Otero County meloneers lament immigration stalemate

ROCKY FORD, Colo. — Train tracks run parallel to US 50 across the southern half of Colorado. The county road to Hirakata Farms cuts south across those tracks. It’s a narrow drive and several of the plots on either side are vacant, but where corn is planted, the wind in the stalks sounds like the sea.

Four generations ago, just at the turn of the century, Tatsunosuke Hirakata arrived in Seattle by ship and worked the railroad until he found himself in this newly established Colorado town. He arrived just in the nick of time: the area had recently been irrigated, was ripe for agricultural development, and a Mr. Swink (of nearby Swink, Colorado) had just invented the Melon crate.

Today, descendants Glenn and Mike Hirakata farm more than 800 acres south of town, harvesting cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, pumpkins, and even winter wheat and corn when they can get enough water. Their high-altitude season is short and intense. Melons are a summer crop. They grow during 105-degree days and sweeten when the temperature plummets at night.  

“It takes a lot of labor to get a melon to the grocery store. I’m not sure people realize,” said Glenn Hirakata. The melons have to be hand picked. Hirakata farms promises vine ripe or “full-slip” melons, meaning the melons are virtually falling from their stems. To harvest them at that stage can take as many as 15 passes of a field, since the melons don’t exactly ripen in unison.

“With produce like ours, one day can be critical. Today it’s fresh, tomorrow it’s rotten,” said Hirakata. “When it’s time to harvest it’s seven days a week, all day, for however long it takes.”

During peak season the farm’s employment skyrockets from a handful of locals to as many as 60 laborers, about half of whom come from northern Mexico on the guest worker’s program known as H-2A.

“In our area, there isn’t a big enough workforce pool to draw from,” Hirakata said. “H-2A is a very restricted system with a lot of red tape. It’s not a great program but we have no choice.”

meloneers at work

For years Hirakata has enrolled in the program bringing guest workers to his farm between July and October, when the bulk of the harvesting, sorting and packing gets done. Regardless of how the harvest goes, he’s committed to at least 75 percent of the workers’ three-month, farm-specific contracts. He also has to pay for transit across the border both ways and for food and board in Colorado.

The application process for H-2A begins in early spring, long before seeds are planted, and certainly before any farmer knows exactly how many workers they’ll need.

Hirakata mentions a friend who thought he’d have no harvest at all due to a water rights issue, so he passed on his annual H-2A application. But the water came through and now there’s no one to harvest the crop. Even in less extreme cases, the program is inflexible.

“If we brought up 30 individuals and then needed 10 more, it wouldn’t hardly be feasible,” Hirakata said. “Out here we have such a small window to harvest that any labor shortages, any delay, is costing you a lot of money.”

Farmers in Otero County don’t really need to jump any more hurdles to bring in a crop. They’re facing an ongoing drought and a population that has dropped 10 percent in as many years. The area has been named a natural disaster area twice recently, for drought and for a late-May frost in 2010 that claimed half the melon crop. 2011’s Listeria outbreak, which killed 33 and was traced to a melon farm 100 miles from Rocky Ford but branded with the name, sent the area into a brief but terrifying tailspin. In 2012 meloneers cautiously planted just 20 percent of their crop, confining distribution to within the state.

By contrast, 2013 has been relatively calm, farmers here enduring merely the expiration of the nation’s farm bill and the federal government shutdown.

“We’re not feeling the affects of the farm bill expiring right now, but if this doesn’t get solved soon, we will in the future,” Hirakata said. Members of Congress, he said, are “acting like kids at everyone else’s expense.”

The relative lull has afforded Hirakata some time to think about larger issues that impact his farm. Immigration is high on the list.

“We need a system that would benefit agriculture in Colorado in the long run. Something flexible enough to actually fill in the gaps in employment,” he said. “They need to get this resolved at the national level. It’s a bipartisan issue.”

The nation’s current approach to immigration doesn’t work for Hirakata and it’s a mess for many of the guest workers he employs.

“The H-2A program negates the desire and need for a pathway to citizenship, so that’s a problem right there,” said Caroline Casteel at the Colorado Progressive Coalition. “Right now there’s almost no accountability, workers are extremely vulnerable to exploitation.”

That vulnerability extends to both sides of the border.

In Mexico, third-party recruiters for the program often charge workers exorbitant fees to “arrange” their visas — a practice amounting to virtual debt bondage. In the United States, guest workers don’t enjoy the same labor rights as U.S. citizens. On the contrary, they fear reporting abuse because their visas are directly tied to their employers.

Victor Días, 29, has been coming to work at the Hirakata farm for seven years. He has a wife and two children in Chihuahua, Mexico, where he also works in agriculture during the Colorado off season.

“It’s much safer to work through the [H-2A] program, and I make 10 times as much money here,” Días said. He added that, although he’s concerned about the lack of full-season employment in the north, if a path to citizenship were available in the States — even a long path — he would take it.

Casteel says polling data confirms that the vast majority of guest workers feel like Días feels. Nine in 10 guest workers would like to become U.S. citizens.

“We can’t stall on immigration reform. We’re losing productivity every day that we stall,” added Casteel, who also works as a small business advocate in southern Colorado. “If our government could just get back to work and get something passed, a lot of rural communities will benefit hugely.”  

Hirakata sees the debate over immigration reform as removed from reality.

“Would we rather force Americans out of the industry by importing food from far away or bring labor here to produce food safely and locally?” he asked, watching guest workers pack harvested pumpkins. He said that, although many workers come to Colorado to save money for their families to the south, their presence has a marked impact on the local economy.

After years spent working at Hirakata farms, Días has saved enough money to buy a car. He wants to buy a Nissan Sentra and he is taking the realities of globalization into account to make the purchase. Nissans are manufactured in Japan, the United States and Mexico. He plans to buy the car in the United States, because they cost less here than they do in Mexico.

[ Photos by Tessa Cheek. ]