Farmworker Awareness Week & Why It Matters

It wasn’t long before I found myself having a near nervous breakdown in the produce section of my local supermarket trying to weigh out the ethical difference between organic garlic and conventional.
by on Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Got Food? Thank A Farmworker!

Photo by Amy Schmidt, taken at Darnell Farms in Bryson City, North Carolina.

In my past life, before I worked as a full-time writer and editor, I worked in healthcare, specifically migrant healthcare. I had always cared about the environment, had always preferred to eat healthy organic food, and had always been passionate about social justice. When I began my job with Vecinos Farmworker Health Program, I was suddenly submerged in all these issues at once. 

I wasn’t long in this line of work before I found myself unable to pick up a tomato at the supermarket without wondering whose hands picked it or packed it in the box.

Had I shaken those hands at our mobile clinic the night before? Or the season before? 

Whose hands have touched our food products?

It wasn’t long before I found myself having a near nervous breakdown in the produce section of my local supermarket trying to weigh out the ethical difference between organic garlic (wrapped in plastic) and conventional (covered in pesticides). On top of those considerations, which garlic-harvesting farmworker was treated better? 

That particular day, I left the supermarket with no garlic, determined to solve the ethical enigma by planting my own. I never did harvest any garlic, although I did get quite good at growing tomatoes, squash, and eggplant. (Keep in mind this was western North Carolina, where it’s almost impossible to not grow squash in the summer.)

Piece Rate Across the United States

In my job as farmworker case manager, I met hundreds of migrant, seasonal, and H2A workers each year. I shook their hands, instructed many on how to use ibuprofen for their aching backs, counseled for nutrition and how to protect against heat stroke, tossed their toddlers in the air, and sometimes ate tacos for dinner in between mobile clinic visits. I learned that workers earn $1 per bucket of tomatoes picked in North Carolina, and less than that in Florida. (Could be my biased opinion, but I think the difference is because NC tomatoes are way more delicious.) This is called piece rate, and it means they get paid for what they pick, not by the hour. 

Jorge, a young man in his twenties, could fill over 100 buckets in a day. Not bad pay, right? Well consider this. He works from sunup to sundown with hardly any breaks, eating a quick lunch in the fields, barely stopping to drink water, because the faster he works, the more money he earns. No overtime, no days off during peak seasons, and no hourly rate for any hours he works after harvesting. Yolanda, a pregnant young woman with one toddler and no resources for childcare? She continued working until a couple days before giving birth, her young son sleeping in a tomato box or toddling along beside her. 

At eight months pregnant, she could fill around 60 buckets. 

These are two of the workers I became close to during my six years working with Vecinos. I met and developed friendships with many others too. Often they had emigrated to the United States permanently and lived with families with complex immigration situations (ie. a Guatemalan mom who is a long process of seeking asylum, an undocumented Mexican dad, one child a citizen, and another with DACA). 

Many came year after year from Mexico, working on a special “guestworker” agricultural visa, living for up to 9 months each year in North Carolina, spending most of their lives far from their families and homes. 

Others moved several times each year, following the harvests, their children changing schools, their health care follow-up getting lost along the way. 

Different Details, Similar Stories

What I learned in helping agriculture workers navigate the U.S. healthcare system is that the system can be maddeningly frustrating, full of institutional barriers for immigrants, POC, and non-English speakers. I learned that even as our institutions treat certain members of our society as less than others, the truth is that every single human is valuable, and each one has a complex history, full of interesting, compelling, heartbreaking stories. And regardless of the different details of our stories, we share common themes–the way we love our families and long for them when we are away, the aches and pains we feel in our bodies and souls, the simple joys, and the complex heartbreaks–these things connect us in our humanity. 

There are many structural issues in the agriculture system in the United States—and in the world. They range from environmental, to economic, to social. They are interconnected and complicated. There are no easy solutions. 

But regardless of where you live or where you stand on any of these issues, there is a truth that exists: 

Any time you pick up a fresh tomato or carton of blackberries, or most any other fresh produce, someone spent a lot of time and energy tending and harvesting that crop, whether it came from a small family farm or a big operation. 

Juicy, handpicked N.C. blackberries.

Many hands may have touched that tomato all along the supply chain, and each hand is attached to a human being with a story. So much energy goes into producing food. We have so much to honor–the sun, the rain, and the earth. This week is Farmworker Awareness Week, so I invite you to honor and appreciate farmworkers this week. 

Perhaps, we should honor and appreciate farmworkers all year. They do critical work. 

Interested in learning more about farmworker issues in the United States? Here are some great resources:

And check out the award-winning documentary, Food Chains which gives an insightful break downs of supply chains in the U.S. agriculture and food industry, and which groups are advocating for changes.

Amy Schmidt is from North Carolina and is currently based in Costa Rica where she works remotely as the staff writer and editor for Producers Market. She holds an M.A. in Media, Peace & Conflict Studies and is passionate about feminism, justice for all beings and the earth, and loves juicy tropical fruit. She also has her own editing business, Medusa Media Collective.


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