Thursday, May 13, 2010

What Will SB1070 Do To Arizona Agriculture?

Posted By on Thu, May 13, 2010 at 6:44 PM

So what might happen to Arizona's lettuce industry as a result of SB 1070? The Atlantic's Sara Rubin alerts us to a potential problem:

But many of the harvesters who painstakingly kneel to cut each head of lettuce may choose not to work in Arizona this fall in the wake of its new, hostile immigration law, putting the produce industry in a potentially dangerous position. Maria Machuca, a United Farm Workers spokesperson, believes that "farm workers will be part of the main target," noting that Cesar Chavez—who, incidentally, was born just outside of Yuma—would likely have perfectly fit the profile of "suspicious" under the law's broad definition. "It's going to have an impact," she says. "Some of them are talking about not going back."

The Department of Labor estimates that of the country's 2.5 million farm workers, most of whom are Hispanic, 52 percent are undocumented. The UFW believes the figure is actually 80 to 90 percent, making the industry a prime target for enforcement. Deportation is relatively inconsequential for some harvesters in Yuma, since many are seasonal workers who commute daily from Mexico, where they board buses just north of the border for a 20-minute ride to the fields. But many of the year-round migrants who follow the crops from Salinas to Yuma and back again—and who account for up to 40 percent of Arizona lettuce harvesters—live full-time in the U.S., and for them, to risk deportation is to risk estrangement from established communities and families.

If workers are reluctant to return to Arizona, growers may find themselves short on harvesters, in which case "the crops rot in the field," says Wendy Fink-Weber, director of communications for the Western Growers Association, which represents 90 percent of fruit and vegetable growers in Arizona and California. Greens, which are a finicky crop and demand near-perfect conditions, have only about a five-day harvest window after reaching maturity. Each head of lettuce is cut and packed into boxes by hand. The intensive labor associated with growing lettuce—a $1 billion business for Arizona and the state's highest-value crop—accounts for up to 50 percent of the cost of production.

A solution Arizona's lawmakers will love, after the jump:

The experience of Colorado, which enacted restrictive immigration legislation in 2006, suggests another alternative. Workers fled the state, and farms, desperate for labor, partnered with the Department of Corrections to pilot an inmate-harvester program. Tom Church, the president of Church Brothers, says the absolute last resort is finding Americans to work the fields. "If we had to rely on American workers, it would never get done," he says. According to Brian Church, the company would sooner resort to machines than H2A or inmate labor.

Hap tip: Sullivan.

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