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Grubinger: Farm Labor

08/06/12 7:55AM By Vern Grubinger
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(Host) When it comes to farm labor, many people harbor nostalgic images of farmers in overalls with pitchforks, but commentator Vern Grubinger - vegetable and berry specialist for UVM extension - reminds us that the reality of contemporary farm labor is much more complex.

(Grubinger) Everyone knows that farm work is hard work, but who does the work? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmers and their families account for two thirds of the people working on farms, and hired farmworkers make up the other third. Hired labor is essential on many farms to help plant crops, milk cows, pick fruits and vegetables and perform a host of other tasks that have to get done in a timely and skilled manner.
Farm work is physically challenging, often seasonal, and it doesn't follow a nine to five schedule. So it's no surprise that farmers have to be creative to find the workers they need. How they do that varies by type of farm.

On small farms, including many that grow organic vegetables, interns are commonly hired. In exchange for their labor, young people get room and board plus a stipend. They also get hands-on education, so they're eager to accept this arrangement. As these small farms get larger and financially established, they typically transition to a workforce of conventional employees. Given the seasonal nature of the work, many of these employees have a separate winter occupation, like carpentry, to carry them through the year.

Large horticultural farms in the Northeast often rely on migrant workers. These farms use a seasonal labor program called H2A. It allows people from certain countries to come here for up to 10 months to work, and it requires the farmers to provide housing and to pay an hourly wage several dollars above the minimum. In Vermont about 400 people, mostly Jamaican men, are hired through H2A. They spend the growing season working long hours on apple orchards and vegetable farms. These men often return to the same farm for decades. They have good relationships with the farmers, who appreciate their work ethic.
Dairy farms can't utilize H2A since their labor needs are not seasonal. They try to get local workers but even with good wages and benefits it's hard to find people to do the work. Many of those who are willing to do the work come from other countries, like Mexico and Guatemala. They're typically undocumented due to the lack of a federal visa program.

Across the country tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants work on farms. They come here to support their families because they can't earn a decent living at home. Many people argue that this problem is exacerbated by our free trade agreements. Yet there's no program that allows them to work a few years and then go home, so both farmers and many of their workers are between a rock and a hard place in pursuit of economic survival. There are an estimated 1500 undocumented workers on Vermont dairy farms. Nationally, about half of all hired crop farmworkers are not legally authorized to work here.

Our food system depends on the labor of foreign workers. It sure would make sense to have programs that make it legal and safe for all those involved in getting the farm work done.
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