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Farm workers check for weeds in a Green Onion field in Ejidio Toluca outside of Mexicali, Mexico on Oct. 25, 2017.Sandy Huffaker/The Globe and Mail

Growing up on a farm in California’s Imperial Valley, Larry Cox was schooled on the intricacies of global agriculture. It made him nervous of the coming revolution that free trade with Mexico and Canada would bring.

He worried about the North American free-trade agreement’s potential to turn Mexico into an agricultural powerhouse, and whether California farmers would be able to compete with a low-cost labour force just across border.

So with NAFTA talks progressing in the early 1990s, Mr. Cox headed to Mexico in search of farmland.

Today, his company, Coastline Family Farms, does a brisk business as a cross-border operation. He grows 15 different fruit and vegetables on more than 800 hectares in Mexicali Valley, along with operations just north of the border in Brawley, Calif., and across California and Arizona.

He is hardly alone. By 2011, farmers in California and Arizona were tending to more than 46,000 hectares of farmland in Mexico, according to a survey by Western Growers.

While Mr. Cox believes many of his fears about free trade have come to pass – the shuttered factories of the Rust Belt that have hollowed out America’s middle class, his own struggle to afford to pay his domestic work force enough to afford California’s high cost of living – he also now sees the ways that farmers have adapted, and even thrived, amid the pressures of globalized trade.

“I didn’t think [NAFTA] was good for the United States then, I don’t think it’s good for the United States now,” he says. “But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”

Larry Cox checks his crops in a cauliflower field in Ejidio Toluca.Sandy Huffaker/The Globe and Mail

After months of tense negotiations, there is optimism that Canada, the U.S. and Mexico appear headed toward a preliminary deal on NAFTA. Top trade officials met this week in Washington to discuss several key issues ahead of the Summit of the Americas in Peru. “We’ll have something, I think, fairly soon,” U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday.

Yet, a final deal, if it comes, could take months. Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly promised to walk away from anything he considers to be a bad deal, recently threatened once more to tear up NAFTA unless he receives support for a border wall with Mexico.

For the communities that line the California-Mexico border, Mr. Trump’s protectionist agenda and his pledge to seal the border has been an unwelcome spotlight.

Free trade and mass migration from Mexico have indeed dramatically reshaped the state’s border regions. But many of those here say the reality of life at the border is far removed from the vision of economic and social destruction.

“The way we’ve seen it, the more you go out [away from the border] in the United States, the more people support the wall,” says Sam Deiranieh, as he folds merchandise in the clothing store he has owned for 30 years just steps from a border crossing to Mexico.

U.S. President Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric has contributed to an economic crisis in border communities that have come to depend on the money that cross-border Mexican travellers spend shopping in California every year.Sandy Huffaker/The Globe and Mail

As with many of the businesses in Calexico, a city of 40,000 surrounded by farms and tucked up along California’s southeastern border, Mr. Deiranieh’s store has been a direct beneficiary of the wealth that NAFTA has brought to northern Mexico.

Most of the Mexicans who stream through the crowded border post at Calexico do so legally, coming to shop, send their children to local private schools, or arriving on visas given to agricultural workers.

With little other industry beyond farming and retail, the cross-border traffic fuels much of the limited business activity in Calexico. The city’s gas prices are listed in pesos and car dealerships advertise guaranteed auto loans to Mexican residents.

Virtually all of Mr. Deiranieh’s customers are Mexican. Some earn as little as US$400 a month working in the maquiladoras – export-focused manufacturing plants – just across the border in Mexicali, but come to Calexico to shop for brand name goods that are cheaper in the United States.

Mr. Deiranieh shrugs his shoulders at the thought of a border wall. Calexico has had a wall with Mexico for decades and it has not fundamentally changed the city’s relationship with its Mexican neighbour.

A future without NAFTA worries him a lot, given how much his Mexican clientele rely on the trade agreement for their jobs. “NAFTA is very big. Most of the people here make their living off of it, of course they care,” he says. “We’ll be hurt too, because they’ll stop buying from us.”

Others residents are fearful of what Mr. Trump’s crackdown on immigration will mean for the region’s fragile economy. “They need people working in the field and the Americans are not going to work for $11 an hour like the Mexicans,” says Jose Luis Aguirre, a Mexican farm worker who has lived in Calexico for the past five years.

The growth of agriculture in California since NAFTA was signed has provided an economic lifeline to impoverished rural farming communities far from the state’s wealthy coastal enclaves.Sandy Huffaker/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric has contributed to an economic crisis in border communities that have come to depend on the estimated US$3.2-billion that cross-border Mexican travellers spend shopping in California every year.

“We didn’t even realize how much we were relying on it,” Paola Avila, vice-president of international affairs at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, says of the sudden sharp pullback in cross-border shopping since Mr. Trump took office last year. “Much of our retail sector here in San Diego has suffered tremendously because of the drop in consumer spending.”

San Diego store owner Elliott Keven voted for Mr. Trump believing the billionaire real estate mogul’s business acumen would usher in a new era of prosperity for small San Diego shops like his. “I thought the guy is building golf courses, towers, everything,” he says. “He’s not a politician. He understands.”

Instead, he has come to realize that the President’s tough talk on Mexico has scared away most of his customers.

Up until 2016, Mr. Keven did a bustling business selling jewellery, makeup and accessories aimed at a Mexican clientele in four stores, including one at San Diego’s border crossing into Tijuana.

A weaker Mexican peso accounts for a significant part of the drop in cross-border shoppers over the past year, but Mr. Keven said he noticed many of his customers stopped coming almost immediately after Mr. Trump took office.

“Why would we want to go to the U.S. when they want to treat us badly?” Ignacio Davila, a Tijuana physician, says of the Mexican backlash against cross-border shopping.

Coastline Family Farms owner Mr. Cox has witnessed the ways that farmers have adapted, and even thrived, amid the pressures of globalized trade.Sandy Huffaker/The Globe and Mail

That anger is still palpable today. Mr. Keven points out a neighbouring perfume store that closed after 27 years because its owners had moved back to Tijuana. Recently, a pickup truck parked itself in front of Mr. Keven’s store flying both U.S. and Mexican flags and displaying a sign that read: “Do not shop in the United States.”

Former Mexican trade commissioner to the U.S. Gabriel Perez-Krieb has witnessed first-hand how NAFTA has brought economic stability to some regions of Mexico and reduced the pressure on workers to try to cross illegally into the United States.

“You have a lot of people working and getting benefits that wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” he says. “How many of those people would be thinking of trying to go under a bridge or over a wall to get here?”

Today, as chief executive of California food manufacturer Chosen Foods, Mr. Perez-Krieb sees little in the Trump administration’s aggressive stance on trade that would persuade him to move more jobs to the U.S. from Mexico.

The company, headquartered in San Diego but owned by a Mexican firm, manufactures most of its products in Mexico, close to where it can source raw materials — primarily the organic, non-GMO avocados that get turned into high-end oil and mayonnaise.

“There’s zero avocado oil manufactured in the U.S.,” Mr. Perez-Krieb says. “So I cannot find skilled people trained in avocado oil because there’s not a market here for those kinds of people.”

Depending on the outcome of the NAFTA renegotiations, Mr. Perez-Krieb says he will analyze whether the company will face higher costs to import products from Mexico, and how much of that can be passed on in the form of higher U.S. prices.

The trade negotiations have also inspired Mr. Perez-Krieb to start thinking about finding new customers overseas. “It’s much better to sell lemonade to your neighbour than to go to the next neighbourhood and sell it,” he says. “But if we’re driven to that, I know there’s a market there that’s been underdeveloped from the Mexican perspective.”

With little other industry beyond farming and retail, cross-border traffic between Mexico and the U.S. fuels much of the limited business activity in Calexico, Calif.Sandy Huffaker/The Globe and Mail

For California farmers, Mr. Trump’s rebuke of free trade has been a harsh reminder of the importance of international markets to their industry, which generates more than US$50-billion for the state’s economy.

“People say in California that maybe we’ve advanced too far and outgrown our agricultural system,” California Farm Bureau Federation president Jamie Johansson told a gathering in Sacramento during a visit by Canadian Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay in February.

Since NAFTA was signed, California has doubled the number of agricultural crops it produces. The growth has provided an economic lifeline to impoverished rural farming communities far from the wealthy coastal enclaves of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“What industry is going to replace that?” Mr. Johansson asked. “All of California can’t be Silicon Valley.”

Mr. Cox, of Coastline Family Farms, still worries about what it means for the economy when his California employees struggle to survive on wages of US$12 an hour, even when he can pay his workers across the border five times less. But he isn’t keen to see the U.S. turn its back on Mexico. Revoking NAFTA would be a “logistical nightmare” for many cross-border farming operations, he says.

Besides, Mexico may no longer be California farmers’ biggest threat. In a sign of the unrelenting pace of globalized agriculture, Mr. Cox produced his final asparagus crop in Mexicali Valley last year.

Mexican asparagus, he says, has become unable to compete with low-cost asparagus from Peru.