In part one of our series we gave you just a hint at the challenges faced by the nation’s fresh veggie producers. Now consider how important water, labor and food safety can be to their success.
Start with water. No rain? No problem — in fact, rain would throw production out of whack, says Steve Alameda, a co-owner at Topflavor Farms, known for growing and shipping veggies from Yuma, AZ, the heart of the nation’s so-called “winter salad bowl.”
Instead, the farm’s flood-irrigated fields rely on water rights dating back to the 1920s. Water is “ordered” in advance and delivered to each gated field via decades-old concrete aqueducts. The fields, which are laser-leveled, fill up like a bathtub. A “ditch rider” ensures no more than 5 acre feet per year is released. There are pumping stations, but hydroelectric systems pay the cost to pump and lift water when needed.
“This water system is a government project that has benefited not only the people of this area, but the people all over the country,” says Alameda, who gets a monthly bill that shows amount of water delivered to each gate and field. “I still have plenty of water to work with, but water security — water for the future — is becoming an issue.”
Then there’s labor — probably the most crucial to success here. Upward of 40,000 farm laborers work in the Yuma area during peak harvest, and a fourth of them come from Mexico daily. Alameda, like most of his peers, wants the U.S. government to stop playing politics with farm labor.
“I wish they would give us a workable guest worker program,” he says. “The H2A program is not only cumbersome, it’s expensive. We know some people are here illegally, but we don’t know who they are, nor can we ask. We don’t relish the thought of building a business or industry on the backs of an illegal workforce, but that’s what’s happening. We need a workable option.”
Unfortunately, says Alameda, the undocumented worker issue has gotten wrapped up in unions. It’s estimated that 11 million undocumented workers live in the U.S., and many work in hospitality. “Our argument is agriculture needs something separate; we’re not the hotel industry,” he says. “Are they taking jobs from Americans? We’ve had unemployed Americans come out, and they often don’t last half a day working manual labor. We can’t get people to do these jobs, but agriculture is held hostage by another industry.
“They see it one way in Washington, but we’re living in the middle of it. When people are trying hard to get something better for their kids and it’s not happening in Mexico, they come here and work. They wouldn’t come here if they could make a living in Mexico.”
Produce operations must also deal with strict regulations focusing on worker well-being and food safety. You might think such regs are a nuisance, but Alameda welcomes them. “Your customers have to have confidence in your product,” he says.
After some bad spinach sickened people 10 years ago, the farmers developed their own safety metrics, which were adopted by California and Arizona regulators. As part of this Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, trained auditors inspect farms to ensure safe practices.
“We did it to ourselves because we needed something quickly,” says Alameda. And because the LGMA only pertained to California and Arizona, the farmers have also started using third-party audits by groups like PrimusLabs, a company whose sole purpose is to train, educate, audit and verify farm and food safety practices. Alameda must show auditors how workers are trained, and washing or other equipment is inspected. A key focus is monthly water testing for E. coli or salmonella, which can be a problem with open water canals.
“When they come on the farm, we show them all these records,” he says. “If you get a score below a certain level, you have to fix things and show that they are fixed. This is so the stores can show they have done due diligence for the consumers.
“We do fight regulations to some degree, but many of them have led to positives,” he concludes.