A Shortage of Mexican Laborers Threatens Arizona Farming

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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.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo