"Stoop Work"

Farmworkers “aging out” with farmers

By Cheetah Haysom

It’s back-breaking, repetitive, exhausting work. Most days start before dawn and can last until dark. It could be damp and cold when you punch in and scorching hot when you punch out. And the work often involves chemicals that can’t be good for your health.

As with farmers, many of the men and women who do this hard work are getting old and “aging out.” The average age of farmworkers in the U.S. is 38, according to the most recent figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor. In 1997, it was 31. Nearly a third of farmworkers in the U.S. are age 45 or older.

The overwhelming majority of farmworkers in the Hudson Valley are foreign-born, mainly in Mexico and Central America. However, in recent years fewer Mexicans have come to the U.S. because the growing economy in their own country offers easier jobs — some at U.S.-owned factories and farms that operate there — and a life closer to their families. In fact, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, citing government data, more Mexicans have returned home since the recession in 2009 than attempted to cross into the U.S.

Mary Joe Dudley, who directs the Cornell Farmworker Program, which works to improve working conditions, says the seasonal influx of farmworkers has also been diminished by the fear of the violence due to drug cartels operating at the border and the high price of smuggling undocumented workers into the U.S., which can run as much as $10,000 a person.

The Hudson Valley is also challenged because New York City offers many better paying jobs than working in the fields, especially in construction and the hospitality industry, notes Liz Higgins, a specialist with the Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Team, which is run by the Cornell Cooperative Extension and based in Highland.

Picking crops “is hard work,” she says. “On some tree-fruit and vegetable farms workers who have come for many years [from Mexico and Central America] are now getting old, and it’s going to get even more serious in the next five to 10 years. I know farms where workers who served loyally for years had to be let go because they can no longer physically do the job or their skills no longer match the needs of the farm.”

Farmworkers in Ulster County, painted by Barbara Masterson, who says most come from Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic or Mexico.

Except for occasional high school students doing vacation jobs, and a few farms that employ Puerto Ricans, farmhand jobs are not being filled by Americans. Some farms have used prisoners or appealed to the unemployed who were trained in other fields, with some success. Many farmers will laugh aloud when told that immigrant farmworkers are taking jobs from Americans.

“One of the problems,” says Higgins, “is the way we talk about the job makes it unattractive to potential employees. It’s seen as no-skill, no opportunities, no dignity and dead-end — something only the desperate would do, when in fact it requires skill to do well, and is extremely important.”

The changing climate has exacerbated the problems caused by a shortage of labor, leading some farmers to leave crops to rot. “You can plan the amount of workers you need for harvesting different crops and then unexpectedly it’s hotter than normal, all crops ripen simultaneously, and there isn’t enough labor,” Higgins says. “It’s increasingly hard to predict your need.”

When farmers use the H-2A, which is an agricultural work visa, “they have to guarantee working hours, so they don’t want to over-hire,” she explains. “But climate change can shift harvesting times, forcing them to have to get H-2A work extensions. Apple farmers, for example, have varieties that ripen at different times. But if the weather shifts and the varieties all ripen at the same time there aren’t enough hands.”

Higgins reports the growing use of picking machines, but many fresh-market crops, such as some cabbages and apples, can’t be harvested that way. There are machines that can help. Instead of using ladders to harvest apples, for example, farmers are reconfiguring their orchards so they can use a platform pulled by a tractor. This makes the job easier and safer for older workers.

The Trump Administration’s hard line on immigration has caused the most concern among small farms that don’t use H-2A workers because of the added expense. The visa program requires farmers to provide workers with free accommodations that are subject to frequent and strict inspections, and other benefits including transportation. Also, while the minimum wage for farmworkers in New York is $10.40 an hour (rising to $11.10 at the end of this year), most workers with an H-2A visa get $12.80. Some skilled farmworkers are paid $20 an hour or more.

Farmers who asked not to be identified because they employ undocumented farmworkers said many returned to Mexico shortly after President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. Others who had returned to work on the same farm year after year did not show up for the 2017 or 2018 planting season.

One farmer said two of his workers, a couple from Central America, vanished without a word, leaving him without help. As a result, he was planning to switch from onions and squash to lower-labor crops like soybeans.

At the Alamo Farm Workers Community Center in Goshen, more farmworkers have been asking for help lately with passport applications for their children born in the U.S., in the event the parents are deported, says Mario Fernandez, an outreach worker with the center.

A number of groups have advocated making it easier to get visas for farmworkers. One of them, the Partnership for a New American Economy, estimates the decline in farmhands has reduced fruit and vegetable production by 9.5 percent, or about $3 billion. Immigrants who work farms in other countries — from Germany (Turks), Italy (Africans), France (poor Spaniards) and Spain (Moroccans) to Costa Rica (Nicaraguans) and Canada (Central and South Americans) — typically have temporary visas for agricultural work that make it easy to come and go.

Many farmers consider the H-2A too burdensome and expensive, says Mary Jo Dudley at the Cornell Farmworker Program. She says each visa costs the average farmer an estimated $6,000 in time and paperwork. They might also pay $500 in expenses to recruit each worker and $300 for transport from their home country. However, she says, the fear of workers being deported in the midst of a harvest has led more Hudson Valley farmers to apply for H-2As.

Advocates have suggested the federal government simplify and expedite the agricultural visa system and include dairy farmworkers, who are ineligible for H2A because they are not seasonal.

By Chip Rowe

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Behind The Story

Type: Investigative / Enterprise

Investigative / Enterprise: In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.

Cheetah Haysom was born in South Africa, and on graduating from the University of Natal, Durban, started working as a news reporter and as a New York-based correspondent for South African newspapers. She lives in Orange County.