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Chicago Matters

A Season Without Mexicans

What would happen if there weren't enough farm workers to work Illinois farms?

That prospect has a lot of Illinois farmers worried these days.

The state's 73-thousand farms produce 28-million acres of fruits and vegetables a year.

Machines pick a lot of the corn and soybeans that the state is known for.

But specialty crops like berries and peppers play a big part in the state's agriculture economy, too.

And those crops are hand-picked, mostly by Mexican men— at least 32-thousand in one season. But the numbers are dwindling.

As part of our Chicago Matters Beyond Borders series, Chicago Public Radio's Michael Puente looks at what it would take for Illinois farmers to have the hands they need. Chicago Matters is an annual public information series made possible by The Chicago Community Trust, with programming by Chicago Public Radio, WTTW 11, the Chicago Public Library, and The Chicago Reporter. Visit chicagomatters-dot-org for more information. The executive producer of Chicago Matters is Sally Eisele and the series is produced by Alexandra Salomon. Alison Cuddy is the Project Coordinator.

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Donnie Ahrens walks along neat rows of vegetables—acres and acres of them—that will soon be ripe for picking.

For Ahrens, this walk never gets old, even though he's been doing it most of his life.

(AHRENS: There's a little generator right there and it's pumping water from the spring right there. I've got tomato plants planted here. That's the second batch. I've got musk melons here. And, then I've got another batch. These are bell peppers.)

When the time comes to pick those spicy peppers, plump melons and bright red tomatoes, Ahrens relies on seasonal workers.

(PUENTE: These will all have to be hand-picked? Ahrens: Yes. Puente: When will be ready rip for picking? Ahrens: I say about the 4th of July.)

Ahrens has planted these 30 acres outside little Junction, Illinois, 350 miles south of Chicago for 17 years. And he and his brother owns a 25-hundred acre farm up north in McHenry County, where he employs about 50 migrants workers.

Ahrens says it's getting harder to find legal migrant workers and not just for him.

(AHRENS: Last year, over in Cobden area, there's a farm over there that left thousands and thousands of dollars of vegetables in the fields because he didn't have enough labor. They're critical. You can't farm without them.)

For Donnie Ahrens and most Illinois farmers, big and small, that means workers from Mexico. Some 70 percent of seasonal workers here are Mexican.

But the flow of Mexican workers is slowing down. Ahrens used to employ up to 250 migrants a season.

Some say it's tighter border controls, that it's harder for illegals to get in.

Though most farm workers have some kind of paper documents allowing them seasonal employment, everyone we talked with says illegal workers are part of the industry, a large part.

Others say it's fear – a kind of deep-rooted caution—not surprising given the national turmoil over guest worker visas and paths to citizenship for 12 million undocumented people.

For farmers, it's not as easy as just hiring the guy next door.

(AHRENS: They won't do it. No, they won't do it. We have tried it. We've tried it. We had a couple come in, a couple different people come that didn't even last a day. PUENTE: What is it about the job? Ahrens: They don't want to work outside, it's hot, it gets hot, the hours are pretty long, and you know it's dirty and a lot of times it's dusty? Puente: Even at 7 or 8 an hour with healthcare benefits? Ahrens: It doesn't make any difference. We could have paid $12, $15 an hour, when we were paying 6 or 7 dollars an hour when those rates were down there. They won't come.)

And, as pretty as those rows of watermelons and peppers may look, they're not going to pay the bills.

(FLINT: No matter how good it looks in the field, until you can get it on the shelf and get it sold, it doesn't really matter.)

Courtney Flint teaches Rural Sociology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Over the past year, Flint's students have interviewed nearly 200 farmers in southern Illinois as part of a study on critical issues facing farmers.

Nearly 70 percent of specialty farms like Ahrens said not having enough workers is a serious problem that's getting worse.

(FLINT: And, when you talk with these folks, they really see migrant labor as critical to their production, whether it's involved in planting, weeding, picking, sorting, boxing, all of the manual labor that gets these crops from the field to their marketing outlets.)

While technology upgrades and new machinery allow row crop farmers to depend less on migrant workers, specialty crop farmers can't do the same, Flint says.

Yet their product is a big part of Illinois' $9-billion agricultural picture. Specialty crops bring in a whopping $150 million annually.

(FLINT “Everything from berries, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries, to green beans and tomatoes, and garlic. Specialty growers still have this manual labor piece to their work that they don't see changing.)

And Flint says Ahrens' experience trying to hire local labor is echoed up and down the state.

(FLINT: They used to be able to get high school students to do some of this manual labor in the fields, but they can't anymore. So, without these migrant workers, they really feel completely in a bind.)

[bring up sound of diner]

(GENE: If they paid people 10, 12 bucks an hour they'd probably work it. The farmers don't want to pay it. They want to make the profits. Big profits!)

Gene Williams is grabbing a cup of coffer at a diner in Kankakee.

In this area of Central Illinois unemployment's about 6 percent, not as high as downstate but higher than most areas of Chicago.

But this city's surrounded by large tracks of farm land. Farming's in the blood of most folks here, like John Dillon, sitting next to his friend Gene at the restaurant's counter.

(DILLON: When I was a kid, I used to get five dollars. Puente: How much would it take for you to work on a farm now? Dillon: Probably like $10. Puente: Ten dollars? And you would do it? Dillion: yup. Puente: Are farms around here not paying that amount? Gene: No. How much are they paying? Gene: About 5 or 6 bucks an hour.)

He's right. Minimum wage is pretty much what farm workers make, sometimes less.

But it's not just pay that keeps people out of the fields.

The work is unpredictable and unsteady because of the short growing season and the weather. And even the federal government notes its reputation as back-breaking—one study put migrant farming as the worst of 250 American jobs because of factors like low pay, stress, and poor housing.

(GONZALEZ: They don't have insurances. They don't have retirement funds.)

Esperanza Gonzalez is president of the Illinois Migrant Council.

(GONZALEZ: They are not included in the Fair Labor Standards. They are probably the most exploited group of workers in the nation, farm workers are.)

Esperanza Gonzalez's parents were migrant farmers, as she was, starting at age 6 back in Texas.

Gonzalez says it's ridiculous to think farmers are going to pay enough to attract local workers.

(PUENTE: What if they paid like $15 or $20 an hour? GONZALEZ: They're not going to pay that. I'm not even going to answer that question.)

As farmers fret over the struggle to get foreign workers, there are those who believe the U.S. can survive without them.

Philip Martin, a University of California Davis economist and immigration authority, says America has done without migrant labor before and it can do it again with little hardship to most Americans.

(MARTIN: Yes, we need Mexican workers to keep agriculture as it now exists. But, if there were no Mexican workers, agriculture would change. Some farmers would go out of business.)

Martin says to survive farmers would have to restructure, use more machinery. He says both are possible. And he says hire wages for workers wouldn't hurt farmers or consumers all that much.

All that sounds pretty theoretical to Donnie Ahrens. He says wages are just one cost for a farmer to juggle. Paying more all the time for every gallon of gas is another.

And waiting for national leaders to craft a solid plan to keep legal, experienced seasonal workers on farms is another.

(AHRENS: There's no question in my mind that we're going to need to make a program here that's going to be workable for the growers and be able to take the workers and send them back when they're finish.)

Ahrens says he imagines a program that would give large numbers of seasonal workers the documents they need to travel into the United States for a growing season, then return home to their families, or with their families.

I'm Michael Puente. Chicago Public Radio.

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