Swine flu yields bad news for farmers

A farmer harvests a blue Agave plant in Arandas, Mexico.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Although the immediate fear of a global swine flu pandemic has quieted, the aftershocks of the early stage of the outbreak are still spreading. Farmers in the Southeast are having a hard time finding enough migrant labor to work their fields this year. The virus has created backlogs on both sides of the border that are keeping legal migrants idle. Marketplace's Janet Babin reports now from North Carolina Public Radio.


JANET BABIN: They may look like any other root vegetable. But sweet potatoes are a labor-intensive crop.

Sue Johnson-Langdon: They're transplanted by hand and then they're harvested by hand.

That's Sue Johnson-Langdon with the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission. She says this year there aren't enough workers to do the transplanting. After the swine flu outbreak, Mexico closed its immigration offices.

JOHNSON-Langdon: Which is where the workers get their travel visas and their work documents, and get documented in order to enter the country.

There have been no reported cases of legal migrant workers with swine flu. Mexico has since reopened its immigration offices. And migrant workers have begun to trickle into sweet potato, lettuce and tobacco fields. But the delay has left many U.S. farmers scrambling.

Tony Asion is with the Latino advocacy group El Pueblo. He says the virus made the immigration process tougher for workers and for farmers.

Tony Asion: They want to do everything on the up and up and not hire undocumented workers, but the reality is that they don't have enough people to work and as a result, they may very well lose a big chunk of their crops.

And that, in turn, could end up costing us more at the grocery store.

In Durham, N.C., I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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