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Who will work our fields?

As immigration reform stalls, vegetable growers pay the price...

By Bobby Horecka
Field Editor

When Bruce Frasier describes his foreman Basilio Campos, words like “work ethic,” “dependability” and “hard working” flow in abundance.

“He’s my right hand man,” Frasier says of the man who has spent his last 44 years working for Dixondale Farms. “I don’t know what we’d do without him.”

Like his father before him, who worked the onion fields near Carrizo Springs well into his 80s, Campos knows his trade well. He’ll oversee a pool of 300-plus workers during harvest times, and Frasier says, he has been a key component to making Dixondale Farms the success it is today.

But people like Campos—one of the many hard-working men and women who have toiled in the fields harvesting South Texas fruits and vegetables for years—are growing harder and harder to find, Frasier says.

Finding a solution to the labor problem will be crucial to Dixondale Farms, as well as many other of Texas’ labor intensive farming operations. But labor solutions are proving a challenge unlike many others that face the farm, Frasier says.

No stranger to change, Frasier has worked through both feast and famine. Bouncing past the irrigated rows in his pickup during a recent tour of the farm, Frasier lamented that his current onion crop had never seen a single drop of rain, despite having been in the ground for over three months.

Mother Nature aside, Dixondale Farms has had much greater obstacles to face in recent years, especially when it came to new challenges presented by global production and competition. Frasier’s farm, like many in his home county of Dimmit, once bagged onions by the millions each year, ranking it second overall as the nation’s largest onion producing county.

“I bet there won’t be 1,200 acres planted for harvest in the entire Winter Garden region this year,” Frasier says, explaining that strong grain prices combined with unpredictable markets—particularly for harvests coming in the wake of the Mexico crop—deterred local production.

Then came the unexpected. In his 25 years of producing onions and melons at Dixondale Farms, Frasier says he’s suffered through three salmonella scares, all three originating in foreign crops and all three devastating his bottom line, considering his crops—not the culprits causing the problem—were the ones headed for store shelves when the news broke.

Plus, traditional marketing changed, Frasier says.

“It used to be, if you wanted a good watermelon, you’d wait until early summer to get one fresh off the vine. That’s not the case anymore. With free trade keeping products on the shelf year-round, you could buy a watermelon for Christmas if you wanted to now.”

One thought became evident for the success of the farm: “You either change the way you do business or you don’t have one for very long,” he says.

So instead of catering to the old economics of supply and demand, Frasier says he began searching for a niche market, one in which he could better control some of the variables.

Having produced the crop since 1913, onions were a natural for Dixondale Farms. But instead of waiting for the full-grown bulbs as they had in the past, Frasier’s father-in-law Wallace Martin began to focus on onion transplants—harvesting the premature plants for replanting elsewhere.

Since 1990, when Frasier says he began his mail-order onion transplant business with a classified ad in this publication, Dixondale Farms has grown to include a base of more than 130,000 catalog and Internet customers, as well as supplying some of the country’s top garden center retailers, such as Wal-Mart, Lowes and Home Depot.

“We produce 61 percent of all onion transplants in the United States right now,” Frasier says. “If you buy transplants, there’s a good chance they’re coming from us.”

When onions aren’t in season, they turn their attention to cantaloupes, today leading the Lone Star State in melon production to some of the top grocers around the state.

Yet regardless the crop, none harvest themselves. They require labor, and lots of it. And that’s where men like Campos are so crucial, Frasier says.

“There’s a finite amount of labor to be had around here, and that’s proven a problem for many of us,” he says.

Wages aren’t much of an issue, Frasier says, particularly with earning potential up to $20 an hour—an average of about $800 a week—for most anyone who sets foot in the field.

Of course, the work’s not cut out for just anyone, he admits.

Frasier shared his experience with a fellow from Washington D.C. a few years back. The young man wanted to try his hand at farm labor, and he set his sights on Dixondale Farms to accomplish it. His first day on the job—with no experience whatsoever—earned him nearly $8 an hour, almost twice what he could have earned at a fast food restaurant or retail job.

“But that was pretty much it for him,” Frasier says. “He was too tired to come back to work the next day.”

Then there are those like Campos, who have found their way to the fields daily for decades. They have families. They own homes. They drive nice cars. And some drive those nice cars in excess of 100 miles each day just to get to and from work.

“I don’t think they’d keep putting on that kind of mileage if they didn’t think they had something worth coming back for,” Frasier says.

How long they keep returning remains to be seen.

“The average age of one of my farm workers is now pushing 55,” Frasier says. “That’s pretty old when you look at this kind of labor.”

Part of the problem, Frasier believes, comes in a lack of drive. Many younger people don’t want to start from the bottom up to truly learn the farming business, as he and others working the place have always done.

But just as troublesome on the farm as a lack of motivation is an abundance of it, and in that respect, Campos provides a shining example, Frasier says.

Campos followed his father’s footsteps into the fields, bringing with him a wealth of motivation and work ethics. His children, however, followed a slightly different path, taking their drive and ambition to college, where they earned advanced medical and academic degrees.

“They’re not coming back to work the farm,” Frasier says.

Further complicating labor issues are the increased border enforcement measures, which have stalled the border crossing process to the point that many don’t bother with the hassle anymore. Considering Dixondale Farms is just 40 miles away from Piedras Negras in Mexico, that’s a significant pool of commuters Frasier says he no longer sees on the farm.

Not that Mexico holds all his labor solutions.

In fact, Dixondale Farms is one of a handful of employers making use of a federal pilot program to instantly verify the employment eligibility of applicants. He knows in a matter of hours who is here legally and who isn’t. And with more than 185 Border Patrol agents stationed in his hometown, word travels fast that work won’t exist for those trying to buck the system.

But pilot programs and boots on the ground are mere steps to the comprehensive immigration system reforms that are needed, Frasier says. And for operations like his in need of constant labor, ensuring a viable guest worker program will be a must. It’s an issue Frasier says he’s testified on a number of times before Congress, as a farmer, a horticultural crops advisor for the Texas Farm Bureau, and chairman of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Labor Committee.

“We have got to do something to fix our immigration system, because quite simply put, we need more workers,” he says. “We can’t get them here, so we’re going to have to find them someplace else. In my area, that’s a pretty obvious choice. They’re going to come from Mexico. And the sad fact is this: Mexicans will be the ones picking the crops, it’s just a matter of which side of the border they’re doing it on.”

Article taken from the February 2008 issue of Farm Bureau magazine.