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South Texas farm labor a growing concern

MISSION, TX — While labor supplies for South Texas growers are not yet a major problem, there is a need for attention to the matter, according to shippers here.

Trent Bishop, vice president of sales for Lone Star Citrus Growers in Mission, TX, said the labor situation as of now has not affected his company.

“The citrus deal is usually the first to get started in the Rio Grande Valley,” Bishop said. “Once greens and cabbage get started it is more of a competitive deal for us” to hire labor.texas-labor-Trent-BishopTrent Bishop

At the same time, the timing is good to receive workers who have finished the northwest onion deal or southwest melons.

“We are able to find workers after the first of the year but it’s more competitive,” he added. A drop in oil prices lowered demand for workers in Texas oil fields, which increased availability for the produce industry, Bishop noted.

“I am in favor of some sort of visa and worker program to allow Mexican citizens willing to work to have an avenue to do that,” Bishop said. “We as a country have to have that.”

Jimmy Bassetti, Jr. president of J & D Produce Inc. in Edinburg, TX, said finding available farm labor “is becoming more and more difficult, especially when all of the programs collide in March. We are still going full blast with wet veg and onions, which puts pressure on the citrus people.” The options are to either to “curtail our planting or source more labor.” Bassetti “heard of folks” in South Texas “who tried the H2A program. It didn’t do well and adds to everyone’s cost. We are not sure if we can pass on that cost and stay competitive. We are weighing those options now. It’s a problem for everybody — South Texas, California, Florida and New Jersey. We all suffer for labor.”

He noted that there are people who want to do the work but finding a solution with legislators is the problem.

Bassetti said he is also looking toward mechanized harvesting. “We are traveling to see what we can come up with,” he said. Automated onion harvesters may be feasible. To mechanically harvest greens “would be a huge investment. We are in the preliminary stages, but we have seen nothing yet that can cut and bunch greens. You may see less fresh conventional bunching and more bagged and clamshell greens.”   

Frank Schuster, president of Val Verde Vegetable Co. Inc., said, “Our labor supply is getting tighter. I always feel it at onion harvest. I can’t say labor is as plentiful as it was in the past.”