Farm HandsFarm Hands
by Tom Rivers

The author is a reporter for the Batavia News, located in the middle of Western New York’s multi-county farming region. Agricultural news was a staple of the paper. But as the author realized, this reporting had tended to be focused on the economic impact of the farms, on the $400 million they pumped into the region, on the issues and problems of the farm owners. “Something was missing in those articles: the workers. They were rarely pictured, seldom quoted, and their contributions were largely unappreciated.”

With  about 3,000 migrant workers involved in farm work in Orleans, Genesee, Wyoming, and western Monroe Counties, and about 5,000 scattered through all of western New York, it seemed important to make their voices part of the story. This was particularly essential because, judging from the newspaper’s letters and e-mails to the editor, many readers seemed convinced that the work wasn’t very difficult, that farmers could easily fill their labor force with local labor, that no particular skill or experience was necessary.

So the author wondered — How hard was the work? What demands did it make, in terms of both skill and endurance? Was it something that local workers were avoiding for a reason? The author set out to get his own hands dirty and find out. Over the course of a year, from spring to fall, he persuaded local farmers to let him join their crews and try his ability at farm work, then to write articles for the paper describing what it was like.

He began in April rains, planting onions in the rich muck land, and finished in October, harvesting apples in a variety of western New York orchards. In between, he picked raspberries and cherries, milked cows, harvested cabbage, cucumbers, pumpkins, and organic squash, peppers, and beans, and also staffed a farm stall at the public market.

He learned, first of all, that the work is physically grueling. His back was killing him, his knees and shoulders were stiff, after just one day. He needed to take it easy for the next couple of days, until the pain wore off and he felt like himself again. He compared it to the exertion of running a marathon, except with the realization that you had to get back out there every morning ready to do it all over again.

The men he worked with — and they were almost exclusively men — came from Haiti, Jamaica, and Mexico. Most of them were here through the H-2A program, which allows temporary residents to work legally in the U.S. Most of the farm owners the author spoke to preferred to hire workers through this program, because it relieved them of the worry that their operations might be disrupted by the sudden loss of their workers due to immigration issues. But many farmers remarked on the delays and paperwork involved in this program. Work on a farm is timed on a schedule determined by nature, not by the farmer, and when hands are needed, they are needed at once.

Many of the farm workers who spoke to the author had been returning to farm work in the area for a number of years. They weren’t happy about the regular months-long separations from family and home, but their attitude was, “We do what we have to do for the good of the family.” The steady work enabled them to support parents or educate children. Despite some anxiety about their ability to get back into the U.S. each year, despite the paperwork hassles, they wanted to come back if they could.

A few workers the author met admitted that they were not “legal”, either because they had initially entered illegally, or because their legal work-stay permits had expired. The stories of these men were almost always concerned with a desire to work and the lack of paying opportunities at home. If they could return home to see family, they would have, but because of their situation they feared that going home would make it impossible for them to return here, and here is where the jobs were. The author wanted to hear these men’s stories frankly and honestly, in order to report on their experiences, and that meant he had to keep their confidences. He respected their wishes not to have their real names used or their pictures appear in the articles. As he explains to the reader, immigration enforcement is not his job. His job is to get the story and report it.

Actually working alongside these men, the author learned to respect them for their work ethic, their endurance, their positive attitude in the toughest circumstances. The two toughest jobs the author experienced, in terms of sheer backbreaking labor, were cabbage and cucumber harvesting. Cabbage weighed a ton — it was like lifting and tossing bowling balls all day long, not to mention trying to slash through tough cabbage stems in a single strong swipe without slashing your own fingers. Cucumbers had to be harvested from ankle-level rows, legs spread apart to straddle the row, back bent over almost double, while dragging a 30-pound bucket. The top picker at the cuke farm picked one basket every three minutes, 19 baskets per hour, 202 total for the day. The author picked 10 baskets per hour, putting him dead last among the crew.

Despite his struggles to keep up, the author tried never to quit before the end of a shift. As he said, “They seem skeptical of me. Other local Americans have tried the jobs before and few have lasted more than two hours. I want to at least put in a respectable showing, and not feed the ‘lazy American’ stereotype.” 

The toughest job in terms of skill was the cow-milking operation. Herds of cows are brought into the milking parlor. Their teats are “dipped” in iodine foam to kill bacteria and loosen manure. Then the teats are wiped clean with towels. The cows are then attached to the milking unit. The experienced workers can do this in about five seconds. While the author is struggling to connect all four teats on his first cow, his co-worker has done 18 cows.

Milking cows is wet, dirty work. Even dressed in high boots, waterproof overalls, and carrying a bagful of towels, the milker finishes the shift covered with cow poop, cow urine, iodine foam, and water from the regular washing-down of the floors. Cleaning the poop off the floors and doing laundry (1200 dirty towels per shift) are additional duties, along with changing filters in the tank system, and flushing and sanitizing hoses.

Rich Gibson came from Jamaica at age 16. He began working at Stein’s dairy farm at age 18, after an American worker proved unreliable and failed to show up for shifts. Gibson had milked five cows by hand on his grandfather’s farm at home, and had at first no more experince with a large commercial dairy farm than had the author. But Gibson persisted, proved that he could master the skills needed, and became a valued and versatile employee, able to do anything from cleaning milk tanks to delivering calves. He eventually studied to become a certified HVAC technician and got a job installing furnaces, but continued to work two days a week at Stein’s, where he trains new hires.

Jesus “Chuy” Vallejo first came to work here 20 years ago, as a 14-year-old who knew no English. In 1988, during an amnesty program, he gained legal status. He is now a farm foreman at an apple orchard, managing workers, teaching new ones, and monitoring the quality of the fruit. When the owner was hospitalized, Vallejo saw to the planting of new trees and the spring pruning. The year after the author had worked with him, Vallejo became a U.S. citizen and invited the author to attend the ceremony.

These are just two of the men whose individual stories the author told in his series of articles, now gathered into this little book. These people, their faces and stories, stick with me now that I’ve put the book aside. I’ve learned something about what farm work is like, true. But what I remember most are the people, each with his own reason for being where he is, doing what he is doing.

My dad has told me how he once very briefly attempted farm work, as a summer job when he was in college. He was one of those Americans who quit after only one day. It wasn’t because he was lazy. After all, he lasted for an entire season as a temporary mail carrier, hauling a bag of mail over his shoulder while pounding the sidewalks in all weather. When I ask him “Why did you give up on the farm job after only one day?”, he shrugs, laughs, shakes his head. “Compared to the others, I just didn’t have what it took — whatever that was…”

This book is full of the stories of those who have what it takes, whatever that is.