Despite high unemployment, Yuma’s agribusiness continues to thrive

A marquee sign greets visitors on Main Street in Yuma’s historic downtown.
(Photo by Stefan Modrich/Cronkite News)

YUMA – Every month, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes a report listing metropolitan areas with the highest unemployment rates in the country.

The Yuma metropolitan area – on Arizona’s westernmost edge – often finds itself at the top of that list. The area, the geographic equivalent of Yuma County, had a non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 23.3 percent in October while the national average hovered at 4.8 percent.

It’s a distinction no metropolitan area wants. And it’s a statistic local business leaders and community officials in Yuma insist doesn’t accurately depict the area’s economic condition.

After all, Yuma ranks in the top 1 percent of U.S. counties in vegetable sales, acreage and total sales, with gross receipts topping $1 billion.

And the region is the second-leading producer of lettuce in the U.S. and accounts for 90 percent of the nation’s leafy green vegetables in the winter months, according to a University of Arizona presentation.

“We’re really tired of talking about the unemployment rate because it’s not reflective of this community,” said Julie Engel, CEO of the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corp.

People generally use the unemployment rate as diagnostic of overall economic health of countries, states, counties and cities.

Why, then, wouldn’t it be relevant for the Yuma area?

“A lot of the unemployment is related to the seasonality of our work,” said Jason Rogers, who manages a date farm in Yuma.

However, Tom Krolik, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said while Yuma’s high unemployment rate is a special case because of the area’s emphasis on agriculture, the jobless rate has become normal for the region.

“It’s an extreme-weather area, an agricultural area, but there’s not much else we can really do to try to figure out what’s going on there,” Krolik told Cronkite News in 2012. “At some point, you just become so accustomed to it that it becomes a fact on the ground, something that’s out of mind.”

Krolik said skeptics of the high unemployment rate often speculate that the bureau has not calculated the figure properly.

But the bureau stands by its information.

Krolik said many farm workers based in the Yuma area travel north to California, following the winter farm work season. If they can’t find work and file for unemployment, the unemployment checks come to Yuma.

Because the bureau uses unemployment insurance data to calculate metro area unemployment rates, that’s part of the reason why Yuma often has a higher unemployment rate, Krolik said.

Yuma has long history in agriculture
Yuma was first incorporated in 1871 as Arizona City before adopting its current namesake in 1873.

The area blossomed into a major agricultural center after the completion of the Laguna Dam in 1909. The dam diverted water from the nearby Colorado River to better suit the region for growing its key crops, including dates, lettuce and melons.

Originally a community of about 1,000 settlers in 1870, Yuma’s population exploded to an estimated 93,400 people in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

State Route 95 runs through the town’s heart and intersects with Interstate 8 near a major freight train hub and an Amtrak station.

The area’s historic downtown on Main Street features a classic movie theater and a variety of antique shops and restaurants, as well as the region’s Mexican consulate. The city serves as the county seat.

Yuma County had more than twice the city’s population – about 203,000 – in 2014. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report also encompasses the other cities and towns in the county, including San Luis, Somerton, Wellton and Dateland.

Some products see rapid growth
At Martha’s Gardens, a family run date farm, Rogers said he employs as many as 80 people during peak harvest season, from September to December.

Medjool dates originated from ancient Egypt and Iraq and are well-suited for the arid climate of Yuma and California’s Coachella Valley.

In 1940, Yuma peaked at 450 acres of date palms, according to the Los AngelesTimes. Now, Yuma is home to the world’s largest orchard of Medjools, at 2,700 acres.

Engel said the date farming industry has grown exponentially, at a rate of 35 percent annually.

Rogers’ operation is more modest, with 8,000 palms growing on 100 acres. In addition to wholesaling dates, Martha’s Gardens sells baked goods, locally made honey and
date shakes, a novelty many travelers make pit stops for en route to California.

He leads tours of his family’s farm and factory, taking visitors in the back of a trailer hauled by an ATV.

“I hear a lot at the end of the tour, ‘I’ll never complain about the price of dates again,'” Rogers said. “The sheer number of hours and activities that are required both within the growing season and outside of it, I think people get a better appreciation for what it takes.”

An influx of migrant workers
A growing number of U.S. farm workers want their children to get an education to avoid partaking in the same backbreaking labor, Engel said. And as the U.S. economy continues to improve, more people have found other – less physically demanding – ways to earn cash.

As a result, Yuma farms, including Martha’s, often turn to farm workers from Mexico.

Before sunrise at the San Luis border checkpoint, about 30,000 workers cross the border from Mexico to begin their work day, Engel said.

“You won’t believe your eyes,” Engel said. “That city takes on a complete metamorphosis of the amount of people that are crossing and getting ready to go on buses and go to the fields – it’s insane.”

Of the 1 million farm workers in the U.S., a majority are Mexican, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

But the industry faces a shortage of farm workers for several reasons: previous delays in seasonal-worker visas, crackdowns on illegal immigration, a declining birthrate in Mexico, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Matt McGuire works as the general manager of farming operations at JV Farms, a
branch of the JV Smith Co., which operates farms in Arizona, California, Colorado and Mexico.

To attract farm workers and comply with visa regulations, Engel said some companies have purchased hotels and converted them into housing for employees and their families.

McGuire manages thousands of workers at a 12,000-acre lettuce farm.

McGuire said the company wants to hire more workers to keep up with increasing demand and the approaching harvest season. To attract more laborers, he raised wages and added jobs for those seeking alternatives to picking crops, such as tractor drivers or other machinery operators.

“In the agricultural community, I don’t know why people don’t come out to work,” McGuire said. “We’re labor short right now and have been since the start of the season.”

At JV Smith, McGuire oversees about 300 workers for eight to nine months, about the length of the regular growing season. His farm also utilizes 500 independent contractors during the growing season.

Come harvest season, the farm adds another 500 workers to meet peak demand at season’s end.

“You can make really good wages in this industry,” McGuire said. “But you have to be willing to work.”

The average hourly wage is about $9.75. Crews that work based on the amount they can harvest can earn the equivalent of $13 to $18 per hour, he said.

Reshaping the narrative
Community leaders like Engel, McGuire and Rogers agree: There’s plenty of work to be done to educate residents about the importance of farming to the greater Yuma area.

Ashley Kerna, a University of Arizona economic impact analyst, made a presentation at the Arizona Leafy Greens Food Safety Committee’s Education Tour in late November. She indicated Yuma had the highest market value for agricultural sales per farm in Arizona, according to the Yuma Sun.

Yuma generated $1.7 million on average per farm in 2012, according to the most recent United States Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture from the same year. For every 100 agribusiness jobs, 78 more are created as a result, according to the University of Arizona study.

The gross agricultural contribution to the state gross domestic product – or the monetary value of all finished goods and services produced within a region’s borders – was $7.3 billion in 2012, according to the University of Arizona study.

And the industry gives back to the state in other ways, too. In the aftermath of the E. coli spinach contamination scare of 2006, Arizona growers took the lead in food safety regulations, which were later adopted by the USDA, and even Mexican growers, Engel said.

Engel said some of the headlines proclaiming the high unemployment can be demoralizing, and there needs to be a shift in the Yuma area’s narrative to counter the negative perception.

Media organizations such as The Wall Street Journal and Yuma Sun have noted the changes in unemployment rates when the bureau released new statistics, but the articles merely ranked U.S. metropolitan areas without further explanation of how the Yuma area’s seasonal jobs affect its unemployment rate.

“We have to change our story,” Engel said. “We have to make it about the statistics that tell the picture the way it actually is.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the scope of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly metropolitan area unemployment report. The Metropolitan Statistical Area, as defined by the federal Office of Management and Budget, is the geographic equivalent of Yuma County and includes unemployment data outside the city of Yuma. The article also updates a quote attributed to Tom Krolik, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who provided the quote to Cronkite News in 2012. The previous version indicated he provided the quote during a recent conversation.