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Farm Workers

We looked at migrant farm worker issues during tours throughout the Southwest. 

And there were many issues.

In Mississippi we stopped at the Excel Learning Center. This was an after school program run by Catholic nuns for children of Hispanic immigrant parents who were working on local farms or in meat packaging plants.


Photo by Joe

One of our tours was through the San Joaquin Valley in California ('McFarland' country). Low wages, inadequate housing, cancer clusters from exposure to toxic chemicals, little help for the children of migrant farm workers...

Farm Workers Policy in Short


*To read the policy in full, see further below


  • Much better wages, better benefits, better working conditions, better housing...

  • Outlaw toxic farm chemicals that are respiratory and cancer hazards for farm workers, their families (and consumers). 

  • Access to quality and affordable health care for all farm workers

  • Tremendously improved education safety nets for all farm worker children.

  • Amnesty for illegal immigrant farm workers and their families

  • More help for those who want to stay in Mexico and Latin America in general (more foreign financial aid, more Peace Corps help) to help achieve a higher level of sustainability.

  • In the long term affect a major societal shift back to a small farm, organic agrarian-base where the farmer and farm worker are on a societal status par with everyone in society.











Farm Workers Position Paper




“Social justice-wise, we would like to see it better for the farm workers,” Schriner said. “Our administration would work hard to try to make sure there was more help, whether it is a living wage, or access to quality medical care, or better living conditions.” said Schriner.

--Lodi (CA) Sentinel-News.



The following categories are addressed below: 1) The Issues; 2) The Plan; 3) Farm Worker Health Care Problems; 4) Health Care Solutions; 5) Living Wage; 6) Farm Working Field Trips to Increase Empathy; 7) Help Latin America Drive; 8) Amnesty and an Easier, Shorter Citizenship Process; 9) More Education; 10) Equality for Farm Workers in a New Agrarian-Based Society; 11) Cesar Chavez National Holiday.


1) The Issues:


In dusty towns across America, we’ve looked at farm worker issues. And there are many.


At the National (Cesar) Chavez Center in Keene, California, we listened to a litany: low wages, poor benefits (if any), harsh working conditions… Joe Livernois, a columnist for the Monterey County Herald, wrote that he once was a farm worker for several weeks. (“It was the hardest job I ever quit,” he wrote.)


He explained he’d worked seven days a week, 12-hour days, harvesting onion seeds under a “scorching sun.” By the end of the day he was covered with onion seed husks, “which when mixed with sweat, prickles like fiberglass.” He lasted three weeks.


In Hollister, California, I interviewed Eliseo Hinojosa, who worked in the garlic fields of Gilroy, California, sun up to sun down. He said he just barely made enough to provide a meager living for his wife and two children, while sending a little back (when he could) to relatives living in abject poverty in Michoacan, Mexico.


At a talk at the University of California at Monterey Bay, I listened to Dolores Huerta (who co-founded the UFW with Cesar Chavez) say that farm workers in America are viewed as second-class citizens. That is, if some are even citizens at all.


Many farm workers are illegal immigrants from Mexico and South America, which allows for another set of problems the way a majority of Americans currently view illegal immigration. And a former Maderna, California, dairy farm manager told me the illegal status of many farm workers actually has Border Patrol looking the other way in the San Joaquin Valley, and farmers there taking advantage as well – in order to perpetuate what amounts to “slave labor.”


In Ottawa, Ohio, we learned the lack of consistent, quality education for farm worker children is keeping them trapped in the same cycle of poverty.


And the tragic irony is that many of these farm workers, and their families, never wanted to leave Mexico, Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador… and their extended families, neighborhoods and culture to be here amidst all these abuses in the first place. It’s just that, well, more often than not: their children were hungry. And what’s more, there seemed no other way out of the dead-end abject poverty in their country.


We went to Juarez, Mexico, to look at this abject poverty first hand. There were dusty streets, cobbled together shacks with no running water, no electricity. If parents were able to work at all, they were making $3 a shift at multi-national corporations on the border, in a country that’s inflation rate is higher than the U.S. The children here are not only hungry, they’re regularly dying of malnutrition.


In our travels not only did we see all these issues, we researched an exciting variety of solid, common sense initiatives to turn all this around, dramatically. A shift that, would not only improve the quality of life for the farm worker and his family, but even more sweeping; it would, eventually, be a shift that would see our society become a much more egalitarian one in general. A society where the farm worker was on a par (in every respect) with the doctor, the lawyer, the CEO…


2) The Plan:


At the front end of our Migrant Farm Worker Proposal, we would work hard to support United Farm Worker Union’s expressed goals for: better wages, more benefits, better working conditions, better housing…


In tandem, we would work stridently to outlaw toxic farm chemicals (and airplane crop dusting) that are increasingly causing cancer, respiratory illness, and the like, in farm workers, their families, and for that matter – the general public.


We have also drafted a plan for a nationwide health care system that would allow equal access to quality and affordable health care, not only for the farm workers, but everyone.


In Eunice, New Mexcio, and Leipsic, Ohio, we researched models for better education safety nets for farm worker children.


And for farm workers who are currently illegal, we propose amnesty – not only for the farm worker, but for his/her family. No fines. No lengthy citizenship waiting process. They’ve paid their dues, while providing us with a vital, life-giving service.


And for those who want to stay in Mexico and Latin America in general, we propose a multi-tiered system to get more help (more foreign financial aid, more Peace Corps help, more private citizen initiatives…) to assist these people in achieving a higher level of sustainability in their own countries.


Tangentially, while improving all the American migrant farm worker areas stated above in the short term, it is our belief there also needs to be a fundamental shift in the predominant paradigm that has (spoken or unspoken) farm workers being “second-class citizens” in this country. And we need to shift this at its roots.


And the way to do this is to transition the country back to a small farm, organic agrarian base. It would be an agrarian-based society that, once again, used low-tech, small, non-polluting farm implements (as opposed to the big tractors, big combines, and so on). This would create more good, clean farm worker jobs for farm worker children and outsiders.


And this would, once again, intimately connect us with the land, the natural growing cycles. (In turn, many of the non-essential, “non-life giving” factory and paper pushing jobs created in the last century – would diminish in kind.) It was the shift to industrialization and the comfort of white-collar profession that has, in large part, disconnected us from the land, opening the door to a plethora of meaningless work, over consumption, rampant pollution problems…


In this new, or rather revisited, agrarian based society, we would also propose that once again there be a lot of local growing for local people, which would increase town interdependence and community building exponentially. (Something that has been drastically dwindling in our time.)


And there would be farm classes in each grade from K-12 taught by local farmers. There would also be ample opportunity for town youth who are not in small farm families to work on local farms through Community Sponsored Agriculture projects, and the like, to increase their appreciation of farming and to see if they might have a: “farming vocation.” Farming would be viewed as a “sacred” occupation. (In Lisbon, Ohio, I interviewed Tim Miller. He and his rather large family are organic farmers. And because of their strict adherence to environmental stewardship practices, they refer to the type of farming they do as: “apostolic farming.”)


The entire new (yet old) American model we propose would go a long way toward raising the perception of the farmer and farm worker’s value in the community, we believe. And we also believe this would align farming with much more of what God had planned for this vocation in the first place.


3) Farm Worker Health Care Problems:


We traveled to the San Joaquin Valley in California. It is the richest agricultural area in the world, and fraught with discriminatory migrant farm worker practices.


Our first stop on the research tour was actually a bit south of the San Joaquin Valley in the Tehachapi Mountains at a small town called Keene. Located here is the National Chavez Center. (The late Cesar Chavez was the co-founder of the United Farm Worker’s Union and is nationally known for his “David vs. Goliath” struggle in its establishment.)


Douglas Blaylock, who administers The Robert F. Kennedy Farm Workers Medical Plan out of the National Chavez Center, outlined some of the modern farm worker’s plight.


For one, he explained to me that only 2% (some 5,500 people) of all farm workers are currently insured under the UFW medical plan. Conversely, health care problems are quite significant in the farm worker population. For instance, Blaylock said there is a high incidence of asthma from continual exposure to toxic farm chemicals (pesticides, herbicides…).


Also partially attributable to these farm chemicals, Blaylock said they are finding “cancer clusters” throughout the San Joaquin Valley. (He said one of his assistance grew up in a farm worker family where her dad, brother and a sister all contracted cancer.)


Blaylock said his department worked with Dr. Paul Mills, a cancer researcher at Fresno State College, on a six-year research project throughout the San Joaquin Valley. It was this study that helped uncover some of the cancer cluster prevalence.


What adds considerably to the wide-scale use of toxic farm chemicals (spewing them in the air, over the soil, on plants…) are crop duster airplanes. At the International Agricultural Complex in Tulare, California, we learned that currently 65% of all “crop production material” [read: toxic chemicals] is applied by crop dusting. And there are 6,000 crop dusting aircraft nationwide that range from $200,000 to $500,000.


A former farm worker, now living in Fresno (and who requested anonymity) said in the mornings when the workers started to pick things like berries, as they pushed the bush branches back, there would be continual “puffs” of these chemicals that would be breathed directly in.


These chemicals also gradually destroy topsoil (it takes 500 years for nature to make one inch of topsoil.) And the chemicals leach into the groundwater and the plants themselves.


At a research stop in Ohio at Oberlin College, I met with David Orr, who is the head of the Environmental Science Studies Department and author of the book Earth in Mind. He explains that because of the ingestion of these chemicals in the food we eat and the water we drink, we have synergistic “chemical cocktails” in our systems these days that regularly explode into cancer and all kinds of other physical ailments.


In other words toxic chemical farm application isn’t just a farm worker issue; it is practically everyone’s issue these days.


Note: At the time Cesar Chavez was starting to start the UFW in the late ‘60s, the average life span of a farm worker was a mere 49 years.


4) Health Care Solutions:


To move agriculture toward way more organic growing to help protect the farm worker and his or her family’s health, our administration would propose subsidies for such practices as more Integrated Pest Management control.


At the International Agricultural Museum in Tulare, California, we learned these types of natural pest control systems include the introduction of more ladybugs to counteract crop-damaging aphids. The introduction of more lacewings controls such crop damaging pests as mealy bugs and spider mites. And so on…


In other words, this is a common sense way of using nature’s formula for pest control in line with God’s Natural Order.


In tandem, our administration would work hard to outlaw artificial, toxic farm chemicals linked to respiratory or cancer health hazards for farm workers, their families and consumers.


We would also work stridently to outlaw crop dusting. Like second hand smoke, we believe this is not only directly harmful to farmers and farm workers, but also to nearby water sources and population centers – depending merely on which way the wind is blowing.


Our administration would also push for higher pay and less hours for farm workers. This, in turn, would measurably cut down on fatigue and stress related illness.


And we propose a new type of health care system for America that would essentially allow for equal access to quality health care – for everyone.


5) Living Wage:


Mr. Blaylock at the National Chavez Center, said despite some of the strides the United Farm Workers Union has made, farm workers are still discriminated against when it comes to wages, benefits, housing…


We stopped in Arvin, California, a dusty farm worker town just south of Bakersfield. There we learned about farm workers living sometimes two to three families in tiny houses and trailers.


A recent Mother Jones Magazine article noted Arvin has become “the most crowded community in all of California.” The article gives the example of “Isabel,” a single mother of three in Arvin. She lives in a tiny, 300-square foot home. Two of her sons share bunk beds and her oldest sleeps in the car. Four other relatives sleep on the floor. And she sleeps on a couch.


These situations exist, in large part, because the wages in the fields are so low. “The agriculture industry wants to pay as low a wage as possible,” said Mr. Blaylock.


Translated: The individual farmers and corporate farming entities pay low wages because they want to maximize their profits. On the other end of the continuum, a majority of consumers simply want to buy the cheapest produce possible, often for just as selfish reasons.


So we are, in part, helping build our rather well off (especially in comparison to the Third World) lifestyles in America on the backs of the poor farm workers.


Our administration would push for laws to ensure a quality “living wage” for farm workers, commensurate with other occupations.


In a speech at an Organic Farm Festival in Yorkshire, Ohio, I said that Wall Street brokers push paper, and farm workers pick tomatoes. In the scheme of essential “stuff of life,” common sense would beg the question: “Which is more important?”


In tandem with laws to help farm workers with better pay, we would also call on the American consumer to help in a voluntary fashion. That is, we would propose having “Farm Worker Displays” in produce sections of grocery stores throughout the country. The displays, for instance, would include pictures of farm workers in the hot sun, their children barefoot, the shacks they live in… With each display would be a donation bin for a general fund to help the farm workers and their families.


The Athens (OH) News noted I had a populist faith in the American people to fix problems with “decency and common sense.” And I do.


We are building our rather well off lifestyles, in part, on the backs of these farm workers. And I believe once Americans are able to connect the dots, they may be much more inclined to help.


6) Farm Working “Field Trips” to Increase Empathy:


Mr. Blaylock at the Chavez Center told me that “99% of the people in America have no idea what farm workers go through.” Our administration would propose that a good number learn, first hand.


While we were in Bakersfield, California, in the San Joaquin Valley, the Bakersfield Californian newspaper carried a story about a group of Loyola Marymount College students who came to the small farm town of Lamont, California, to live and work with farm worker families. This was through Loyola’s “Alternative Break Program” where students go all over the world (Guatemala, Northern Ireland, the Dominican Republic…) to help with peace and social justice causes.


According to the article, the Loyola students were tremendously impacted by their time with the farm workers.


Our administration would propose subsidies for colleges across the country to institute similar “Spring Break Farm Worker Trips.” We would also propose that an education wing of Americorps be started to facilitate similar week, month, or longer, side-by-side work in the fields for individuals and families. Families like Louisville, Kentucky’s Ellis family.


On an earlier campaign trip, I interviewed Joe and Carole Ellis. Several decades prior, the couple and their three young children went to a Florida migrant farm worker camp to work the fields for several months, while also allowing their children to experience what it’s like to be children of a farm worker. (Their intent was to experience this type of work, and what’s more, they didn’t want their children growing up in a cloistered suburban bubble.)


It significantly increased the family’s empathy for the plight of farm workers. What’s more, besides donating to causes to help farm workers in this country, the couple (who are now retired) go to Mexico yearly to help people there become as sustainable as possible. (The Ellis’s volunteer at an orphanage in Mexico and regularly bring donated items like refurbished bicycles for people in the area. Joe said it isn’t uncommon for small family farmers to have to walk, say, 12 miles to get their produce to local markets.)


Actually, common sense would be that many people don’t want to leave their country, their family, their neighborhood, their culture – that is, if their children weren’t hungry.


7) “Help Latin America Drive!”


In Arvin, California, I interviewed Fr. Lucas Azpericueda, who is personal friends with Vincente Fox, the former president of Mexico.


Before being the leader of Mexico, Fox was the head of the State of Guanaguato. Fr. Azpericueda told me that Fox was extremely proactive in developing a model to help change the infra-structure of Guanaguato, which in turn, created many more jobs in the business and agriculture sectors, improved the quality and access to education, provided for better housing and social services.


In kind, the percentage of Mexicans migrating from Guanaguato to the United States dropped considerably, said Fr. Azpericueda.


Given this, our administration would start a “Help Latin America Drive!” to aid more transformations like the one in Guanaguato. This would include a fund to help with business start ups, more education, more quality housing (working in tandem with such organizations as Habitat for Humanity)… This drive would include tremendously increasing the Peace Corps presence in Mexico and throughout South America to help within the context of each country’s culture and (business, farming…) sustainable methods.


In Blanchester, Ohio, I interviewed Ed Bailey. He and his wife Dorothy, in their retirement, did a stint with the Peace Corps in the Philippines. They helped arrange loans to small farmers there. Our administration would work in concert with the Peace Corps to develop similar loan programs for farmers in Mexico and Latin America.  And we would suggest more incentives for more seniors to get involved with the Peace Corps.


And this drive would also target inspiring more church groups and private citizens, in an ad hoc fashion, to go to these countries on their own to help.


In Naples, Florida, I interviewed Judy Black. In their retirement, Judy and her husband would go to Mexico once a year. While there, they would work with a local Catholic Church outreach to help women start cottage industries (sewing, quilting and other crafts) out of their homes for supplemental income.


8) Amnesty and an Easier, Shorter Citizenship Process:


For those illegal migrant farm workers who have made the transition to America already (and want to stay), our administration would push for total amnesty for the farm worker and his/her family – even if that meant bringing the rest of the family up from Mexico.




Again, a majority of these people have come here to provide for their families, both here and back in Mexico. And to help them do that, to welcome them, is simply sound spiritual principle.


What if the tables were turned, Hollister, California’s Fernando Perez posed to me during a town square immigration law protest in 2006. Americans seldom try to “put themselves in our shoes,” said Mr. Perez. That is, what if an American’s children were hungry and the family was living in a dead-end poverty situation here? Mr. Perez asked: “What would they do?” Good question.


Also, a majority of illegal migrant farm workers have not only paid their dues in the hot sun here, they have, again, helped provide all of us with such essentials as: tomatoes, apples, oranges, plums, lettuce…


In the San Joaquin Valley, I talked with Orville Brum who used to manage one of the biggest dairy farms in the Valley. He said of late, the Border Patrol has been extremely lax in actively looking for any illegal, migrant farm workers. He said the farmers in the area are in constant need of as much cheap (Brum referred to it as almost “slave”) labor.


Thomas Gonzalas, a Latino Rights activist in Fresno, is pushing for amnesty as well, and he uses Catholic Social teaching as a “guiding set of principles.” During an interview, he said, for instance, to have worked in America for one year and then be deported for 10 years (policy at the time of the interview) is not fair. What’s more, sometimes the farm worker (or others) is deported, leaving the family here. Mr. Gonzalas said it is very “cruel” to split families like that.


Mr. Gonzalas also told me he believed it was quite an irony that capital doesn’t have to get a visa to cross borders, even if it is tremendously misused to buy drugs, finance graft, fund multi-national corporations that: use child labor, pollute significantly, abuse employees (long hours, extremely low pay)…; but when it comes to human being crossing the border to live – “the process is often long and slow,” said Mr. Gonzalas. (He has worked with many Latinos to help them get citizenship.)


Our administration would work to make the citizenship process much easier and, again, offer amnesty to those already here.


9) More Education:


Education for migrant farm worker children is thin, at best. That is, with their parents moving around there is less continuity for the youth in school. And language is often a problem as well.


In Eunice, New Mexico, I interviewed Leon Navarette whose Hispanic Council lobbied for bilingual teachers in the school system there to help these students with the transition. The Council (a citizens group) also raised scholarship money for Latino students and provided after school tutors.


In Ottawa, Ohio we researched a non-profit program that provides bilingual summer school for migrant worker children who are in the area for the growing season. Part of this program includes some 120 volunteer tutors and the principle of nearby Leipsic High School told me it’s an excellent program to help some migrant worker children keep up.


I also talked with Professor Paul Neufeld Weaver, who is the co-startup coordinator for the “Worthington Area Language Academy” for elementary school students in Bigelow, Minnesota. There is a good mix of Latino and White students here. And professor Neufeld explained to me the Hispanic students learn English and the White students are required to learn Spanish. And the students also regularly learn about each other’s culture.


Our administration would hold these, and similar, programs up as examples of models that could be used practically anywhere in the country to help these youth. And we would consider providing subsidies for similar programs.


Note: Dolores Huerta started the Untied Farm Workers Union with Cesar Chavez. At a city park in Tulare, California, I saw a plaque with some of her words: “Empower the children, call them by no other name than their birth name. Listen for they tell us the unblemished truths. Listen to small voices because they struggle to speak the words: “I am somebody!”


10) A Different Paradigm / Equality for Farm Workers in a New Agrarian-Based Society:


I attended a talk by Dolores Huerta at California University at Monterey Bay. (Again, she was the co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union with Cesar Chavez.)


She said farm workers in our society have always been considered second (even third) class citizens in American society. Yet the irony is they do “some of the most precious work in the world.” That is, they help provide us with food.


Ms. Huerta posed that if someone was being sent to a deserted island and had the choice of taking either a lawyer or a farm worker – which would they take? Yet the farm worker continues to receive substantially less pay, benefits, status in society…


The irony, I pointed out in a question and answer period after Ms. Huerta’s talk, is that the farm worker children who are lucky enough to “make it” education wise, end up often plugging into the same skewed societal system. I pointed to the predominately Latino college student audience and said that while the color of skin in the room was different, the students here were, most likely, aspiring to be lawyers or other white collar professional people because it pays more, provides more benefits, elevates one’s status in society…


In other words, the cycle continues to be perpetuated – with the farm worker continuing to come out at the low end of the socio-economic continuum.


I said the key (if we really want a much more egalitarian society) is to change the “predominant paradigm.” And how you would do this is by shifting the country back to an agrarian based society made up of, primarily, small family farms, with farmers growing primarily for local people.


As it was in days of old, this fosters a tremendous interdependence between the local farmer (and farm workers – whether the farmer’s children or outside help) and the local town people. (On a campaign swing through Athens, Ohio, organic farmer Art Gish told me when he sells at the local Farmer’s Market, he sees his conversation with local people as important – if not more important – then the actual exchange of food for money.) The town populace, in turn, can’t help but value the farmer and farm workers, much more because of the direct link to the “stuff of life.”


And in all this, a byproduct is local community building is enhanced exponentially. And we should be placing a premium on this, we believe.


In this model, our administration would propose teaching farming classes in each grade from elementary school through high school. (Author Gene Logsdon, who has written a series of books on farming, told me he believes that those farming classes should be taught by local farmers. And we believe that too.)


We would also work to promote Community Sponsored Agriculture projects where town youth had regular opportunity to work on local farms. At Michaela Farm in Oldenburg, Indiana, we researched one of these CSA models where youth from as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio, came to regularly work on the farm.


Michaela Farm is an organic farm. And, as mentioned earlier, our administration would push for much more organic farming, using small-scale, non-polluting farm implements (horse and plow, sickle, hoe, hand seeder… This would create all kinds of work for the farmer’s children and outside farm workers.


(In Thorp, Wisconsin, we interviewed Bernie Stuttgen, a physical education teacher who grew up on a farm. He said in the old days many children grew up on farms simply because there were more family farms. He said the youth, for the most part, were much less sedentary, considerably healthier (much less over weight than today’s youth, as an example), and so on, because there was good, clean labor on the farm.)


In this entire shift (or merely a return to the “old days”) farm working would be much more in line with what we believe God’s intention for it is. That is: a sacred vocation. A vocation that puts us regularly, and intimately, in touch with the earth, the growing seasons, the natural cycle of life in general – the way God designed it.


The “Back to the Land Movement” shouldn’t be passed off as a ‘60s fad, but rather the start of a significant shift that’s time has come.


11) Cesar Chavez National Holiday:


And speaking of the ‘60s, during Ms. Huerta’s talk she said it was this time of year (Lent) in 1969 that farm workers walked 300 miles from Delano, California to the state capital of Sacramento to bring attention to their plight. (We retraced this march during our tour.) Ms. Huera also mentioned that on March 31 it would be Cesar Chavez Day. Earlier in the day, I’d noticed a sign on the door of the Pacific Grove (CA) Public Library. It said the library would be closed for Cesar Chavez Day. (The California state employees also had the day off.)


Our administration would propose the whole nation be closed for Cesar Chavez Day, a national holiday.

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