It’s January.  And, if you live in the northern hemisphere, that means snow, colder temperatures, a more-or-less frozen terra firma… and less available agricultural work.  So, where do all the farmworkers go?  What are they to do?

Migrant Farmworkers

Migrant farmworkers who follow the crops typically go back to their home base in the south.  That means California, Florida, and Texas, or Mexico or other Central American and Caribbean nations.  The three typical migrant streams in the U.S. – the Eastern, Western, and Midwestern – can be seen below in this diagram from the National Agricultural Workers Survey:



So when the harvest ends and the cold winds start to blow, migrant farmworkers pack up their bags and move to another state.  Farmworkers in Ohio probably move back to Texas, as do those in North Dakota.  Farmworkers in New York state move back to their permanent residence in Jamaica, South Carolina, or Florida.  Meanwhile, farmworkers in places like Washington or Oregon re-join their families in Arizona or southern California.

But did you know that, as of the most recent agricultural workers survey, only 19% of farmworkers migrate?  The remaining 81% had “settled out” in one location, oftentimes for the sake of their kids who would otherwise have to change schools each time they moved.  (Migrating is extremely hard on school-age children, as we mentioned in our blog, “Migrant children struggle to hold on.”)  In this case they are seasonal farmworkers, not migrant farmworkers.

Seasonal Farmworkers

Seasonal farmworkers who labor in the north but do not follow the crops have three options:  keep their current job (lucky is the man or woman who gets this year-round gig!); find a job in the non-agricultural industry; or become unemployed.

Unfortunately, it’s often the last option.  According to NAWS, “nearly 7 in 10 farmworker respondents in 2015-2016 reported at least 1 period in the 12 months prior to their interview during which they did not work (69%), and these respondents averaged 20 weeks without employment.”  Only 15% of those who were unemployed said they had access to unemployment insurance (UI) benefits.  As a result, many seasonal farmworkers really struggle in the off-season, just trying to make it by until they can find work again.


Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages


For the farmworkers who are not laid off and who stay on with their employer, they may continue in a different and perhaps more limited role.  Some of their winter tasks might include pruning, maintenance work, or animal husbandry.  These farmworkers are at risk of falling ill to cold stress and developing hypothermia, trench foot, chilblains, and more.  (For more detailed info on the various symptoms of cold stress, see our blogs on the topic from 2018, 2017, and 2016.)  Still other farmworkers may go to work in nurseries, where conditions are warmer but where they encounter some of the same hazards that exist outside, such as pesticide exposure.

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All in all, wintertime is often a lean time for farmworker families.  Keep this in mind when you feel tempted to complain about the cold:  farmworkers are out working in it, are forced to move across country because of it, or are laid off because of it.  Such is the life of a migrant and seasonal farmworker.

AFOP Health & Safety understands farmworkers’ plight – that’s why we go to such great lengths to lessen their burden with things like the long-sleeved shirt drive, health & safety education, and awareness campaigns.  (Read more, here, about all the things we accomplished for farmworkers in 2019!)  Leave us a comment if you want to partner with us in 2020 – the long-sleeved shirt drive is already coming up at the end of March!