In 1993 I started work on a small vegetable farm in Northern Colorado. Our abundant harvests fed roughly 300 people April – November with all the vegetable types you can grow here. Days started at 6 am and often ended with some work after our evening meal. I was young, fit, and felt so alive working with others on this three-acre farm, living the lifestyle of a farm worker, attuned to the pulse of daylight, temperature, snow, rain and wind and its effects on the soil, plants and irrigation water. By 1995 I was managing field operations, even more excited about it all.
I tell you some of my story so that you know I have significant life context about being a farmworker, planting, weeding, harvesting, packing and more. My current job context affords me feedback from Colorado produce farmers as a founding member of the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. See coloradoproduce.org.
Every day, somewhere in the US, workers on produce farms arrive at the field, ready to take on the same tasks. The work may be hot or cold, sun baked, windy, wet and muddy, the walking is hard on a rough, uneven surface, and the ergonomics are challenging at best. If you are a produce farmworker in Colorado it is only seasonal employment. And frankly, the pay may be only slightly lower than an entry level position at your local supermarket, which offers much more comfortable work conditions.
The old trope goes something like this, “if we bring in foreign, temporary workers to do farm work, they are simply taking American jobs.” Maybe. But according to farmer anecdote and researcher data, most Americans don’t want these jobs (see work conditions and pay above) and those that take them don’t last a full season. Most Colorado produce farmers I’ve spoken with describe local workers new to this type of work quitting less than a week after starting.
Are you encouraging your kids to start their career as a farmworker? Most are not. And could you find enough teen and twenty somethings willing to work this hard today? They are extremely rare to find. Some farmers say we are simply losing this work ethic or those that can and will work in “dirty jobs” do so as a trained trades person, commanding a significantly higher wage for year-round work.
So, who will provide their able and skilled bodies to do this work? The farmworker advocates that I have had the privilege to work with, those that also worked the produce fields of the US as kids with their parents, carried the same hope for their kids, get a better job. I suspect this is a global cultural wish parents have for their kids. Whether you are living in Mexico, Ukraine or India, don’t be a farm worker.
Consumer research indicates we generally expect our food system to provide low cost, quality, and convenient food. This puts downward pressure on the wages farmers can pay farmworkers.
Against this backdrop, we still need vegetables planted, weeded, harvest and packed. This makes temporary ag workers holding an H-2A visa increasingly important. Talk with Colorado produce farmers and they will tell you this program was made to be difficult for them to navigate. In our increasingly automated world, farmers also have an eye toward labor saving technology.
How do we continue to enjoy Colorado produce in 2040? COVID-19 has highlighted for Americans that farm workers are essential. As suggested, part of the answer is political, which is beyond my professional scope, part of the answer could be cultural, reframing our gratitude for farm workers, and part is also likely bringing more technology into the fields.
By Adrian Card, Colorado State University Extension. For more information on agriculture in Boulder County, visit the CSU Extension Boulder County website at boulder.extension.colostate.edu/agriculture.