The loud buzzing sound at 4 a.m. was the cantankerous alarm clock; an early morning wakeup call for a day which would widely open the eyes to a real day in Western vegetable production.

An hour later, about 30 sleepy-eyed folks boarded a bus at a hotel in Yuma, Ariz., early this spring to head south about 20 miles to the U.S.-Mexico border to the San Luis Port of Entry in San Luis, Ariz.

It was an early start to a day-long adventure to gain a better understanding of agriculture and its work force in this rural-rich winter vegetable growing region which includes neighboring Imperial County, Calif.

The Yuma and Imperial low-desert areas are called the Winter Vegetable Capital of the Nation where about 90 percent of the nation’s supply of winter vegetables are grown from mid November through March.

During the rest of the year, California’s Central Coast and Central Valley regions are the ‘Salad Bowl of the World,’ where the vast majority of the nation’s vegetables are grown.

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The border excursion was a field trip for the 20 members of Project CENTRL Class XXI. Project CENTRL is the Center for Rural Leadership in Arizona which operates in partnership with the University of Arizona's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

A handful of CENTRL program graduates led the day-long tour; giving back to the same program which opened their eyes about agriculture.

At 5 a.m., the border-bound bus left the hotel amid the booming voice of Class XII graduate Joseph “Sonny” Rodriguez.

“This area is the winter salad capital of the world,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez and his brother Mark own and operate The Growers Company, a labor contracting service in Somerton, located between Yuma and the border. The company was started by their father Joe Senior in 1950.

As a young man, Sonny harvested winter vegetables in central Arizona.

Rodriguez told the group that every agricultural job in winter vegetable production creates three related jobs, ranging from farm fertilizers to manufacturing cardboard boxes to ship produce.

About 2,000 trucks travel in and out of the Yuma area daily with loads of vegetables. Lettuce harvested Monday will arrive by truck in Chicago Wednesday and in New York City Thursday.

Immigration reform

Rodriguez touted the need for Congress to pass current immigration reform legislation, including a guest worker program for agriculture. At press time, the legislation was advancing in the U.S. Senate.

“Agriculture needs a reliable, legal source of labor to provide the nation’s food supply,” Rodriquez said.

Perhaps a greater challenge in the Halls of Congress could be a lukewarm reception by the U.S. House.

“The bottom line is immigation reform has a long way to go,” Rodriguez said. “The champagne is not on ice.”

Rodriguez hires about 2,300 workers daily during the peak winter vegetable season. About 20 percent of his workforce needs are unfilled, due to the lack of available workers.

About 70 percent of the Rodriguez’s workers live in Mexico and commute back and forth each work day.

An estimated 45,000 farm workers walk, bike, or drive through the port daily into Arizona between 3:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. to harvest, pack, and ship vegetables, says Rodriguez. The population of San Luis almost doubles daily as the mass of farm workers pass through the city streets.

For Mexican farm workers, travelling from home, crossing the international border, and returning home can take five hours each day. By far, the longest wait is the morning commute to the U.S. side.

Juan Carlos Escamilla, a Class XXI class member, says the crossing can take two hours by bicycle, three hours by foot, and four hours by car. Escamilla, former mayor of San Luis, is now a lawmaker in the Arizona House of Representatives.

The bus approached the San Luis Port of Entry I, the passenger area of the port, as a glimpse of daylight appeared on the horizon. The tone in Rodriguez’s voice turned serious as the group then walked by the many labor contractor busses parked near the border. The busses filled the parking lots of the Circle K, Chevron, and Arco gas stations, plus the Chase Bank and Supermarket Del Sol.

Labor contractor supervisors stood by the busses talking with potential employees while checking official documents.

People lined up at luncheras (food trucks) to purchase coffee, donuts, or the day’s lunch. It was a very busy, well-organized place.

Escamilla summed up the bustling area, “Some mornings can look like the downtown Vegas strip. It gets pretty crazy.”

Customs and Border Protection

Three officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CDP) met the group at the border, including port director Roque Casa and assistant directors Chris Leon (commercial operations) and Robert Schroeder (tactical operations). CBP is a law enforcement agency.

“Border security and anti-terrorism are the primary missions,” Casa said. “We deal in international commerce and it’s important to keep the movement of goods flowing across the border.”

CBP enforces laws and regulations for 400-plus government agencies, including USDA. CBP agricultural specialists keep a sharp lookout for prohibited foods and crop pests carried by passengers and their vehicles.

CDP processes about seven million passengers annually through a dozen lanes, including two million cars. The port is open round the clock.

No photos were allowed at the pedestrian crossing.

As the officers spoke, hundreds of people on foot wearing sweatshirts, scarves, and hats stood in the winter morning chill as the line moved slowly toward the border inspectors. Most of those crossing were men.

The words “Citrus Harvest” were stitched on one pedestrian’s backpack. Citrus is picked during the winter months in the Southern Arizona and California low deserts.

A dozen or so young children with backpacks waited in line. Caza says some children attend school in San Luis and further into Yuma County.

Up to 5,000 pedestrians cross the border from midnight to 8 a.m. during the busy vegetable and fruit harvest season.

According to the CBP website, the agency conducted about 25 million passenger inspections and 34 million cargo inspections at the nation’s 330 ports of entry during fiscal year 2011.

For agriculture, about 1.6 million quarantine materials were intercepted, mostly plant material and animal bi-products. There were 177,000 pest interceptions, including 50,000 cited violations.

CBP has about 2,300 agricultural specialists at 167 ports of entry.

At 8:00, the group boarded the bus and traveled to the nearby San Luis Port of Entry II where commercial traffic crosses the border in both directions.

Opened in 2010, the 80-acre port processes about 40,000 commercial trucks annually from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Officer Leon chuckled when he referred to the commercial port’s appearance with its “Jurassic Park”-type gates.”

During the winter months, about half of the trucks passing through the port transport produce. On site are representatives from the USDA, Food and Drug Administration, and veterinarians.

“Anytime we discover a pest in a farm commodity (shipment) we have a USDA person who identifies the pest as quickly as possible,” Officer Leon said.

About 75-80 percent of the commodities are X-rayed with a mobile machine which can inspect five trucks at a time. A permanent X-ray system is planned.

San Luis Port II is the only commercial port in the U.S. with a "cold room." If an importer has berries in the load and CBP wants to examine the commodity, the product is off loaded in the cold room.

“We will not jeopardize the commodity by bringing it to the dock and just have it sit there,” Leon said. “This way the importer knows the commodity is being well kept.”

Other stops

Other stops on the tour included the Regional Center for Border Health, the U.S. Border Patrol Yuma Sector Headquarters, Takaii Seed Company, and the Dream Gate Fresh Salad vegetable processing plant.

The last stop was a Yuma-area icebery lettuce field where Project CENTRL members watched the harvest under way.

One class member was overheard saying, ‘I had no idea the amount of hard work that goes into harvesting vegetables. I’ve driven by vegetable fields but have never seen it up close. This experience has opened my eyes.’

As it did for many.

Since 1983, more than 550 Project CENTRL class members have completed the program. Today, the graduates use the leadership tools gained from the program to meet the needs facing agriculture and rural Arizona.

cblake@farmpress.com

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