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CURRENT ISSUE:  June 5, 2006VOL. 44, NO. 11Oakland, CA

Farmers face need for more fieldworkers

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- It would be hard to find many people with a more comprehensive firsthand perspective on some of the problems of the U.S. immigration system than at Pasquinelli Produce Co., one of the largest employers in Yuma County, Ariz., bordered on one side by Mexico and on another by California.

It takes hundreds of workers to plant, thin, weed and harvest the highly perishable produce -- such as lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower -- grown on the 7,000-acre farm started by Pete Pasquinelli 60 years ago.

And that brings special challenges for the founder’s son, Deacon Gary Pasquinelli, and his general manager, Deacon Paul Muthart. Both men bring to the job the Catholic Church’s perspective on migration as deacons assigned to St. Francis of Assisi Church in Yuma.

At the farm, a primary concern is caring for fields and plants within a short, specific period of time, often just a two-day window when soil, weather and crop conditions are right. With willing workers just across the border in Mexico, hiring crews require knowledge of immigration law and keeping up with trends in enforcement policies, as well as other variables.

Deacon Muthart is an expert on the employment demands of growing produce on a large scale. He has watched as changing government policies, localized enforcement of immigration laws and the lure of jobs elsewhere in the country have squeezed the number of available workers to a critical point.

“The harvest season in Yuma runs from mid-November to April,” he explained in a phone interview with Catholic News Service. “Our goal is to have produce available every day, so we have to plant seeds during certain soil conditions, certain climate conditions, over a period of weeks.”

Lacking the necessary workers for even a couple of days to plant seeds or tend to seedlings can throw off that schedule.

“If you don’t plant when you need to, you’re out of the market for that week,” Deacon Muthart said. Similarly, a labor shortage during the critical few days when acres of lettuce or spinach are ready to be harvested can mean the crop withers in the field and the company has nothing to sell -- and no income -- for that chunk of the season.

Pasquinelli Produce contracts with the Dole Food Co. to handle much of the harvest, packaging and sales of its products, which adds pressure to have a consistent flow of vegetables through the season.

Deacon Muthart explained that agricultural labor demands in places such as Yuma County and much of California are vastly different from those of farms typical to other parts of the country, where machinery can do much of the work.

A 7,000-acre Midwestern family farm raising wheat, corn or soybeans, which can be harvested by machine, might employ perhaps three or four people year-round and another four to six temporary workers for the harvest.

The Pasquinelli farm, by comparison, employs 30 to 40 tractor drivers alone, some year-round, some temporary. The farm has 150 permanent workers, who get paid vacations, health insurance, profit sharing and livable wages, Deacon Muthart said. With the temporary employees he hires and those brought in by Dole, he estimated there are at least 1,000 workers on the farm for the harvest.

During the peak of the season, farms in Yuma County need 30,000 temporary workers a day, he said. The entire county’s population is about 160,000, according to the 2000 census.

Last fall, even though there were willing workers just across the border in Mexico, the Pasquinelli farm and others like it in Arizona and California faced manpower shortages. The situation continues, caused by an insufficient number of visas being available for temporary workers and recent immigration enforcement efforts, Deacon Muthart said.

“Once upon a time the workforce was able to move freely back and forth,” he said. “Then it got tighter.”

Though most of the area’s farm laborers live close enough to go home to Mexico at the end of the workday, they still need permits to legally work in the United States.

Employers nationwide estimate that about 500,000 immigrant workers are needed for low-skilled and unskilled jobs such as those in agriculture. The federal government issues just 5,000 visas a year for unskilled workers.

Even those who have the proper visas might be stopped by immigration authorities en route to work on a labor contractor’s bus, Deacon Muthart explained. By the time all those on the bus have their papers inspected, the workers have lost several hours of pay for the day and production has been slowed.

“The whole time they’re sitting on a bus they’re not getting paid,” Deacon Muthart said, adding that it’s rare for industries other than agriculture to be subjected to the same kind of immigration enforcement. That fact isn’t lost on workers.

“If people are lucky enough to get across the border, the first thing they want to do is leave the area,” he said. “There’s such a huge immigration enforcement presence here, so they go everywhere else in the country.”

During the fall and winter, Yuma County and adjacent Imperial County in California provide 90 percent of the world’s broccoli, cauliflower and iceberg lettuce, Deacon Muthart explained. Last fall he said he came to Washington to warn members of Congress that much of the nation might not have fresh vegetables on the table for Thanksgiving because of worker shortages.

As it turned out, fresh produce demand was lighter than anticipated, so while some crops rotted in the fields, the effect on the marketplace wasn’t as obvious as it might have been other years, he said. That just postponed what Deacon Muthart sees as an inevitable impact on the availability, and consequently the prices, of fresh winter produce from Yuma County.

The solution isn’t in hiring only U.S. citizens, either, he believes.
“I don’t think there’s anybody seriously lobbying for immigration reform who does not agree these jobs should go to Americans if there are Americans willing to do the job,” Deacon Muthart said. “But people don’t understand that Americans will not and often cannot do the work.”

Yuma’s farmers have experimented with that, he said.

One year, at the time of the cantaloupe harvest, there was a severe labor shortage, Deacon Muthart said. Marines from Yuma’s Marine Corps Air Station volunteered to help bring the crop in before it rotted.

“They lasted about a day and a half,” he said. There were similar results when high school athletes tried working harvests as a fundraiser.

“Our workers are professionals, we respect that,” Deacon Muthart said. “They know how to cut the lettuce just right, pull off the outer leaves, wrap it efficiently and move on.”

Few Americans are used to the kind of hard work necessary in the fields, he said. “They don’t have the stamina, or the will to do this kind of work.”


Related stories:

Arizona rancher sees migration firsthand

Reform advocates critique provisions in immigration bill

 


Marcial Perez Rodriguez holds a harvesting knife on which he has carved and painted an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He has worked for Pasquinelli Produce Co. in Yuma, Ariz. for 30 years.
CNS PHOTO/DAVID MAUNG

 


Fieldworkers from Mexico load watermelons onto a truck at a Pasquinelli Produce Co. field about 30 miles east of Yuma, Ariz.
CNS PHOTO/DAVID MAUNG

 


Deacon Paul Muthart, general manager of Pasquinelli Produce Co., displays a baby watermelon in a field of young watermelon plants in Yuma, Ariz.
CNS PHOTO/DAVID MAUNG


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