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Understanding the hands that harvest local food

Photos by Stephen Gabris


Driving through Western New York’s rolling farmland, many of the things that make farms tick are in plain sight: irrigation lines, tractors, sunshine, grazing land, barns. But one of the most essential components to larger-scale farms is nearly invisible and often shrouded in mystery: immigrant farm workers. Without them, this area’s pastoral landscape could cease to exist.


The New York Civil Liberties Union estimates that between 80,000 to 100,000 migrant, seasonal, and dairy workers labor on farms in New York State, one of the top agricultural states in the country and the third largest dairy producer in the nation. Western New York’s rich agricultural heritage means that many of those workers end up here.


Immigrant farm workers come to the United States to work on farms in three primary categories. Guest workers arrive legally on temporary H-2A visas to work at a specific farm, doing specific tasks, for a season that lasts a specific amount of time. Migrant farm workers from American territories such as Puerto Rico come to the US mainland as citizens to work on farms as needed, usually arrange dates and travel directly with the farms they work for, and often return for several years in a row as they become integral parts of a farm’s operations. Both guest workers and domestic migrant workers tend to be men ages eighteen to mid-fifties who come to work for three or four months and return home to their families at the end of the harvest.


The third group, workers who enter the country without documentation, comprise half to two-thirds of immigrant farm labor in New York State by most official estimates. Most are men, though some bring families, who take jobs in agricultural sectors that need a lot of hands to perform hard, essential work few others are willing to do twelve months of the year.


“There is no legal way for immigrant laborers to work on dairies because the guest worker program is temporary—for seasonal crops like fruits and veggies—not a year-round operation like milking cows,” explains Mary Jo Dudley, director of the farmworkers program at Cornell University whose research interests have focused for more than a decade on immigrant workers, farmworkers, US-Latin American relations, migration from Latin America to the US, and immigrant communities in the US.


A bill to provide visas for guest workers employed in year-round agricultural work was introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte in late 2017 and has now become part of the larger House Immigration Bill. The bill would potentially make it possible for more immigrant farm laborers to work in the US legally, but, given the current national discourse surrounding immigration of all varieties, its passage is in limbo. For now, the cows can’t wait.



The jobs that others don’t want

One of the largest misconceptions surrounding immigrant farm workers that Dudley has encountered in her research is that they take jobs from Americans. However, H-2A workers cannot legally displace an American worker. Even if ten guys from Mexico are en route to a farm for the season, if an American laborer applies for a job, the farmer must hire the American instead. The farmer is also required to show sufficient proof that the position was advertised locally and a concerted effort was made to hire local labor.


But even in rural communities with higher unemployment rates and strong teenage backs looking for summer jobs, Americans are not applying for farm positions.


“Last year, we advertised for months in all the local papers and online to find people to help with the harvest,” says Dan Henry, fifth generation Eden, New York, flower and vegetable grower, W. D. Henry & Sons. “All season, we only had four people interested. We hired one, and he quit after six days. Two were Mexican-Americans here legally and living nearby, and both took other jobs. The fourth guy never called us back.”


Henry says even kids on summer break don’t want to do the work like they did generations ago. He once had a father drag his two reluctant teenage sons into the office at W. D. Henry & Sons, and explain that his boys would like jobs harvesting like he did when he was their age. Neither boy lasted more than a week.


W. D. Henry & Sons has always relied on a legal migrant workforce since it began larger-scale vegetable growing just after World War II.


“It’s not always an attractive job,” Henry admits. “There is only work picking vegetables July through October but people need income all year round. It’s physical work, the days are long, and we’re out in the field whether it’s ninety degrees or pouring rain.”


W. D. Henry & Sons has always relied on a legal migrant workforce since it began larger-scale vegetable growing just after World War II. Even though many elements of farming became mechanized, there remain tasks that machines can’t do. Workers harvest, clean, and pack fragile vegetables like cucumbers, zucchini, and broccoli by hand that would be damaged by metal implements. Other crops, like sweet corn, peppers, and eggplant, need human judgment to determine whether the veggie is ripe enough to pick, and decent looking enough to sell.



In earlier years, the extended Henry family and their neighbors harvested crops. But as the farm grew to 450 acres and people drifted toward other work, W. D. Henry & Sons started hiring laborers from Puerto Rico to head north for the harvest. As domestic workers, many of the same guys come back year after year and know the farm operation as well as the Henrys, working as supervisors who help train the newer guys.


Even so, in the summer of 2016, the Henry family found themselves shorthanded. A drought meant they needed more labor to irrigate the crops, then hot temperatures sped up vegetable growth so all the fruit ripened at once. Even with the crew from Puerto Rico, there weren’t enough hands to pick everything in time and thousands of pounds of produce were left rotting in the field.


“The amount of blood, sweat, and tears that goes into farming is tremendous,” says Henry. “To see it wasting away was discouraging. We counted on that revenue at the beginning of the year in our budgeting, and then lost it. Farming isn’t a high-margin business; prices in supermarkets haven’t gone up as fast as our costs have, and we’re already barely getting market value for vegetables, so that was a big one for us.”


To prevent a similar loss in the 2017 season, W. D. Henry brought in H-2A guest workers from Mexico for the first time. While the program is complicated and requires a lot of paperwork and planning—so much so that Henry works with an agency that specializes in H-2A recruitment, travel, visas, and more—having a legal and willing workforce means his family’s crops will make it to local dinner tables. Sixty-four guest workers will join the ranks along with fifteen to twenty Puerto Rican workers returning to the farm this season.



While W. D. Henry & Sons is large enough to hire H-2A guest workers efficiently, many smaller farms can’t afford the costs to coordinate and transport a dozen workers all the way from Mexico and pay for the higher wages, housing, food, visas, vehicles, and gas that are required by the program, or their seasons are simply too short for it to be worth it. So, like their dairy farm neighbors, many farms and orchards in Western New York hire whoever shows up willing to do the work with documents in hand, legal or not. And it’s the immigrant workers who aren’t here legally that Dudley says are the most misunderstood.


“There’s a public perception that these individuals don’t pay taxes,” explains Dudley. “Taxes are deducted from their paycheck like everyone else. They contribute to Social Security and never get any of it. They’re assumed to be a drain on food stamps, and public benefits, but they aren’t eligible for any of that.”



An overloaded system

Because of their illegal status, lower-income immigrant farm workers make do without social safety nets; they also do so in hiding that cuts them off from other protections. They live in constant fear of deportation, especially as ICE raids on local farms are on the rise, which means they are less likely to leave the farm to seek medical care or report violent crimes committed against them.


Through Dudley’s research and outreach in rural communities, she has heard a general assumption that unauthorized farm workers are cutting in line and not waiting their turn for a visa or a path to citizenship, but the reality is not that simple.


“There is no visa for them to apply for to work on a dairy,” Dudley explains. “If they’d like to apply for a visa because they have a relative here, the way the immigration system works is that there are quotas from each country. If you’re from Mexico, for instance, and you’re requesting a family-sponsored visa, the immigration system is still looking at the applications from November of 1996. It takes that long. There hasn’t been any immigration reform since 1990. The system is broken and overloaded. There are 350 immigration judges and around 690,000 people in immigration court; thus, each judge is responsible for almost 2,000 cases. And it costs US taxpayers billions of dollars each year to detain people as they wait. Everyone agrees the system is broken, but the suggestions of what can be done are often short-sighted.”


The other common myth Dudley hears is that areas with a higher concentration of immigrant workers experience higher crime rates. “If farmworkers are working upwards of seventy hours a week and are afraid to leave the farm in fear of deportation, when are they committing crimes? There’s no data to support that claim.”


Henry agrees.


“Our guys are good quality, honest, hardworking people; they’re not criminals,” Henry maintains. “They want to go home to their families and follow the rules so they can come back next year, not go AWOL. In three or four months here they can make enough to support their families for a year, and they won’t risk that.”



A majority says they’re welcome

Dudley and her team at Cornell are in the process of analyzing data from a survey they conducted earlier this year that explores many of these themes. It’s a repeat of a survey they did ten years ago, and part of what they’re looking at is how attitudes toward immigrant farm workers have changed in the past decade. Both polls centered around two open-ended questions: how do immigrant farm workers impact communities, and, what should happen to them? Some portions of this year’s responses were unexpected.


“Ten years ago, fifty-seven percent of respondents said something positive for the first question, and the most common response was that they do work others don’t want to do and provide needed farm labor,” explains Dudley. “The same survey this year shows responses slightly more positive—seventy-four percent positive—which surprised us, and the reasons were pretty much the same.”


Her team is still analyzing this year’s data, but one area of interest is whether respondents’ opinions were influenced by religious or political affiliation, gender, education, and how close they live to a farm area. She says while many of these factors haven’t changed, one has: the nature of responses by political affiliation. They’re now looking at how the federal positions—building the wall, etc.—have affected that position.


For Henry and hundreds of other farmers in Western New York, that last question reaches beyond public opinion and into his livelihood.


“As a farmer, labor and weather are the two things that keep us up at night,” says Henry. “If something happens in Washington to change our ability to find labor, we’d go out of business.”


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