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State fields, pastures rely on foreign labor

AGRICULTURE

Hatch Chile Festival

Workers at Jimmy Lytle’s farm pick chile for sale at Lytle’s Hatch Chile Express store. (Robert E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

New Mexico agriculture has always depended heavily on immigrant labor, overwhelmingly Mexican, to manage the state’s fields and pastures.

About 9 percent of farm laborers here are foreign born, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But in some sectors, particularly the dairy industry, it’s much higher.

At SouthWind Dairy in Hagerman, for example, about half of the company’s nearly 50 employees are immigrants, said co-owner Al Squire. The family-run operation milks about 4,000 cows a day.

“About 50 percent of our workers are foreign born, and it’s the same thing at most of the dairies in eastern New Mexico,” Squire said.

The industry directly employs about 4,500 people at nearly 150 dairies, most of them family operations like SouthWind. Thousands more are employed indirectly in related service-and-supply businesses, said Dairy Producers of New Mexico Executive Director Beverly Idsinga.

“Immigrant labor is vital to our industry,” Idsinga said. “Most of our employees are immigrant workers.”

Like the vast majority of New Mexico farm operations, dairy producers require immigrants to show legal documents before they’re hired, Idsinga said.

But undocumented workers can slip through the cracks. And even when employees do have legal papers, many of their family members may not. If employees’ relatives are deported, it could pressure legal immigrants to depart as well.

“Immigration is a major concern for us now,” Idsinga said. “We need comprehensive immigration reform, or at least a more functional visa program.”

Mexican migrant workers cut pumpkins on Johnson Farm in Luna County, New Mexico.

Mexican migrant workers cut pumpkins at the W. R. Johnson and Sons farm in Luna County west of Columbus. (Robert E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Today’s guest-worker programs are seasonal, allowing immigrants to legally work here only during growing and harvest periods. But dairies operate 24/7 all year round, making seasonal visas unrealistic, Squire said.

“Those programs don’t work for chickens, cows or hogs,” he said. “Cows simply must get fed or milked, and if these people (immigrants) are not out there doing that, we’d have a lot of suffering animals. It would be virtually impossible to succeed without those people who are willing to do this work.”

Like the dairies, New Mexico’s vegetable farms also depend heavily on immigrants for their labor needs. Those operations can take more advantage of seasonal guest worker programs and most farmers say they rigidly abide by the law to exclude people without documents.

But immigrants are “important to everything,” said James Johnson of W.R. Johnson and Sons farm west of Columbus, a 3,200-acre operation with about 250 employees.

Located near the border, Johnson says his farm is particularly vigilant about employing only legal workers. Nevertheless, undocumented immigrants can often find agricultural work elsewhere, he said.

Chile and onion growers in Hatch said they, too, adhere strictly to immigration laws. But they face chronic labor shortages.

Hatch Chile Festival

Retired Hatch grower Jimmy Lytle said local farms adhere strictly to immigration laws, but face labor shortages. (Robert E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“It’s a problem for everybody,” said Jimmy Lytle, a retired grower whose sons now manage about 100 acres of chile and other crops.

Longtime Hatch grower Byron Adams said labor shortages are aggravated by the expense of guest worker programs, which require employers to provide housing and benefits. In addition, the immigrants with legal documents usually end up as short-timers who head further north for better-paying, non-agricultural jobs.

“The labor shortages are a constant,” he said.

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