* The Secret Lives of America’s Migrant Farmers

ClotheslineAndBucket_miniIt’s early June at Camp Chestnut Ridge in Efland, North Carolina. Towering pines outside the dining hall are still dripping after a night of hard rain. I take a seat at a breakfast table where most of the college students are quiet, still shaking off sleep. But one of them is bright-eyed.
“What brings you here?” Eric Britton asks me.
I explain I’m researching a story about Student Action with Farmworkers, the non-profit that assembled these thirty students from schools across the country.
SAF has sent more than 700 college students — they call themselves Safistas — into migrant farmworker camps. The interns are here for a week of orientation about the estimated one million, mostly undocumented farmworkers in the U.S.
Not all of what they learn comes from SAF instructors, and not all of it is about farmworking.
Eric turns to another Safista at the table. “Are there any good bars in Columbia?” read more at narrative.ly

Father Tony

FrT_HandsClaspedHe’s collected a small mountain of donated toothbrushes and T-shirts but what he really needs are pants: About four thousand pair.

Father Jesus Antonio Rojas, known by all as Father Tony, runs the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Dunn, North Carolina. From an airy facility about an hour south of Raleigh, he and a small staff provide a long list of services to nearly 4,000 migrant farmworkers who live in temporary labor camps off the highway, all but invisible to passersby.

UNC students fill bags
UNC students fill bags

Last week my daughter Greta and I helped fill 400 grocery bags with those shirts and toothbrushes, alongside visiting college students from UNC and Duke.

Father Tony knows workers who miss a day of work waiting for their only pair of pants to dry on a clothesline. And waiting for the weekend doesn’t help when you work seven days a week. He prays now for a pants donor, so he can give an extra pair to every worker.

Our bag-stuffing was guided by Lucia, Father Tony’s wife and navigator of the white van that later hauled those bags to four camps. We followed, caravan style.

The sun sets over the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Dunn, NC as volunteers prepare to deliver supplies to migrant farmworker camps
The sun sets over the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Dunn, NC as volunteers prepare to deliver supplies to migrant farmworker camps

“Muchachos! Muchachos!” Father Tony yelled from an open window as he rolled the van to a stop, beeping the horn. Soon he was introducing us to the workers and guiding the distribution of goods.

A typical farmworker bedroom
A typical farmworker bedroom
We couldn’t help notice the squalid conditions. Kitchens were filthy. Rows of toilets lacked stalls. At one camp, a foul-smelling dumpster sat just outside the open windows of the rooms where men have to sleep.

There are thought to be at least 100,000 migrant farmworkers in North Carolina. Nationwide there are more than a million, many living in conditions barely suitable for animals.

Father Tony doesn’t blame the farm operators, known as growers, who hire and house these men, women and, sometimes, children. He tells me how busy they are “with so many, many problems” to worry about. “They try to give workers the best they can.”

Father Tony helps a Duke student distribute clothing at a camp
Father Tony helps a Duke student distribute clothing at a camp

Clearly some growers try harder than others, but he’s wise in not pointing fingers at the growers. This is a system problem. Even we the people who enjoy the sweet potatoes and everything else provided by these men and women working for low pay and living in squalor share responsibility. We are part of the problem.

But we are also the solution. That’s the message I get from listening to Father Tony and watching him work, that we all have the capacity to help improve the lives of farmworkers, the poorest of America’s working poor, to whom he has devoted his life’s work.

Father Tony briefing farmworkers on pending immigration reform in the summer of 2013
Father Tony briefing farmworkers on pending immigration reform in the summer of 2013

“Farmworkers are a miracle,” Father Tony told me on an earlier visit. “A gift from God. Without them we have no life.”

I asked Father Tony what he wants most for the farmworkers—beyond a few thousand pair of sturdy pants. His answer? Recognition. Simple awareness of their existence by people like you and me.

“These are the most important people in the world,” he tells me, emphasizing words as if he can’t understand why this is obvious only to him.

“They feed us,” he continues. “And they are so near us. But people don’t know.”

Father Tony knows he can’t do much about that part of the problem. But he knows what part he can address. He knows where the camps are and what the farmworkers need, and he does an amazing job at getting it to them.

But he can sure use those pants.


Photos by Michael Durbin

Call of the Wild Ends Too Soon

woodsChapel Hill News Guest Column

The reports a while back of an improbable cougar sighting in Chapel Hill reminded me of my own series of backyard encounters with a feral feline. Four years ago my family moved here from Chicago into the Oaks Villas, a tidy subdivision alongside the waterfowl impoundment on the eastern edge of town. The swampy and heavily wooded land surrounding our neighborhood is home to all sorts of wildlife that urbanites like us rarely see: frogs, snakes, hawks, owls. And of course there are plenty of deer, whose numbers swell each year until the hunters arrive.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about hunting. Sometimes I wonder if it is just a vestigial and violent human instinct we could now do without. But I also realize the crucial role hunters play in maintaining balance in the modern ecosystem, one in which natural predators of animals such as deer are all but gone. In any event, it did take me some getting used to living so close to a game land. When a quiet breakfast is interrupted by the sound of gunshots, part of me still wants to drop to the floor and call 911.

One evening we heard something even more alarming than gunfire. It was the piercing wail of some animal crying out—screaming actually—coming from just inside the woods. Our cavalier spaniel Raleigh went absolutely berserk, lunging so hard at the windows I thought he just might crash through. Stepping tentatively onto the back porch, we tried to figure out what in the world could be wailing like this. We didn’t go dare go outside during the couple of minutes it continued, at least not that first night.

The next night we heard it again, just after sunset. This time it lasted several minutes longer and I went out for a look. Directing a flashlight at the source of the cry, I saw a stout furry animal about a foot and a half long, with the pointy ears of a cat but no sign of a tail. It hissed at the beam of light, absolutely fearless, which is more than I could say for myself. I snapped off the flashlight and danced my way back up the stairs and into the house, where a quick bit of Googling told us we had a bobcat.

A bobcat! My wife and two kids feared for little Raleigh, but I just thought it was the coolest thing yet about living in Chapel Hill. It appears the cat was just doing what bobcats do, patrolling the perimeter of its home. Some weeks we’d hear the cat two or three nights in a row. Other times nearly a week would go by between visits.

The cat always came at night, until one morning about six or eight weeks after the first encounter. I was sitting at my computer beside an open window just after sunrise when I heard the bobcat, this time a ways off in the distance. It was the same sound as always, which was no longer jarring but oddly comforting. I suppose it had simply become one of the sounds of home. In any event it put a smile on my face as I stepped close to the window for a listen. That’s when I heard the gunshot. Just a single round, its sound echoing off the trees, followed by silence. A very long silence.

I waited several days before telling my family. Every evening I’d listen for the cat, hoping beyond hope that the gunshot and silencing of the cat was just coincidental timing. But never again did I hear the unmistakable sound of our bobcat. We do still hear the remarkable bard owls, which sound like squawking monkeys when they get riled up in their mating ritual. Every spring the ensemble of chorus frogs gets to singing so loud you can hardly talk over it. And Raleigh even managed one afternoon to get too close to a copperhead, which gave him a nice fat lip and valuable life lesson.

It is all still quite beautiful here. It was more beautiful when there was a bobcat out there, but still I count my blessings for getting to live where we do.

March 1, 2009

Considering the farmworker: What I’ve learned

I’m a Wall Street technology manager. Two years ago I set out, citizen journalist style, to learn and write about people whose lives are very different from mine: migrant farmworkers. These are the men, women and children who harvest most of the fresh produce you see at America’s grocery stores.

I’ll share what I learned with the caveat I am but one observer who learned much of this secondhand, from farmworker advocates, social workers and others. My Spanish isn’t good enough to converse at length with farmworkers, though I did speak with a few and visited forty or so labor camps. I’ve not spoken with a single farm owner, or grower, who hires these workers. And though I’ve read nearly all the articles and books I can get my hands on I’ve certainly not read everything. So with that out of the way, here’s what I believe to be true.

There are around a million farmworkers in the United States, give or take a hundred thousand. Most are from Mexico or Nicaragua. Desperate for work, most risked their lives crossing into the United States. Many still refer to such immigrants as “illegal” but I’m with those who prefer “undocumented.” How can a human life be against the law?

Most farmworkers are truly migrant, moving from one corner of the country to another, following the work and living in temporary labor camps. Some workers stay put year-round. These are known as seasonal farmworkers and they tend to find non-agricultural work in the winter.

Most camps I’ve been to are sad places: filthy and ill-maintained, some with outhouses and water unsafe to drink. Don’t expect to see one yourself. Most are well out of the view of any highway, hidden beyond trees or down long dirt roads.

Farmworkers are paid very little, sometimes less than minimum wage, because someone desperate for work and ever fearful of deportation is easily exploited in this way. Some are hired directly by a grower but many are hired by contratistas or nickeleros who shield growers from direct responsibility for their workers. Some of these middlemen, if stories I’ve heard are true, are unspeakably cruel.

The paltry pay, by and large, is not due to unkind growers or contractors. It’s a system thing. U.S. growers must accept crop prices dictated by massive grocery chains and fast food buyers. These oligopolists will of course point the finger of blame at you and me: consumers who will almost always prefer the tomato or hamburger with the lowest price. And they are right.

Farmworkers on H2A temporary work visas, sometimes called guest workers, earn an hourly wage set by law, ranging from $10.00 to $13.59 depending on the state. They tend to live in nicer quarters as well. Still the program has plenty of critics. Growers think it’s overly bureaucratic. And labor advocates don’t like how guest workers are forced to remain with one employer, incenting abuse.

Naturally, most farmworkers stay mum about their job conditions no matter how bad. One exception is the man I heard last summer as he stood in front of two visiting Members of British Parliament and a U.S. Congresswoman. He told of standing atop a mobile tobacco harvester, dizzy from nearby pesticide spray. Miscalculating his reach, his hand went under the belt and into the gear mechanism. It chopped off his fingertip like a cigar cutter. It was hours before he made it to the hospital—the grower refused to take him—where he racked up a bill he couldn’t pay. Because he was fired.

Migrant farmwork is not slavery and farmworkers are not slaves. Still, as I consider all this, I can’t help but hear echoes of slavery, especially in the South where the economic reliance on ultra-cheap labor was ingrained back when slaves really did all this work. Consider the agricultural exemptions to federal labor laws.

Did you know farmworkers are not entitled to overtime pay? That there are different child labor laws for farmworkers? Kids as young as 12, in some cases 10, can work legally in the fields, subject to heat stroke, pesticide exposure and a long list of other health and safety risks. And when school is out children can work around the clock without breaking any laws.

The exemptions have been around since 1938. That’s when Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to include them in the Fair Labor Standards Act to appease the South. Slavery had been abolished decades earlier but practices like debt peonage and share-cropping kept farmworker wages ultralow. The South liked it that way. It still does.

My lesson in migrant farmwork makes me think of Martin Luther King’s observation about the long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. The occupational discrimination against farmworkers in America is clearly unjust.

I know better than to expect sweeping changes any time soon. Republicans now control most state governments in the South, and both houses of Congress in Washington, and it’s usually the other party who makes things right for the working class in this country. Raising the federal minimum wage remains a pipe dream, as does immigration reform.

What to do with this knowledge? I don’t know. I keep thinking of that arc of history. I truly believe it does bend toward justice. But it is, indeed, long.

A farmworker relaxing on his tractor at sunset
Photos by Michael Durbin

Revisiting a Classic

DanielsOnMapWhat very good luck.

On our way to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where my extended family would soon convene for Thanksgiving, we’d go by place I had wanted to visit for years: Daniels Seafood and Crab House.

It was the setting of a 1999 feature story about migrant agricultural workers, by Anne Hull, then at the St. Petersburg Times and now at the Washington Post.

Una Vida Mejor: A Better Life tells the story of a group of Mexican women who travel more than 2,000 miles to pick crabs as guest-workers, on H2A visas.

Like all great narrative journalism, the three-part story uses just the right detail to put you where the subjects are, from a Mexican town square:

… the evening game of soccer was played with a deflated old ball… the field was a swirl of white powder, and the shirtless young men looked as if they had been rolled in flour.

to the crab shack where the women worked, standing all day:

… hundreds of cooked crabs were heaped on silver tables, waiting for them. The clock above the sink read 6:45 a.m. Delia and Ceci stood on the concrete floor, blinking against the fluorescent lights.

to the camp where they slept:

… a wall-unit air conditioner pumped against the summer heat. One windowless bedroom occupied by a worker named Esmerelda became known as El Horno de Esme. Esmerelda’s oven.

Its careful revelation of what’s at stake for its subjects makes you care what happens next. And when its main characters change, learning something unexpected, we learn something too.

As we drove east in the waning months of the Carolina growing season, past denuded tobacco fields and roadside bales of cotton the size of a school bus, I told my teenager Greta all about the article and how cool it would be to meet Mickey Daniels and some of his H2A workers.

“Can we eat lunch there?” she asked.
“I don’t think it’s a restaurant,” I explained. “But we’ll see.”

I had wondered of course if the crab house was still there. But there was a more recent article about Daniels on line, and even a customer review by a guy named Brett: “Some of the best crab meat you are going to find on the beach.”

The H2A guest-worker program has expanded steadily over the past decade with more than 85,000 workers authorized in 2012 – nearly twice as many as when Anne Hull wrote her story.

Despite complaints of too much red tape for growers and too few rights for the workers, the program does let Mexican laborers earn an hourly wage in North Carolina of $10.32 (it varies by state), more than what they can earn in a day back home.

“Dad,” said Greta, as Google told us we had arrived, “this looks like a condo.”

It did. I turned the car around, heading west now on the causeway connecting the Outer Banks to the mainland.

“We must have missed it,” I said. “Look for an old building with a blue crab painted on the roof.”
“Like that one?” said Greta, pointing to a squat gray building on the edge of the water, clearly abandoned.
“That can’t be it,” I assured her.

We continued west, nearly to the mainland, with no sign of it. Greta was right. I headed back east and pulled off at what was once Daniels Seafood and Crab House and now an empty shack waiting for a bulldozer, bathed in bright sunlight.


Tall weeds swayed in the cool wind blowing off the water. I peered through dirty windows onto sun-bleached floors, littered with debris. It was eerily quiet, save when a car zoomed by.

“The door’s missing over here,” noticed Greta. “You can see right in.”

You could, and I did, to peer at artifacts from the story: The giant steamer. The concrete floor. The fluorescent lights that once made Delia and Ceci blink their bleary eyes.


So much for meeting Mickey Daniels, or his H2A workers.

But of course I don’t need to. Thousands will be all over North Carolina, starting in just a few months, and I can meet plenty then.

And there’s always Ann Hull’s story, a click away.

Una Vida Mejor: A Better Life
They are human capital, ordered like product and shipped in for a season. A handful of women from a windblown village in Mexico set out for a better life – una vida mejor -on the back roads of the new world economy.

Story by ANNE HULL • Photographs by JOSHUA DAUTOFF and PAM ROYAL

Part one: Leaving Palomas
Part two: The Smell of Money
Part three: Freedom Found

© Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

The Nice Camp

VolleyballAtNiceCampLast summer I accompanied some college students doing educational and health care outreach at migrant farmworker camps. They were generally dismal places, ill-maintained and no place I’d ever want to spend the night.

Except for one.

It was mid July. Hot. I’d been traveling all day with Julie King and Danny Guzman-Ramos, interns with Student Action with Farmworkers, trying to register young workers for ESL classes. After several hours of hopscotching the South Carolina blacktop they had managed to register a grand total of one, living in a trailer with failing siding and a yard littered with garbage. This was a familiar site.

The front porch of another camp was strewn with beer cans, dirty laundry, and filth. At another place, a courteous but uninterested farmworking mom spoke to Danny through a screen door with holes big enough for birds to get through. On other days I had seen much worse.

Fatigued and growing miserable in the heat, Danny and Julie decided to ditch the rest of their leads. They would go instead to a peach grower’s camp where they had already registered the workers for classes, this time to conduct an interview for a documentary project.

The decision changed everything. For the first time that day they seemed genuinely excited and I soon found out why.

We rolled to a stop at the end of a long gravel road, the last few pebbles crunching under our wheels. The expanse of grass surrounding the squat white building was the first I’d seen that qualified as an actual lawn. It wasn’t fancy but had clearly been mowed. And there wasn’t a spec of litter in sight.

Danny and Julie were met by a pair of men with smiles that wrapped their weather-worn faces. I couldn’t follow the rapid Spanish but the body language was clear: These people were happy to see one another.

While Danny went inside to recruit someone to interview, Julie headed to the volleyball net. Volleyball? Soon she was punching the ball to a guy on the other side, who lost sight of it in the glare of a setting sun now falling toward peach trees surrounding the camp. He laughed.

I saw things here I hadn’t seen at other camps: A pair of clean washing machines on a covered porch—they looked new. Rows of clothes lines, draped with shirts and pants, were rocked in unison by a warm breeze coming off the orchard. One worker sat on a tractor, watching the orange sun now kissing the tops of the peach trees, enjoying the simple passage of time in a gorgeous setting.

Interview_miniThe interview went off without a hitch and was followed by friendly banter inside a screened-in porch where I took in the surroundings: Clean tables. A swept floor. A bright clean kitchen with a professional stove—a Viking, the kind you see in restaurant kitchens.

Why was this camp for migrant farmworkers so nice when so many are such filthy hovels?

This was a camp for workers on H-2A guest worker visas. The government requires housing at these camps to meet certain standards. I’m told these standards are not always enforced, but here I imagine the grower was well in compliance and maybe then some (I doubt the program requires Viking stoves and volleyball nets).

The H-2A program is not without controversy. Detractors say it doesn’t address the much bigger problem of poor living and working conditions for undocumented workers (only 10% or so of migrant workers are here on H-2As) and even its proponents decry the H-2A bureaucratic complexities. I’m still learning about the program and don’t have a strong opinion.

I just wish every migrant farmworker in America could come off the fields at the end of a day to a place like this.

A version of this essay appeared on the Farmworker Advocacy Network blog on July 12, 2014

The lives of child farmworkers in their own pictures and words

FromOurHandsCUEach year, a little-known contest by a little-known agency in Washington, DC lets children of migrant farmworkers portray their lives in essays and drawings.

The annual contest by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs invites these children to submit essays and artwork for judging by a panel, with winners announced on the AFOP website and honored at the association’s annual conference. This year it was in San Diego. AFOP spokesperson Norma Flores described the experience:

“I could see the spark in their eyes as they received their awards at the conference.” As a former farmworker herself, she can relate to the importance of such recognition.

“It really does leave an impression, for them to know someone believes in them, which makes such a difference in their lives.”

It’s too bad the contest doesn’t reach more kids. Apparently only a few hundred or so of the 400 to 500 thousand migrant farmworking children even know about it.

Here’s hoping that changes.

Working in the fields is all we know, it’s all we think we’re good at, it’s what we do to survive… Falling behind in my studies is the main problem that I face every time I move from state to state… during my freshmen year I attended four high schools.

Zulema Lopez, 17 Laredo, TX

I feel as if I am going to faint but I know I can’t stop working… Sometimes I want to scream at the top of my lungs because the next day will be just the same. I hate the fact that no one thinks we can be anything but migrant workers

Veronica Rodriguez, age 15, Michigan

Jaqueline Vargas, 14, San Luis, AZ
Jaqueline Vargas, 14, San Luis, AZ
Javier Alejandro Soto-Gonzalez, 16, Bakersfield, CA
Javier Alejandro Soto-Gonzalez, 16, Bakersfield, CA
Jose Luis Mendoza, 12, Salinas, CA
Jose Luis Mendoza, 12, Salinas, CA