Some US Farms Outsourced to Mexico

Jessica Bernstein-Wax, AP, May 27, 2008

Antonio Martinez used to pay smugglers thousands of dollars each year to sneak him into the United States to manage farm crews. Now, the work comes to him.

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Martinez, now a legal employee of U.S.-owned VegPacker de Mexico, is exactly the kind of worker more American farm companies are seeking. Many have moved their fields to Mexico, where they can find qualified people, often with U.S. experience, who can’t be deported.

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American companies now farm more than 45,000 acres of land in three Mexican states, employing about 11,000 people, a 2007 survey by the U.S. farm group Western Growers shows.

There were no earlier studies to document how much the acreage has grown. But U.S. direct investment in Mexican agriculture, which includes both American companies moving their operations to Mexico and setting up Mexican partnerships, has swelled sevenfold to $60 million since 2000, Mexico’s Economy Department told The Associated Press.

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But the latest move south has been fueled by something new, farmers say: a way to continue to deliver cheap, fresh farm goods amid the current U.S. political standoff over an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants, the majority from Mexico.

Recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids have targeted major agricultural producers, including Del Monte Fresh Produce in Portland, Oregon, and several large packing plants across the nation—scaring away immigrants and persuading many agricultural employers to clean up their hiring practices.

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Many of the growers, once based in California’s Salinas Valley, are also heading south to escape high land prices and water shortages. Mexico is closer to eastern U.S. markets than California, they say. Shipping times to Atlanta are a day shorter from Mexico’s central Guanajuato state.

Not everyone in Mexico has welcomed U.S. companies. Mexican farmers complain that they have driven up land rental prices. Many local growers worry they can’t compete against big, foreign firms, said Felipe Sanchez, president of a farmers group in Guanajuato state.

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Farm workers at U.S. companies in Mexico make two or three times Mexico’s minimum wage of $4.80 a day. But they still earn far less than the average $9.60 an hour that field workers in the United States made in January 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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Some experts argue that farmers simply refuse to raise U.S. wages to compete with other industries, something they say would help ease the labor crunch.

As the United States heads into a recession, more native-born workers might consider agricultural work if wages were high enough, said Harley Shaiken, director of the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies.

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The problem is that cheaper labor in Mexico often is offset by lower productivity and high training costs, especially when it comes to enforcing U.S. food-safety standards.

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