Local ag operations migrate to Mexico for cheap and legal workers.
Thursday, October 4, 2007
This winter, when agriculture giant Tanimura & Antle shifts to the Arizona and southern California deserts to harvest lettuce, broccoli and other veggies, it will also plant seeds south of the border. Chief Executive Officer Rick Antle says growing in Mexico is nothing new for the Spreckels-based grower/shipper. But Antle says the broken federal immigration system has elevated Mexico as a growing region. “If we do have severe labor shortages, an option for us to maintain the marketplace will be the Guanajuato area for the winter months,” he says.
Fed up with a stalemate over immigration reform, Salinas Valley ag companies are more and more relying on Mexican soil. Stepped-up border enforcement and competition from other industries such as construction have created worker shortages for the ag industry, which relies heavily on undocumented labor. This makes Mexico’s fertile ground all the more tempting. “You are taking the product to the labor instead of trying to take the labor to the product,” says Ken Silveira, president and chief operating officer at Tanimura & Antle.
Union officials, however, say the companies just want cheap labor. If they raised wages and provided health benefits in the US, they wouldn’t have a problem finding a legal work force. “Companies that pay a fair wage and give some benefits to the workers get enough workers,” says Efren Barajas, second vice president of United Farm Workers. “Some companies want cheap labor and they don’t treat the workers right. And yeah, they are having problems.”
Most farmworkers in the Salinas area are paid on a piece-rate basis, meaning they earn a set amount per unit picked. Barajas says many hourly farmworkers, on the other hand, earn $8 an hour and unionized employees make $11-$12 an hour. Across the border, he says, field hands are paid as little as $10 a day. Plus, Mexico’s laws are less strict. “Growers have all kinds of room to work anyway that they want,” Barajas says.
But local ag executives say there are other economic reasons that led them to Mexico. For one, the country provides assurance of a year-round supply in case of weather problems in Arizona.
Taylor Farms has a subsidiary called Taylor Farms de Mexico headquartered in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. The Salinas-based processor has slowly increased its business in the Guanajuato state for the past six years, says Chief Executive Officer Bruce Taylor. “Our food service customers cannot afford a disruption of supply,” Taylor says. “They want lettuce on their Big Macs and tacos and salad in their restaurants.”
Another advantage offered by the US’s southern neighbor: It costs less to ship produce from Mexico to the East Coast than from California. “These products literally could be 1,000 miles closer to market,” Antle says.
For this reason, Taylor Farms recently opened the first US produce distribution plant in Florencia, Guanajuato. The plant will be open year round and eventually employ 600 workers, Taylor says.
As the immigration status of their workforce looms, West Coast ag companies are farming south of the border in increasing numbers. Last spring Western Growers Association conducted a survey of its members. The association found that 12 large agribusinesses farm 45,000 acres in Mexico with 11,000 workers.
Mexico is already the lead importer of vegetables to the US. During 2004-2006, Mexico accounted for nearly two thirds of the US’s fresh vegetable imports, according to the US Department of Agriculture. The leading crops are tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.
In the Salinas Valley, most major ag companies – including Dole, Earthbound Farm, NewStar and Ocean Mist – either grow in Mexico or have suppliers south of the border. These same companies say they want to continue growing in the states but need Congress to pass immigration reform.
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Monterey County’s best hope for reform died this summer when Republicans blocked the passage of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. The legislation included a path to citizenship for the country’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. Now Sen. Dianne Feinstein wants to pass the ag labor piece of the package separately.
Feinstein may soon bring AgJOBS to the Senate floor as part of the Farm Bill or as a stand-alone law. The legislation’s chances were bolstered last week when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called for the bill’s passage. The legislation would enable up to 1.5 million undocumented farmworkers to obtain temporary immigration status and become permanent residents if they continue to work in agriculture for three to five years.
The UFW’s Barajas says if AgJOBS passes, farmworkers would no longer fear deportation. They would also push for better working conditions. “It’s amazing,” Barajas says. “When they have their documents it’s a whole different attitude in the work force and also the growers. They [growers] know that they can’t keep treating the workers the way they used to.”
Antle agrees that AgJOBS is needed. Although Tanimura & Antle contracts out most of its labor in Mexico, he says workers there don’t have the same paranoia of “la migra” rounding them up. “The work force doesn’t feel this threat of some unknown penalty,” Antle says.
While Tanimura & Antle’s presence in Mexico is small compared to Salinas Valley and Yuma, immigrant labor is still the backbone of its operations. This winter the company will utilize, for the first time, a guest worker program outlined in section H-2A of the outdated Immigration Reform and Control Act. The H-2A program allows ag companies to bring in foreign workers if they are unable to find American workers.
Antle says he doesn’t want to see fields get disked under – like last year in Arizona. “A lot of crops were not harvested because of a shortage of labor,” he says.
The guest worker program may salvage this winter’s harvest, but this spring could be a different story. Salinas-area ag companies are receiving new pressure to fire undocumented workers. The Department of Homeland Security wants to impose new sanctions on businesses that don’t respond to “no-match” letters concerning Social Security numbers. The order is now held up in court because of a lawsuit filed by labor and civil rights groups. But if carried out, the order could leave hundreds of Salinas Valley farmworkers without jobs – and secure Mexico’s place as the best option for cheap and legal workers.
|THE WEEKLY TALLY||$42.95||
The retail price, per pound, of the Epoisses de Bourgogne cheese, from the Burgundy region of France, sold at The Cheese Shop in Carmel (see story). Source: The Cheese Shop.