A Shortage of Mexican Laborers Threatens Arizona Farming

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"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.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo