Colorado peaches still ripe for picking, but joys of eating local may vanish

PALISADE – Producing the bright gold peaches long celebrated as Colorado’s most succulent crop increasingly requires imported workers, such as Jose Diaz of Mexico.

Eyes gazing intently above a red-white-and-blue bandana for protection against dust, Diaz brings precision for pruning, savvy for selecting fruits at just the right softness, delicacy in twisting each stem ever so slightly as if the peaches were eggs, and the drive to endure 105-degree temperatures.

“You have to get used to the heat,” Diaz, 20, said recently during a steamy 11-hour shift, the youngest on a crew of 65 workers from Mexico who launched this year’s harvest.

They work largely out of sight in a hazy yellow glow, traipsing through rows upon rows of thickly leafed peach trees, only their scuffed boots visible from outside the orchard. Their easy banter in Spanish, the language of agriculture in the United States, reverberates. They sip from crinkly back-pocket bottles of water. Smartphones switched on like radios serenade them with music from home: corridos, cumbias, banda.

U.S. workers no longer can hack it, Talbott’s Mountain Gold manager Bruce Talbott said in his headquarters nearby, recalling one hire who, when told he had to pick the peaches above his head height by climbing up ladders, demanded extra pay for that task. Two days later he quit. “The heat melts them,” Talbott said. “Without these foreign workers, we do not function.”

Meanwhile, more and more food that people in the United States consume is grown beyond U.S. borders. The country recently became a net food importer for the first time, according to federal data reviewed by the Denver Post. The trade imbalance between food grown abroad and food grown at home has ballooned, projected to reach $17 billion this year, data show. This growing dependence is raising concerns about security, similar to the concerns U.S. leaders once raised about relying on foreign suppliers of oil.

Around Colorado, the agricultural harvest ramping up this month reveals the intricate and shifting dynamics of food production in a nation growing less and less self-sufficient.

On the home front, farmers import foreign workers at rising costs. “And we are moving toward importing more food,” Talbott said. “It is just cheaper to produce food outside the United States.”

Hooked on foreign workers

The number of foreign workers in the United States has exploded. Many arrive under the H2A visa program, which lets employers hire “guests” on a temporary basis to perform agricultural work where there are not sufficient U.S. workers available. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor approved hiring 371,000 workers — double the number of H2A workers approved in 2016 and seven times the number in 2005, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service data. Tens of thousands more foreign workers toil in U.S. farm fields without proper documents.

The H2A surge is reflected in Colorado, where federal officials approved the recruitment of 4,217 H2A workers last year, up from 1,188 a decade ago, Colorado Department of Labor and Employment records show. Producers of the state’s signature crops — including peaches, melons, cherries and sweet corn — count on these workers.

This visa program began in 1986, a reincarnation of the controversial “bracero” program that brought 4.5 million farmworkers from Mexico for 50-cents-an-hour labor during World War II and then was extended until 1964 when mechanization had spread.

In Colorado, H2A workers are paid $16.34 an hour, about 20% higher than the state’s $13.65 minimum wage, though less than their counterparts in California ($18.65), Oregon ($17.97) and Washington ($17.97). They receive free transport from their home countries and free housing while in the United States.

“If we did not have H2A workers, we would no longer plant peaches,” said Talbott, whose family has grown food in Palisade for more than a century.

U.S. lawmakers in Congress are wrestling with whether the nation will be able to feed itself in the future — some seeing a crisis — and warning of continued spiking food prices that increasingly hurt working families. The Affordable and Secure Food Act introduced in December by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet would expand the H2A worker visa program, allowing workers to stay year-round and streamlining the process for farmers to import workers.

More foreign workers are necessary “to do the hard, essential work of feeding this country,” Bennet told fellow lawmakers in the Senate.

“I don’t want to rely on other nations to feed America,” Bennet said in a speech on the floor. “That is terrible for our economic security, our food security and, I would argue, for our national security.”

U.S. social justice advocates object. They cast H2A as an extension of the bracero program that frequently failed to fully pay foreign workers and depressed wages for their U.S. counterparts. Like bracero, the H2A program binds workers to specific employers and doesn’t offer a path to citizenship. And employers in some states aren’t required to pay farmworkers extra for overtime. In Colorado, lawmakers last year removed that loophole, acknowledging the “inequity and racist origins of the exclusion of agricultural employees from overtime.” Colorado regulations now require overtime pay of 1.5 times the hourly rate when farmworkers exceed 60 hours a week, a cap decreasing by 2025 to 48 hours.

At Denver-based Towards Justice, a nonprofit law firm, attorneys have filed a lawsuit against Gov. Jared Polis demanding stricter protection for farm workers. “There’s a ton of trafficking, all kinds of problems, and farm workers have been excluded from collective bargaining for decades,” executive director David Seligman said, alleging wage theft, confiscation of passports, and failure to provide medical services.

Saving domestic U.S. agriculture “doesn’t justify the exploitation of workers,” Seligman said. “We do want small growers to exist. But the solution isn’t to permit the continued exploitation of workers.”

Colorado Legal Services, a federally supported group, has filed 20 official complaints with government agencies since 2022 alleging overtime and other abuses of H2A and other migrant farm workers, managing attorney Jenifer Rodriguez said. She declined to share specifics of the complaints, saying they aren’t public. “Workers are so fearful of retaliation that taking formal action is challenging. This is mainly due to the power imbalance between farm workers and the farms and ranches they work for, as well as the enormous inequities the workers face.”

“We gain bit by bit”

Here in western Colorado, Diaz and fellow foreign workers see their plight in relation to conditions back home. When interviewed in Spanish over two days, away from supervisors, they gave positive assessments of their working and living conditions. They sleep in buildings with swamp-cooler air conditioning where employers provide cooking accommodations. They take breaks in the shade and drink plenty of water. Their primary consideration is the relatively high pay in the United States, motivating them to leave their families in Mexico for months, workers said. They typically earn more in one hour here than a worker in rural Mexico can earn in a day.

“I send home the money I earn every 15 days. It pays for our water, electricity, food,” Diaz said, noting he has two brothers – Fernando and Joaquin — also working on H2A visas in Colorado. A fourth brother in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, may soon be available, too.

“Our family is able to make progress little by little. We’re trying to build a shop” and start a grocery business, he said. “Here, it is better. We can earn more.”

Lugging an 18-pound white plastic bin full of just-picked peaches down a ladder toward empty boxes on a trailer hitched to a tractor, Miguel Briones, 24, said he feels good despite the heat — knowing he’s providing for his family in Mexico. “We gain, bit by bit. I help my sisters stay in school. I help my mother. We’re able to buy more,” he said.

Compared with other parts of the United States, western Colorado is appealing, said Pedro Salazar, 38. Previously he loaded oranges in Florida, he said. “The work was harder and it was much hotter.”

A representative of the government of El Salvador recently visited western Colorado, handing out brochures touting the “benefits of hiring Salvadoran temporary workers under the H2A visa program.” Infusions of money earned in the United States boost communities in Central America, reducing poverty that U.S. officials cite as a root cause of illegal immigration.

“This work is hard,” said Arturo Gallardo, 50, a former construction worker, summarizing his options as he carefully and swiftly picked peaches. He supports his spouse and two boys in Michoacan. “Often, we don’t have other work. The work here is better than in Mexico.”

Net food importer

Even with the importation of hundreds of thousands of workers and possible expansion of the H2A program, a broader long-term transformation is accelerating — away from self-sufficiency and toward greater reliance on food grown abroad.

An increasing portion of the food eaten in the United States comes from imports, now more than 20%, according to USDA data. That’s up from about 14% two decades ago and 12% in 1990.

This shift gained momentum around the end of the twentieth century, driven in part by consumer demands for year-round availability of items that historically were seasonal. The value of imports quadrupled over the past two decades.

Back in 2001, the United States imported around $44 billion a year of food, the data show. Exports that year exceeded $52 billion. U.S. farmers still celebrated being the “Breadbasket of the World.”

Trade overall has mushroomed since then. However, just since 2017, the value of food imported into the United States has increased by 55% and now is approaching $200 billion a year, data show.

Meanwhile, the value of exports decreased after 2018, dipping to $139 billion in 2020, though world market fluctuations led to increases, and government economists this year project exports around $181 billion.

For the first time, in 2019, the value of imported food exceeded the value of exports, data show. The annual trade deficit between imports and exports has increased by 13 times from $1.3 billion in 2019 to this year’s projected $17 billion imbalance.

By 2021 in grocery markets around the United States, 60% of fresh fruits were imported from other countries, and 38% of fresh vegetables were imported, an analysis of federal economic data shows.

Smaller producers squeezed

Colorado farmers say the outsourcing of food production will intensify.

East of Pueblo in Colorado’s Arkansas River Valley, chile producer Gary Ditomaso pointed to widespread difficulties lining up workers and said he expects most smaller fruit and vegetable growers will close down. The costs of importing H2A workers from Mexico and Central America are increasing too fast, he said, referring to the federal requirements that employers provide free housing and cover travel costs — on top of the higher-than-minimum wage.

Despite rich soil and a climate with hot days and cool nights favoring the finest chiles in the world, Ditomaso said he’s considering shutting down his farm fields. He’ll focus, instead, on selling crops grown by others at his retail market.

Finding and hiring U.S. workers looks impossible, Ditomaso said. “They’re too lazy to stay out in the sun all day hauling chile. Our people here are too soft.”

Yet few longtime producers are comfortable with greater dependence on other countries for food.

Farmers watched Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which disrupted the supply of wheat, shattering food security in Africa. And they anticipate more of the climate calamities that scientists say will increase as global average temperatures rise with record build-up of heat-trapping pollution in the atmosphere.

“The United States has to produce its own food for our country,” Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association president Roger Mix said. “If you import food, the cost can go way higher than what people can afford, especially lower-income and middle-class families.”

Outsourcing production “puts you in a precarious situation,” said Charlie Talbott, president of Talbott Farms. “It means your sustenance now depends on your relationship with your food importer.”

His brother, Bruce Talbott, nodded. “Our food security won’t be the same. If push comes to shove and there’s not enough food to go around, the other countries aren’t going to sell it.”

Compared with other nations, the U.S. reliance on imports remains relatively low. China, for example, imported 34% of its food supply in 2020, up from 7% in 2000, according to a U.S. Council on Foreign Relations report.

“We’re vulnerable. Without a doubt, the cost of production here is going up and the ability for me to operate my farm is in jeopardy,” said David Harold, owner of the Tuxedo Corn Company near Olathe, a family operation on 1,300 acres that deploys 150 to 170 H2A workers from Mexico to produce sweet corn.

“To survive, I’ve got to raise prices. Or, I can leave prices where they are and close up shop and quit when the bank comes to take everything and says: ‘When you are not making a profit we are not going to finance you,’ ” Harold said.

The company is committed to treating workers well, he added. “If you are concerned about social justice, and if the production moves to Mexico or Central America, what do you think the wages and working conditions are like there? If your goal is to help people, that’s not necessarily in peoples’ best interest,” he said.

“If that H2A labor pool would go away, I would shut down.”

Colorado’s signature crops not so easily outsourced

The stakes are especially high in Colorado if domestic agriculture does not survive. In the western half of the state, millionaires await, buying up Tuscan-esque mesas where farmers sell out for the construction of mansions. Farmers here joke that they are becoming “landscape managers.”

For legions of food consumers, cherished eating experiences could be lost. The state’s most celebrated signature crops are delicate and perishable — among them melons, sweet corn, cherries, chiles, and peaches — not easily outsourced for global commerce without losing flavor. Peaches must be cooled as soon as possible after harvest to prevent degradation. When ripe with full flavor, they are virtually un-transportable. And any bruise or mold quickly can turn a whole batch rotten.

“You can outsource berries and applies. They have a durability to them,” Palisade farmer James Sanders said. “But the peach always has to stay home.”

So respect for workers is on the rise at the end of the day when weary crews from Mexico parade through town alongside tractors tugging trailers tight-packed with harvested peaches. On the first afternoon of this year’s harvest, 20 workers picked enough peaches to fill 1,300 boxes. These will sell at fruit stands for $45 to $70 a box. That works out to a retail value between $58,000 and $91,000. Those workers’ collective wages that day totaled less than $3,600.

Talbott’s Mountain Gold foreman Luis Guerrero, once a migrant from Mexico who now resides in Grand Junction, concurred with owners’ assessments of the workers’ crucial economic role. “Mexican workers do everything here,” Guerrero said. “And maybe the owners will need to pay a little more in the future. This is hard work. I mean, even McDonald’s pays $15 an hour.”

His son Matthew, 21, who grew up playing in farm fields while his father toiled and now has joined the crew, described the workers’ feelings as they quietly roll through. They are proud of their enterprise and aware of Palisade residents and visitors watching.

This is about more than money. “It’s about being glad to be here. Just working. We like to work,” he said.

“You do feel pretty good. It is a lot of peaches. People look at you. And a lot of those people wave.”

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