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Along US-Mexico border, not enough hands for the harvest

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The nature of farming is that it comes with many unknowns: weather, pests, competition from abroad, effectiveness of new machinery. Rick Rademacher isn't clear why the labor pool needs to be another one – especially since so many day laborers from Mexico would be eager to work in his lettuce fields here in the midst of America's "winter salad bowl."

Lifting a calloused hand to shade his eyes from the sun's glare, Mr. Rademacher gazes over a 40-acre field where nearly 40 migrant workers pluck or wrap or pack the leafy green heads. With about six weeks to go in this season's harvest, the fourth-generation grower is crossing his fingers and hoping he'll have enough workers to bring the crops in.

"We struggle daily," he says. "We just hope every day that we can fill the orders."

Empty stations on the harvest lines are more common this year throughout this swath of Arizona farm country, says Rademacher, who serves as president of the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association. The reasons are many: a 40,000-person limit on the number of foreign guest workers allowed into the US, tighter borders that are discouraging illegal crossings, and rising demand for day laborers in other industries, such as higher-paying construction work.

The shortage of farm workers has been driving wages higher. Last season, base pay for day laborers working in this area was $6.50 an hour. Now it's $8.50. Rademacher says it may go higher because farmers here can't attract enough employees.

He'd like to see an expanded guest-worker program to ease the labor crunch here, just five miles from the border. It would ensure that he can get his crop in – and sell it to supermarkets at a price that is competitive with prices of vegetables from overseas.

Congress is considering such a move, but not in time to reduce this season's uncertainty.


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