US Farmers Short on Migrant Workers Move to Mexico

Mica Rosenberg, Reuters, February 12, 2008

MEXICALI, Mexico, Feb 12 (Reuters)—Like other California vegetable growers, Larry Cox oversees hundreds of Mexican farm workers picking green onions, asparagus and cauliflower in the fertile Colorado River valley.

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Instead, Cox’s farm is just south of the border in Mexico where he can hire workers at a tenth of the cost.

Americans are farming some 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of land in Mexico and employing 11,000 people, in spite of high crime, suspicion of outsiders and doubts back home about Mexican food safety standards.

The Bush administration’s clampdown on undocumented workers and tighter border security means the flow of Mexican workers to California is drying up, Cox said.

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California’s San Joaquin Valley, a rich agricultural region, usually employs around 230,000 seasonal laborers but deportation sweeps have left farmers short by almost a third, said Manuel Cunha from the area’s Nisei Farmers League.

U.S. workers do not want strenuous farm jobs, said Cunha.

As well as tapping into an abundant source of cheap labor in Mexico, U.S. growers can avoid expensive environmental regulations demanded by states like California.

“We are basically being regulated out of business,” said farmer Steve Scaroni, who moved 20 percent of his operations to Mexico’s central state of Guanajuato in 2006.

Cox said he needed costly air quality permits to burn his asparagus fields in Brawley but in Mexico few eyebrows are raised when he sets fire to his fields to clean them.

“In Mexico they said, ‘Permits? What? You just throw a match,’” he said.

Most workers on Cox’s Mexicali farm earn around $10 a day instead of the $10 an hour they could earn doing the same job north of the border. But most say they prefer being near home.

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VEGETABLE THEFT, KIDNAPPING

Mexico, which lost huge swathes of its northern territory in a 1846-48 war with the United States, is sensitive about foreigners buying land so most American farmers just rent.

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Vegetables and machinery have been stolen from his fields and a nearby U.S. grower was kidnapped and held for ransom, but much of the hostility against U.S. farmers has dampened.

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Farmers in the United States, some worried about unfair competition, question Mexican food safety standards. A deadly 2003 hepatitis A outbreak in Pennsylvania was traced back to green onions shipped from Mexico.

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