, late nights, constant stress, and an a nagging uncertainty whether all that time and money invested into crop work will actually yield healthy produce.

Feliciana Amezquita believes that it all took its toll on her son.

A day after New Times' interview with Memo Amezquita, he was found lying lifeless near his truck.

To punctuate the toll that such hard work takes on a body, she peels back her own yellow plastic work gloves to reveal swollen, arthritic hands.

"It's painful," she says. "But I like being here, with my brother."

Her husband, Juan Hernandez Reyes, 84, also works on the farm, assembling the cardboard boxes for the potatoes.

The couple lives off Social Security but also makes a few extra dollars working on the farm.

"We go home so tired, and we just collapse. But we love it," she says. "We rest up, and the next day, we're ready to do it again."

Santiago Gonzalez says that Memo was like a son to him, and months later, he's still struggling with the man's death. He knows, however, that farm work can't be put on hold.

Running low on options, Gonzalez says he is considering applying for temporary-worker permits.

He's been talking to his produce brokers, and he would like to get back into growing onions on a larger scale. He says that hiring workers through agricultural visas is more expensive, but taking his chances with them may be his best shot at guaranteeing enough workers.

Among the shortcomings in the visa program are requirements that the labor-intensive field work first has to be advertised to U.S. workers, even though farmers know that few, if any, will respond. Those who do answer the call quickly find they cannot withstand the harsh conditions, and bail on their employers.

The 60-page application is complicated and requires farmers to post ads for workers 45 days before they need them. But, Fink-Weber notes, crops are not predictable, and farmers can't pinpoint their exact labor needs so far in advance.


Gonzalez was counting on a larger group of workers until the underground fungus claimed half of his crop. Also, H-2A workers must be paid special rates, provided housing and transportation, and guaranteed a certain number of hours specified by a contract.

There are also costly delays that result in workers arriving days or weeks after they're needed, industry leaders report. Produce rots in the fields. Anticipating a continued shortage of workers, farmers plant fewer crops. It cuts into a farmer's already slim profit margins and threatens a farm's viability.

It also creates an economic ripple across industries that support the farming industry: food processing and packaging plants, manufacturers of boxes, pallets, and bags used to transport the food.

At G Farms, workers in the processing plant sat around waiting for the first haul of watermelons to come in. But they only trickled in to the normally busy plant.

"Usually, this thing is packed, but we just don't have it this year," Gonzalez says.

Plant workers like Israel Ramirez sit on the ground or on the edge of the thick cardboard boxes, in which dozens of watermelons are packed and loaded onto a truck en route to California.

"It's slow today," he says, disappointment clear in his voice. "But we hope next week will be better."

Gonzalez says he can't understand why U.S. politicians do not, and have not, created a system that would allow farmers here to expand operations, to easily hire workers, and avoid being dependent on other countries for such a basic necessity — food.

"The farming is so beautiful," Gonzalez says. "But the stress and the disappointments are so big. We just keep hoping for better laws, and that fields will do better. We do a lot of praying."

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >