The Texas Rio Grande Valley and Winter Garden growing regions are in an ongoing battle to keep adequate crews staffed for harvesting and packing lines.
Construction and service industries often draw workers away from the fields, and finding new, legal replacements can be difficult.
“At the moment, our labor situation is tolerable but only because we are in the same boat as every other place in the country,” said John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, Mission. “We are 70% illegal — at least in field workers,” he said.

Employers are unable to verify if a worker is here legally in most cases. Even in the packing sheds, conditions are worse than previously thought, McClung said.

“We’re beginning to realize that our packing sheds are probably not lower — we thought they were lower, but now are realizing they’re probably the same.”

The association has pushed in Washington, D.C., for comprehensive immigration reform, but so far other issues, like health care, have overshadowed it.

The economic downturn also has more people looking for jobs, which means labor crews are filled — for the moment.

J Carnes, president of Winter Garden Produce, Uvalde, Texas, has been a vocal spokesman for Texas producers. He frequently travels to Washington, D.C., to testify on behalf of growers who, like him, have had trouble filling crews.

“We had some shortages, and that’s why I got involved,” he said. “There seems to be an adequate supply right now, but with some hiccups along the way stuff can move into Mexico out of Texas and once it moves into Mexico, it’s not coming back.”

Carnes refers to the increasing amount of growing production that has moved south of the border, where the cost of production is lower and labor can be more accessible.

“That’s where I’ve become more and more focused over the past couple of years,” Carnes said. “We’ve got to provide a future for Texas farms. It’s not hard for a producer to pick up and move over the border. There are some that aren’t going to do it — one of them is myself — but there are those out there that have done it and will do it if labor becomes more and more of a problem on this side.”

Not your father’s Texas

McClung said most of produce coming out of the Rio Grande Valley originates in Mexico, and that trend is likely to continue.

“Texas has been transitioning to more of an importing community than a growing community,” he said. “About 60% of our produce is imported from Mexico.”

What’s interesting, McClung said, is that Texas used to be the No. 3 producer, behind California and Florida, but nowadays it’s below No. 10 in production. That’s not the case when talking volumes of produce that is handled in the Rio Grande Valley.

“This is not your father’s or your grandfather’s industry,” he said. “It is thriving as much as it ever has. It has just changed dramatically.”

Border fence update

The Department of Homeland Security’s border fence project is, for all intents and purposes, complete, McClung said.

The fence project affects Rio Grande Valley production in several ways, McClung said.

“It runs along the southern levy, which means it’s not along the river, which means that about 40,000 acres is trapped between the levy and the river,” he said. “That’s highly productive land and it’s seen as kind of buffer zone.”

Some are calling it “no man’s land,” McClung said.

“That’s a bit of an overstatement,” he said. “It is problematic getting to it and utilizing it and getting to water pumps when you need them for irrigation. It is far from an ideal situation.”