Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Labor shortage sending farmers South of the Border

South of the Border

By Ike Wilson

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Labor shortage sending farmers to Mexico.

Agriculture development specialist Colby Ferguson looks at White Lady peaches growing on a tree at Catoctin Mountain Orchard where Frederick County's "Home Grown Here" campaign was started.

Some American farmers are making their way southward, setting up shop across the border in Mexico and farther away in Brazil. It's a trend described as the future of U.S. farming.

Farmers making the move say they are at the leading edge of the future of American agriculture.

To date, U.S. farmers have 46,000 acres of farm production in Mexico, a figure that pales in comparison to the 27 million acres in California alone, but that number is expected to increase, according to a recent report by CBS reporter John Blackstone.

American farmers are also setting up operations in Brazil where the growing seasons are longer and labor and land costs are much lower, according to media reports.

Blackstone interviewed California farmer Steve Scaroni, whose 2,000 acres and 500-employee lettuce operation is in full production in Mexico.

"It's a very sad story for me to go Mexico to complete the American dream," Scaroni said.

Scaroni had to move part of his $50 million farm operation south because American farmers are unable find enough daily labor on a consistent basis, he said. He produces two million pounds of lettuce a week.

Scaroni received a big welcome from Mexican agriculture officials. They who told him that with U.S. farmers coming to Mexico, their citizens don't have to risk life and limb entering the United States in search of jobs.

According to the Labor Department, 53 percent of the 2.5 million farm workers in the United States are undocumented workers, but growers and labor unions say as much as 70 percent of younger field hands are in the U.S. illegally.

Without legal workers, Scaroni said, "I have no choice but to offshore my operation."

Local Reaction

People in Frederick had mixed reactions to the thought of U.S. farmers moving out of the country.

There's no simple answer, said Jamie Jamison, a Dickerson grain farmer who is also director of the National Corn Growers Association.

The question goes back to the immigration issue, Jamison said.

"How do you get enough help for harvesting of lettuce, which is very labor-intensive, and keep your business viable at the same time?" Jamison said.

If labor isn't available in this country, business shouldn't be faulted for going where they can find help, he said.

"We're in a global economy and you can go to places where you can find labor," Jamison said. "How much pressure do you put on people that would make them say, 'I've had enough'? From a labor standpoint, I think U.S. farmers have been squeezed out of the lettuce and tomato business, but the reality of our society today is you don't have a lot of people who will want to bend over all day. It's a hard, laborious job."

But, Jamison said, the North American Free Trade Agreement was good for agriculture.

"That's because American farmers are competing with the European Union and we needed to form an alliance with our neighbors from our south," he said.

Relocating their business out of the country also offers farmers the kind of weather that allows farmers to farm year-round, Jamison said.

"Where do you get food in the dead of winter? You get it from a warmer climate," he said. "Not everything is as simple as you would think it would be."

The shortage of manual labor makes hiring foreign workers mandatory, 4-H'er Hannah Hood said in a recent speech to the Frederick County Farm Bureau.

One of the biggest problems facing farmers is knowing if their employees are in the country legally, and with an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, it is asking farmers a lot to correctly verify status, Hannah said.

"Papers can be purchased and the fake ones can look just like the real ones," Hannah said.

Maryland Unaffected

Patrick McMillan, an assistant secretary for Maryland Department of Agriculture, said he's not aware of any Maryland farmers who have relocated out of the country.

McMillan said farmers in Arizona and California are more likely to move to where they can find comparable weather conditions.

But, McMillan said, Maryland farmers are facing some of the difficulties of finding labor. He said the federal government is making changes to a guest worker program, which can be positive, depending on how the changes are structured.

As a farmer himself, McMillan said they all need a good, reliable source of labor.

Colby Ferguson, Frederick County agriculture development specialist, said tightening up immigration laws has helped ensure more legal workers are employed on the farm. But the measure has also contributed to the labor shortage, he said.

Ferguson said part of the labor problem stems from the fact that families today are smaller, so children are not available to do farm work, like it was when families had five and 10 children.

"Labor is a big challenge," Ferguson said. "And on top of that, having 60 cows used to be more than enough for a small farm. Today, it's 600 cows and mom and pop can't handle that, so you hire labor and you basically become a farm manager."

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