From ElPasoTimes.com, Vic Kolenc, 12 Jun 2011.
Jaime Campos thinks he’s come up with a solution for a shortage of farmworkers that some New Mexico chile and onion farmers face each year during harvest time, which is beginning.
Campos, president of Workonnection, a not-for-profit farmworker employment agency based in El Paso, is in the process of getting U.S. Department of Labor certification to allow his organization to obtain temporary work visas for Mexican workers to work at farms in New Mexico.
The workers will be housed in a 300-bed center inside a church building at 1401 Lomaland in East El Paso, where workers also will receive training. Workonnection also may eventually provide workers in El Paso County if farmers grow chile or other crops that need a lot of labor, Campos said.
“In the past, farms used undocumented workers, but now the laws are strict and the penalties high,” Campos said.
Southern New Mexico farms experienced an extreme shortage of farmworkers in 2008 when the economy was booming and finding workers became difficult, said people in the agriculture industry.
Farms from Hatch to Vado had a shortage of an estimated 5,000 workers in 2008, Campos reported.
A worker shortage is predicted this year as farmers in Southern New Mexico have begun harvesting onions. Chile harvesting will begin next month.
Last year, 14,600 acres of chile and onions valued at more than $96 million were harvested in New Mexico, and 66 percent of that production was in Doña Ana and Luna counties in Southern New Mexico, according to data from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.
Jaye Hawkins, executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association, said, “The labor shortage was catastrophic for some farmers several years ago. They had to leave chile in the field, and they were not inclined to grow chile again.”
That labor shortage, combined with declining prices due to increasing chile imports from other countries, decreased chile acreage in New Mexico from about 30,000 acres in the early 1990s to about 9,000 acres now. Most of the chile is grown in the Hatch and Deming areas.
Campos said Workonnection’s goal is to get a steady flow of farmworkers in hopes more farms will grow chile again, or allow farms to further expand their chile crop.
Ronnie Franzoy, who operates his family’s RJF Farms, which has 1,000 acres of various crops from Hatch to Las Cruces, said, “There is not enough labor to go around and the quality of the labor has really depleted over the last 15 years.”
Franzoy said he usually can find enough labor through contractors, but “I never get the amount of work I need because of the quality (of workers). There will be a day when I can’t deliver all the chile needed.”
This year, Franzoy has about 140 acres of green chile in his fields. He’ll need 80 to 120 workers to harvest it later this summer. He hopes Workonnection can supply him with workers soon.
Franzoy opted not to plant his usual 100 acres of red chile because of price declines and other factors. He’s able to use a machine to harvest red chile because it doesn’t have to be destemmed and the red chile is crushed into chile powder, he said.
The New Mexico Chile Association’s goal is to have the chile harvest automated so it isn’t dependent on finding laborers, Hawkins said. New Mexico State University is trying to develop workable chile harvesting machines, she said.
Franzoy is part of a consortium of farms that began using machines to harvest onions on up to 1,000 acres about six years ago, in part because of the growing difficulty of getting labor to harvest it, he said. This year, because of the drought, the farms have only about 500 acres of onions.
“As far as I know, we’re the only farms in New Mexico with mechanically harvested onions,” he said.
It cost more than $4 million to automate the harvest, he said.
“We needed 150 people to pick the onions, and now we run two machines with about a 10-man crew,” Franzoy said.
He still needs about 50 people to grade and process the onions, he said.
Nick Carson, who operates his family’s Kit Carson Farms in the Rincon, N.M., area, said his farms will begin harvesting onions this week. That’s when he’ll know more about the labor situation.
“We have a contractor that has been with us the last 10 years, and usually he has a crew, but sometimes it’s not as big a crew as we want,” Carson said.
Carson Farms, which has 950 acres of various crops, has 225 acres of onions this year, and 200 acres of chile.
It will need 60 to 80 people to harvest the onions, and 60 to 75 people to harvest the chile crop, Carson said. Competition for farmworkers intensifies as the harvest seasons for onions and chile advances.
Carson also hopes to get workers from Workonnection in the future.
Franzoy said the Workonnection program could solve a lot of labor headaches if it’s able to provide a stable supply of trained workers.
Franzoy has implemented Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP, for his chile crop. GAP provides sanitary standards for workers to follow while harvesting crops. Workonnection plans to train workers in GAP procedures, Campos said.
Campos, former executive director of the New Mexico Border Authority in Santa Teresa, said Workonnection has a pool of about 2,000 workers in the Juárez area. It recently had medical exams done on 200 workers and has done paperwork needed to get H2-A work visas for those workers, he said.
But it’s been a struggle to get the U.S. Department of Labor certification so it can get work visas for the workers, he said. The department keeps adding new requirements, Campos said.
Workonnection is in the process of getting medical insurance for its workers for what Campos hopes is the last requirement needed for what’s become a two-year certification struggle, he said.
Not many farmworkers go into New Mexico with the H2-A visas, which allow Mexican workers to work in U.S. farms and other agricultural facilities for 10 months.
The Department of Labor last year certified only 25 contractors in New Mexico to bring in 548 workers through the visa program, agency data show. It certified 284 contractors in Texas to bring in 2,299 foreign workers. Nationwide, the department certified 6,988 contractors to bring in 79,046 workers.
In 2009, the latest data available, H2-A visas were used only 451 times to cross the border by workers destined for New Mexico, and the visas were used 7,893 times for workers crossing the border destined for Texas, U.S. Department of Homeland Security data show.
The U.S. Department of State issued just over 52,000 H2-A visas last year to Mexican workers to work in the U.S. agricultural industry, the agency’s data show.
Besides helping New Mexico farms get more workers, Workonnection’s program will provide training for workers so they can go back to Mexico and operate their own farms, Campos said. The Mexican government is to provide grants for workers to start farms, he said.
The Students in Free Enterprise, or SIFE, chapter at Texas State University in San Marcos raised more than $40,000 to start the farmworkers’ center in El Paso that will house Workonnection workers, said Lidia Robles, a SIFE alumnus in El Paso. Students in the chapter will provide some of the educational training for workers, she said. The chapter recently won SIFE’s national competition with this project, she said.
Vic Kolenc may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 546-6421
Production of chile and onions in New Mexico in 2010:
- 8,700 acres harvested in New Mexico.
- 66 percent of acres in Doña Ana and Luna counties.
- $41.6 million worth of chile harvested.
- 5,900 acres harvested in New Mexico.
- Most onions grown in Doña Ana County.
- $54.5 million worth of onions harvested.
Source: New Mexico Department of Agriculture.