Grower Eyes Sunnier Business in Mexico

Maura Possley, Bradenton (Florida) Herald, February 6, 2008

Mexico’s fertile earth now provides a warm home for the oblong Romas and bite-sized grapes of Manatee’s Pacific Tomato, but on a grander scale it offers something more valuable these days—economic stability.

The 80-year-old company sees a promising future in the northwestern Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa, where it has moved a slice of its tomato production. There is not only land, water and seed—but labor.

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While Pacific will continue growing tomatoes in its fields in Manatee County, Georgia, Virginia and California, its decision to cross the border is rooted in problems farmers in Florida and nationwide face in an increasingly volatile business.

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Agriculture’s dependence on immigrant workers has been threatened as the politics of immigration have taken a seat at the forefront of public discourse.

“A stable workforce is critically important,” Heller said [Billy Heller, Pacific’s chief operations officer]. “That’s something that all of us are nervous about. We don’t know what the government at their whim is going to decide.”

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As that and other reform measures failed last year in Congress, immigration officials turned their enforcement spotlight on employers to weed out workers in the country illegally.

With the noose tightening, growers say their need for legal workers is reaching a tipping point, when a labor shortage will give way to produce price hikes.

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Factor in labor supply, costs, the North American Free Trade Agreement and oil prices, among others, and growers are finding moving abroad, specifically to Mexico, may ensure their company’s future.

DiMare Farms considered farming in lands surrounding the western coastal city of Guaymas, in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, but in the end stuck by its U.S. operations.

“We’re fighting a battle here, and we’re hoping that we can stick with it,” DiMare said.

Other growers are finding different roads. Last year, the brothers behind Taylor & Fulton Farms announced they were bowing out of the tomato business.

With farmers heading south, competition with Mexico increases, begging the question: Will these American growers return?

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