About a month ago, AFOP Health & Safety visited PathStone Pennsylvania, to learn more about the farmworkers in the area. Mellisa Kellison, Director of Training & Employment Services in Aspers, PA, connected us with outreach worker Mayra Delgado, who took us into the fields.
Aspers is in Adams County, PA, in the Historic South Mountain Fruit Belt. 20,000 of Adams County’s acres are dedicated to the production of fruit, earning it the nickname “Apple Capital USA.” Lucky for us, apple season was in full swing when we arrived. As Mayra drove us around, apple orchards stretched before us as far as the eye could see – comparable to vineyards in the Napa Valley. Traveling on narrow back roads, winding up over hills and around sharp bends, Mayra pointed out each house occupied by farm laborers. It wasn’t always evident to us, but she knew every single one. She also drove us past a few of the houses she’d lived in. Having grown up in the area as the child of an apple picker, she knew it like the back of her hand.
How has outreach been going? we asked Mayra as we drove along. She confessed that it hasn’t been easy. “Owners don’t want us there, and then the farmworkers think we’re immigration…” her voice trailed off. She looked worried.
Outreach is foundational to the success of farmworker programs like PathStone’s. Farmworkers often don’t know where to go, or whom to talk to, when it comes to improving their health and safety. They’re frequently living in isolated areas with no access to healthcare or other systems that might begin to provide them with the services they need. Hence, they simply will not just walk into PathStone and ask, hey can you give me some pesticide safety training? The conversation needs to start in the fields.
And even then, if an outreach worker goes into the fields and nails every aspect of “good” outreach – excellent communication skills, confidence, knowledge about the area and the people, respect, and follow-up – they’ll still fall short if they don’t understand a farmworker’s unique needs and challenges.
For one – the language. According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), in 2016 62% of farmworkers reported being able to speak English only a little or not at all. If an outreach worker doesn’t speak Spanish, farmworkers will not understand them well, and communication will break down quickly.
Secondly – immigration status. Nearly half of farmworkers surveyed in 2015-16 reportedly had no work authorization. Of that documented half, it’s likely that many had an undocumented family member. In our current political climate of deportations and the demonization of immigrants, being undocumented carries with it its own set of fears and burdens, making many farmworkers distrustful of any unknown persons just waltzing up to them in an apple orchard.
But that’s what we were here to do: waltz up to farmworkers in an apple orchard. Needless to say, we were anxious to see how this would go…
Mayra’s method of outreach was confident and bold. Whenever we saw a head poking out of a tree, or slowed down and heard rustling in the branches, we would stop, park the SUV, and approach. Mayra always asked first if it was all right to take pictures. Then, while I clicked away, she launched into a one-minute version of why we were there.
We do health & safety trainings, she said. Have you ever been trained on pesticide safety? How recently? If there was an injured worker, she asked about the details of the injury. The ladders these farmworkers were using were three or four times their own height; the workers needed to be very skilled in determining how to place them, since nothing supported them but the apple tree’s own branches. Everyone worked quickly, toting heavy bags that they dumped into bins, which were spaced 20-100 feet apart. This was no easy job, but the men did it with speed and alacrity, all while maintaining a friendly chat with us.
But it’s doubtful that they would have given us the time of day without Mayra. A native Spanish-speaker originally from Michoacán, Mexico, Mayra had much in common with these workers. She fell into conversation with them quite easily, asking where the workers were from, how long they’d been in the U.S., and whether they had families. Most of them were on visas, they said, and they’d be returning home at the end of the season. Some of them were from Michoacán, too. From behind the lens, I could tell that all the farmworkers trusted her implicitly. Her dad was an apple picker. She was even able to establish a common relative with them. She spoke their language in every single way – with words both spoken and unspoken.
Mayra’s outreach skills transferred perfectly into English as well. One farm owner approached our window to ask what we were doing – and Mayra spoke with her, too, like they’d known each other for years. It probably didn’t hurt that Mayra’s English was flawless, and carried the local PA accent. After Mayra filled the owner in on our plan to take pictures and talk to farmworkers, the owner responded, “Oh yeah, no problem!” and waved us on.
How long have you been doing this? we asked Mayra, as we climbed back into the truck after a few encounters like this. One month, she replied – and our mouths dropped open. Her immense ease and confidence belied her inexperience and youth. Mayra, after just one month on the job, had cultivated a relationship of mutual honesty and trust with employers and employees alike – persuading them that PathStone and AFOP’s health & safety programs had something great to offer them both. And – despite Mayra’s fears – we could see that it was working.
Mayra’s supervisor, Mellisa Kellison, said she knew without even interviewing Mayra that she’d be a good fit for the job. “Mayra is the child of a lifetime farmworker. She went to our Migrant Head Start as well as our Pre-K,” Melissa told us. “She is so willing to help anyone and so motivated to make peoples lives better! As a former client, she showed so much potential, I had to hire her. She has a kindness to her that attracts clients and makes them feel welcomed and comfortable.”
Thankfully, Mayra is representative of the more than 260 AFOP Health & Safety trainers nationwide, who are equally as committed to their work and the discipline of good, effective outreach. It’s hard to find just the right individual for this job, but Mayra fits it like a hand to a glove. Congratulations to PathStone on the new hire, and to Mayra on outreach done right!