A Shortage of Mexican Laborers Threatens Arizona Farming

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.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo