Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Migrant Farm Workers: Feeding the World While Going Hungry

Have you ever trolled the colorful booths of your local farmer’s market, or sat down to enjoy a leafy salad, and wondered how all that horticultural goodness got there? From the nut orchards of the San Joaquin Valley in California to the endless corn rows of the Midwest to the sweet smelling orange groves of central Florida, millions of laborers work hard to keep our plates full and our stomachs happy.

The hands that plant and harvest the food that we consume everyday are rough, and the lives of the millions of migrant farm workers that work the approximately 406 million acres of cropland across the US can be hard.

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture conducted by US Department of Agriculture, American farms sold nearly $297 billion in farm products and employed over 2.6 million laborers. Many of them were migrant workers.

The term “migrant farm worker” can be applied to those that who move often within a yearly period, for employment purposes. “I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. It’s the only thing I’ve ever known.” explains Terrance a farm worker whose life is shaped by the crops in season, “Each year starts in Florida. We do cabbage. Then we move up to Virginia and Delaware for potatoes.”

The BOCES Geneseo Migrant Center reports that nearly 80% of migrant farm workers are men who, like Terrance, often must leave their families behind while they seek work. Terrance spends long hours in the field to earn money to support his 14-year old daughter and 4-year old son, which is difficult when half of all migrant farm workers earn less than $7,500 per year.

The Florida Department of Health reports that 150,000 to 200,000 migrant and seasonal farm workers, like Terrance, and their families annually travel and work in Florida. Typically, these laborers will work for a farm boss who contracts them out to plant or harvest for farm owners in the surrounding area. The farm owner pays the farm boss who takes a cut before paying the farm worker.

Often, migrant workers are housed in barrack like buildings adjacent to the fields they work. These barracks can be filled with men floor to ceiling during the peak of a harvest. At least one of the barracks we visited while researching this story had holes in the roof. The Florida Association of Farm workers Reports that a 2001 housing study conducted by the National Center for Farmworker Health found that 22% of farm worker housing units had serious structural problems, and 26% of the units were directly adjacent to pesticide-treated fields. The same study also found that 29% of farm workers paid more than 30% of their income for housing.

“We’re only fed once, sometimes twice, a day” explained Terrance. “You get hungry working the field. I gotta pay for the roof over my head and support my family. Where am I gonna get money to eat.” Food and housing, however, are not the only expenses that drain farm worker pockets. They must also pay for the boots, gloves, and clothing necessary for their line of work. More often than not, however, these luxuries cannot be afforded. Many of the farm workers housed in the barracks where we met Terrance wore clothes that were in tatters and had to slog through the fields in boots with holes.

This is a common circumstance for many migrant workers. Like Terrance, they have been working the farms from childhood. Often they leave school to do so. “I’ve gotta do something different. I need to make a change,” he expressed. With no money and living so rurally, this will be difficult for Terrance.

Sadly, education and alternative employment opportunities are not the only things beyond the reach of most migrant farm workers. Hard physical labor, dangerous equipment, and pesticide exposure make agriculture one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States. According to the National Advisory Council on Migrant Health, migrant health centers provide accessible care for farm workers, but existing centers have the capacity to serve fewer than 20% of the nation’s farm workers.

Living out their lives in parts of the country many of us will never see, these men and women remain invisible to most as they toil under the heat of the sun. There are organizations, however, that are serving these laborers that help feed the world. United Farm Workers ( advocates for farmworkers and serves to broaden awareness of issues surrounding migrant labor. The Farmworker Association of Florida ( is an organization committed to challenging and transforming the well-established systems that maintain farm workers and the rural poor in situations of poverty, exploitation, and powerlessness. Student Action with Farmworkers ( brings students and farm workers together to learn about each other’s lives, share resources and skills, improve conditions for farm workers, and build diverse coalitions working for social change; and Migrant Health Promotion ( builds on community strengths to improve health in farm worker and border communities.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for bringing awareness about such an important (and many times) unrealized topic that affects everyone in our country. Migrant farm workers face many disparities as they toil away planting, harvesting and packing our food and others should really appreciate what they give up in order to do so.