Immigration Predictions

Finding the effects of Arizona ’s Employer Sanctions law is not an easy task. The law went into place in January, and pulls the licenses of businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Some economists say it will be years before the dust clears from the subprime mortgage mess, and until then, hard numbers will be murky.  As KJZZ’s Tony Ganzer reports, some observers are already predicting what could happen in the agricultural industry—one segment of the economy that has been hit especially hard by the immigration debate.

TG: If you ask produce trader Doug Schaefer, with EJ’s Produce Sales in Phoenix , about Arizona’s employer sanctions law, he’s quick to offer his concerns:

Schaefer: “And I really question whether or not the e-verification is capable of really verifying or not whether somebody has proper papers.”

TG:  Schaefer buys and sells produce for a living, and he’s the former head of Arizona’s Vegetable Growers Association.  He says the produce business is one of the few remaining supply and demand markets, which rely heavily on migrant workers.

Schaefer:  “You know, when it comes to bottom line and people start paying more at their grocery store lines, people are going to stand up and say, ‘Wait a minute. What have we done, maybe we need to look at it.’”

Agua Linda farms near Tucson

TG:  The appeal to rising produce prices in the supermarket is a common one, even inspiring an e-mail chain letter or two.  But ASU economist Dawn McLaren says it’s not that simple—prices are affected by many things.

McLaren: “Years ago we had heirloom tomatoes, that were juicy, very, very tasty. But they required picking by hand.  This is a problem when you have a labor force that you don’t really want in your country, which is illegal immigrants and people who are agricultural workers coming here making a low wage.”

TG:  McLaren says this created a problem for the farmers, who needed hands to pick the heirloom tomatoes.  So, farmers bred a new tomato with less flavor and tougher skin, allowing the crops to be picked green by machine, and ripened by chemicals.

McLaren:  “Now this was decades ago, so I guess we don’t remember history that well, or we’ve decided once again the trade off is good enough.”

TG:  McLaren says some problems could lead to bigger problems.  Ethanol subsidies for example may increase dependence on foreign food imports, which she says is a bad idea.  Along with subsidy problems, higher gasoline prices could lead to a change in the way we get our food.

TG:Ram Achariya is an ASU economist who studies trends in the fruit and vegetable markets.  He says greenhouses are more expensive to build, but could become cost effective if gas prices climbed too high.

Ram Achariya: “If you account for the transportation cost then the cost of greenhouse lettuce could be comparable.”

TG: Achariya’s model showed if gas became too expensive, it would be cheaper to grow food in greenhouses closer to big cities, instead of trucking goods from Yuma or central California.

TG:  Produce trader Doug Schaefer agrees greenhouses may be worth the cost.

Schaefer: “Studies show that the production in a greenhouse can be as much as triple than production in an open field facility.”

TG:  Be it importing foreign food, or shifting the growing practices, Schaefer says the year-round U-S produce market needs supply.

For KJZZ I’m Tony Ganzer.

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