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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
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And I'm Audie Cornish. The proposed immigration deal now being debated on Capitol Hill may do little to change a larger long-term trend facing American farmers. In Mexico, a declining birth rate and an improving economy mean fewer migrants are heading north looking for work. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The Salinas Valley in Northern California grows about 80 percent of the country's lettuce, and it takes a lot of people to pick and pack it. In a field owned by Duda Farm Fresh Foods, a dozen lechugueros, lettuce men, are bent at the waist, cutting heads of iceberg lettuce. They're working frantically to stay in front of a line of 12 more packers, who seal them with tape and toss them onto a conveyor belt.
A few steps away, the company's vice president, Sammy Duda, shields his eyes from the bright sun as he describes this exhausting work.
SAMMY DUDA: There's a lot more going on here than meets the eye. The way the lettuce is trimmed is much more difficult to do if you don't trim it properly.
SIEGLER: Duda hires 1,000 or more field workers every harvest, paying them about $12 an hour. Many don't have papers, but Duda says he has no other choice. Hardly any Americans apply for these jobs, he says, and most who do, don't stay.
DUDA: This has always been an immigrant job, whether it's, like I say, back from the Dust Bowl group. This is not a new phenomenon.
SIEGLER: Labor shortages aren't a new phenomenon, either, in this valley made famous by John Steinbeck. But things have gotten worse lately. A lot of the migrant workers who came from rural Mexico are getting too old for this back-breaking work and their kids don't want to do it at all.
MARCO LARA: It's hard. It's hard. Because I've been working in the fields for like 12 years now.
SIEGLER: Twenty-nine-year-old Marco Lara is holding his sweat-drenched ball cap during a break. He says many of his extended family and friends back in his native Michoacan don't want to cross the border right now, either. Hiring a coyote costs a lot more than it once did, and the border is a lot more dangerous.
LARA: There's people that just don't want to risk coming here. I lost two friends on the border, like, three years ago and it's hard.
SIEGLER: Farmer Sammy Duda says the proposed immigration overhaul bill might solve some of these problems. For one, it would give thousands of workers a path to legal residency and make it easier for others to enter the U.S. But he says those things are probably just stopgap fixes.
DUDA: It'll help us in the short term. The long term? Remains to be seen. This will get us where we need to go, I think, as an industry and as a country, but in the long term, we thought we solved it in 1986, right? And here we are again.
SIEGLER: Duda's referring to the last big immigration overhaul under President Reagan. And here's where the longer-term trend comes in. Since the late-1990s, there has been a slow but steady decline in the number of rural Mexicans migrating north. UC Davis ag economist Ed Taylor sees little connection between this and U.S. immigration policy.
ED TAYLOR: And this is a new fact of life that U.S. agriculture has got to face up to.
SIEGLER: Taylor's research is pointing to declining birth rates in rural Mexico, where the economy has also improved in recent years. Farms there have also expanded to meet the year-round produce demands north of the border, so why risk going north?
TAYLOR: Many farmers also have this sense that if Washington can just get its house in order and pass a new immigration reform, their problems will be over, and that isn't what our research is showing.
SIEGLER: Taylor says farms here are going to have to learn how to do more with less immigrant labor. And that means switching to less labor-intensive crops or mechanization. In the Salinas Valley town of Gonzales, Frank Maconachy may have an answer for farmers worried about that long-term trend pointing to big labor shortages.
FRANK MACONACHY: The labor resource is dwindling, so we needed to develop a machine that could mechanically cut it efficiently, effectively, safely and get the crop to market competitively.
SIEGLER: That machine is an automated spinach harvester. Behind Maconachy, a couple men are welding one together. His company custom builds others to suit individual farmers' needs. You need a different blade and equipment to pick spinach than you do, say, celery. But the main point is you need fewer workers, a lot fewer.
MACONACHY: One operator can now harvest 12 to 15,000 pounds of spinach or baby leaf in an hour, where typically a crew of 30 people would be on their hands and knees cutting this with knives and would do half of that volume at best.
SIEGLER: But efficiency comes with a price: $250,000 for one of these machines. And back at Duda Farms, Sammy Duda isn't quite ready to make that kind of investment. Machines can't do everything.
DUDA: It's very difficult to duplicate the eyes and the feel of a worker when it comes to maturity and quality of the crop.
SIEGLER: But longer term, Duda knows his business is going to have to change. Technology once radically changed this valley. Refrigeration allowed iceberg lettuce to be shipped all over the country.
DUDA: This particular valley was founded on innovation. There's a lot of bright people that have their radar going. And so, as labor issues change, we adapt or we die.
SIEGLER: Adapt or die. Farmer Sammy Duda is thinking about that long term, even as he's focused intently on the current immigration bill, whether it will help him get enough workers to get through these next few years. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.
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