Migrant farmworkers – or migratory agricultural workers – are synonymous terms describing those who leave their permanent residence to travel from place to place for the purpose of seeking work in agriculture. Migrant farmworkers have also been dubbed “the invisible population” because they are individuals, largely undocumented, performing low-wage “unskilled” labor. This is work most Americans do not wish to do themselves because it is very labor-intensive, and generally requires an effort not thought to be worth the money it earns.
We have put very little value on our food system here in the U.S. and even less on those individuals that make it possible for us to go and purchase produce and other food items off the shelves. We’ve heard the term “broken food system,” but what does that really mean?
It means we’re using a finite workforce to meet an ever-growing demand. And, this dwindling workforce has its own pressures being placed upon it.
In the past there were three main migrant streams: Eastern Stream, Midwestern Stream, and Western Stream (see map). However, as growing pressures, lack of immigration reform, stagnant wages, and economic and educational shifts continue to impose on farmworker populations, these once clearly defined streams continue to blur. In some cases, they even cease to exist.
Many farmworkers have decided to settle, becoming seasonal workers instead of migrants, in part due to the inability to earn a living wage for their families; however, some families have made the decision to avoid disrupting the entire family thus leaving the men to migrate alone. like Eudi from Pennsylvania. Eudi calls Bridgeton, Pennsylvania home but says,
“I go alone or with my brother-in-law to Florida for the citrus. The longest I was gone was about a year and few months, it depends on the work and if it’s good I will stay longer. Traveling is hard on the body, going to a new place to set up, new people, you don’t know what you are going to find. I am not married and I don’t have kids, but when I left and came back my sister had another baby, my nieces grew, my family changes and I see how much I missed.”
On the other hand, some families migrate together; either way it’s hard on everyone involved. Below are firsthand accounts from migrant farmworker youth collected by AFOP Health & Safety’s Children in the Fields Campaign.
“Being a migrant child can be very hard at times, but I always try to make the best of it. I travel between California and Arizona because my dad works in the coolers. Working in the fields can be hard for some kids because there were several months that I didn’t see my dad because he migrated for work.”
“My life as a migrant worker’s daughter has been very difficult. My mom has had to raise me all by herself with the help of my siblings. We have never actually had our home we usually rent, sometimes we live with my grandparents and other times we had our own place but it never lasts long. As I am growing up I am learning to be independent, my mom is never around so I need to do things on my own most of the time.”
Their stories reflect those of thousands of migrant children throughout the U.S.
Migration is hard not solely on the family unit but can be detrimental to the wellbeing of the individual. There are a number of health problems associated with the isolation of migrant life, ranging from mental health issues and substance abuse problems to unsafe sex practices.
Migration disrupts every aspect of a person’s life, from family structure and education to personal health and financial security. The other side is that, for industry, is that migration is what enables Americans to benefit year-round from out-of-season produce: the fruits of farmworker labor. National Farmworker Awareness Week is our moment to acknowledge the hardworking farmworkers in your community and nationwide, and to get involved to make a difference in the lives of individuals who feed us. Check out NFAW events near you all this week, and bring in your light-colored long-sleeve shirts for AFOP’s National Long-Sleeve Shirt Drive: drop-off locations here.
More here on today’s NFAW theme: I’m Away From My Family.