A Shortage of Mexican Laborers Threatens Arizona Farming

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"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.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo