Coronavirus Upends Apple Season in Mexico

Pandemic fears invade the country’s lucrative apple industry – and leave seasonal workers with a harrowing dilemma.

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CUAUHTÉMOC, MEXICO — Apple season begins each March in Mexico’s northern state of Chihuahua, where most of the country’s sweet, juicy red and green apples grow.

Thousands of migrant workers travel to the western part of the state to pick the high-demand fruit, which is exported to the United States and around the world. Many live on what they produce from their land back home, except through spring and summer, when apple harvesting provides a steady income.

This year is different. The coronavirus has damaged that revenue stream, as growers hire fewer workers and day laborers worry about interacting with others in close quarters. Mexico is reeling from one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, with more than 543,000 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Many workers face an untenable decision: provide for their families and risk coming down with the virus or stay home and sacrifice the year’s most reliable income.

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Rafael González started working in the apple orchards at 14. More than two decades later, he says he can’t remember such a deserted picking season.

“People stayed home,” says González, who is from Sierra Tarahumara, a remote, mountainous area full of pine and oak trees in southwestern Chihuahua. He travels about 300 kilometers (186 miles) north to work in Guerrero, one of Chihuahua’s main apple-producing areas.

His rural community lacks jobs, he says, as he climbs a ladder and reaches for the shiny fruit. “One lives on what little they harvest, but you can’t harvest much.”

He returned to the orchards, like in years past. He didn’t see another choice.

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About 90 workers usually spend three weeks plucking Red Delicious, Golden Delicious and Rome apples at the 4h orchard in Cuauhtémoc, east of Guerrero in Chihuahua’s northwest. This year, orchard employees only hired 20 people to work on 4,000 apple trees.

It has taken twice as long to work the land. Mundo Mendoza García, foreman at 4h, estimates a 20% loss in revenue.

But he says coronavirus fears prevented him from hiring more people. He worried about pickers standing too close together and falling ill.

“We didn’t want to hire anyone,” he says. “We were scared.”

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Mendoza García relies on larger doses of a chemical that helps apples fall off the tree faster, even if they don’t grow as large. He spreads the chemical with a thundering, tractor-like vehicle called a fumigator during the early stages of apple production.

This helps compensate for the reduced labor force, although it’s not ideal for the tree’s health. “We’re really working the trees hard,” Mendoza García says. “But, well, we were trying not to bring on too many people.”

He wonders what will happen to the workers who haven’t shown up. “I don’t even want to know how things are going for them,” he says. “Lots of them don’t have work or even food.”

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Lucrecia Formerio Cruz lost her job this April as a housecleaner in Guachochi, one of the largest communities in Sierra Tarahumara. Her employers told her they feared she would give them the coronavirus, she says.

She struggled to find other work and started receiving calls about late loan payments. So she recently boarded a bus for Cuauhtémoc’s orchards.

Workers take school buses from Guachochi’s downtown to the fields, 451 kilometers (280 miles) away. Many stay in temporary housing provided by companies like Grupo La Norteñita, one of the largest apple producers among the 2,500 in the region.

“We’re behind on money, shoes, food, clothes and everything, so then to pay back what we owe, that’s what I’m doing here,” Formerio Cruz says. “I’m saving money to send back to Guachochi, to get as much money together as possible. I don’t always eat dinner.”

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Alejandra Cruz Ramírez bends over her garden and considers herself lucky. The retired schoolteacher, 66, grows corn, beans, legumes and peas in Guachochi and doesn’t have to venture to the orchards. Cruz remembers standing by her father’s side as a child while he tended his own crops, proud of the sustenance he could provide.

The fertile land gives her family options. Cruz’s son is usually among the people who climb onto the bus to work in the apple orchards. This year, he didn’t join them.

“I told my son, ‘What are you going for?'” Cruz says.

“As long as you have soap and food here, as long as your [clothes are] at least patched together and clean, I think that’s enough. We prefer you alive.”

Sarah DeVries, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.