Immigrant Farm Workers, the Hidden Part of New York's Local Food Movement

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving is the ultimate harvest holiday, and no one knows that better than the tens of thousands of farm workers who grow and harvest New York’s produce.The reality of agriculture is that a hefty percentage of the people who plant and harvest New York’s local food are immigrant workers, many of whom put themselves in danger to cross the border into the United States to work the land.

In New York, farm workers labor long hours with no overtime pay and no right to a day of rest. Nor do they have the right to collective bargaining — something Cesar Chavez fought for fifty years ago. But that was in California, and those labor laws don’t cross state lines into New York.

Antonio Valeriano is originally from Oaxaca, and now works at a farm in the Hudson Valley. “We wake up at five in the morning, because we need to be at work by six. In the morning.” He’s often works until 8 at night, and as late as 10 p.m. when the harvest is at its busiest.

He’s part of a crew of twelve men who spend the day tending the fields. When the sun goes down, they move to the packing house, where bruised fruit is turned to cider, and the produce of the day is washed, bunched and prepped for market.

Like many farm workers, they live in a grower-provided labor camp — which on this farm means a run-down old house on the property where they sleep three to a room.

(Photo: Antonio Valeriano and the other men at the farm spend some of their free time working on puzzles they buy during trips to WalMart. Courtney Dudley for WNYC)

When they get back to the house, the men cook dinner in shifts.  “Something that we can put together quickly. More than anything we want to rest. So we don’t cook anything very complicated. So, fast food,” Valeriano explained.

For dinner, they are warming tortillas, cans of tomato sauce and shrimp-flavored cup-of-noodles.

Valeriano admitted the work is hard, "and we almost never rest,” but he isn’t complaining. “Like I said, we don’t consider this work, we don’t think of it that way. We like doing this.” Giving a tour of the grounds and the packing house across the driveway, he’s clearly proud of what he does.

Gerardo Gutiérrez, an attorney working with the Rural Migrant Ministry in Poughkeepsie, is campaigning to remove the exclusions that keep New York farm workers from having the same rights as all other New York State workers. “This is an issue that is not only a human rights issue, it’s a labor issue, it’s a moral issue. No matter how you slice it, this issue is a no-brainer because we need to give these people some rights, he said.

Gutierrez says farm workers work 60 to 80 hours, sometimes seven days a week. The farm workers are often happy to work the extra hours but the no-overtime pay provision means that they don’t get time and a half after 40 hours. He points out that growers are capitalizing on labor that’s not being fully compensated.

The campaign for farm worker’s rights has met with opposition from the New York Farm Bureau, the organization that represents farmer’s interests. While they support the right to a day of rest, they believe that the right to overtime pay and the right to collective bargaining isn’t appropriate for the seasonal nature of New York agriculture. Instead they are focusing on the big picture of immigration reform, which they believe will improve the lives of farm workers and the growers they work for.

(Photo: A worker takes in a crate of produce from the fields at Glebocki farms. Courtney Dudley for WNYC)

John Glebocki is a fifth generation farmer in the fertile Black Dirt region of Orange County, New York. His ancestors originally broke up the dirt back in the 1880s, and he and his crew farm 120 acres of land. Unlike Valeriano, he has a larger team of workers, who only work about 8 hours a day, depending on the harvest.

He has stands in 21 farmer’s markets in the city. Depending on the season, he’s selling vegetables like lacinato kale, kirby cucumbers, hardneck garlic, frying peppers, hot peppers, parsnip, zebra eggplants and purple carrots.

It’s the sort of locally-grown farmer’s market fare that New Yorkers demand. But this kind of multi-crop farming is labor intensive. He estimates that labor costs already make up about half of what he charges for any given vegetable.

Unlike the Farm Bureau, Glebocki supports the idea of overtime pay for his workers. He just doesn’t see how it can be economically viable.  

“It all comes down to what the grower is getting for his product," he said. "You know if we were getting tremendous profit for what we sell, I'm sure we'd be able to offer more. But we can't.”

Glebocki calculates that either consumers will have to pay more for their vegetables, or tax breaks or other provisions have to be made for growers to offset the higher cost in labor.

Small- and medium-sized growers like Glebocki are at the heart of New York’s locally-grown food movement. It’s a group that Maggie Gray, a professor of political science at Adelphi University, has been researching for her book on labor and food ethics. She says that while consumers have demanded things like organic seeds and better treatment for farm animals, this merging of food and ethics hasn’t extended to farm workers. Gray relates a conversation she had with a small farmer.

 “I asked him directly, I said 'why do you think it is that consumers seem so much more concerned about animals than they do about the workers themselves?' And without hesitation, he looked at me and he said ‘They don't eat the workers.’”

Immigrant farm workers subsidize the farm-to-table lifestyle with their labor, but they’re easy to ignore. There’s no quick solution that will allow growers to pay their workers higher wages or overtime. But those advocating for immigrant farm workers agree that like heirloom varieties, chemical-free practices, and local, fresh produce, worker’s rights will come at a cost. What they don’t know is if consumers are willing to pay the price.

Aurora Almendral comes to WNYC from Feet in 2 Worlds, a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School. 

Courtney Dudley for WNYC
Grower John Glebocki works side-by-side with his crew.
Courtney Dudley for WNYC
Orange County’s fertile black dirt in the hands of one of the farmworkers at Glebocki farms.
Courtney Dudley for WNYC
A team of three women giggle and chat as they harvest butternut squash at Glebocki farms.
Courtney Dudley for WNYC
A farmworkers trims leeks in the field.
Courtney Dudley for WNYC
Bunched carrots are prepared for market.
Courtney Dudley for WNYC
Tomatoes that have fallen off the back of the truck are scattered along the black dirt path.
Courtney Dudley for WNYC
A woman carries a crate of artichokes


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Comments [16]

Ariana Basco from New Paltz, NY

I live in the Hudson Valley and am a huge supporter and promoter of local food. I was already aware, before reading this article, of the migrant worker issue and I know of local orgs that are being proactive in finding solutions and fighting for labor rights. I do have to say, however, that it is not just migrant workers who are working ridiculous labor intensive days and into the nights. I know many young people and recent college graduates who are in the very same boat. The job market is poor and young people recognize the need for food sovereignty and food security. There are many local farms and CSA's that are NOT using migrant workers for cheap labor, but rather the ability to start a farm or be a farmer, requires that kind of labor. The real solution is to buy local and institutionalize buying local so that the supply and demand chain is being yanked. Be willing to pay good money for good food! We shouldn't be cheap with our meals but shelling out cash for that big flat screen television. When your elementary school friends told you that "You are what you eat," they weren't lying, so put your money where your mouth is, literally.

Nov. 26 2012 04:53 AM
Chris Pawelski from Warwick, NY

Finally, let me add this detail, the piece I shared ran in HV Biz in 2010. In 2011 we in the Hudson Valley as well as many other parts of the state were totally destroyed by Hurricane Irene. We got virtually no assistance from the government, apart from paltry crop insurance payments and some programs from the state and federal government for ditching and culvert repairs. We are deeply in debt and hanging on by our fingernails. I am over $300K in the hole to the USDA. That is the economic reality and context that is totally ignored by the likes of jlghertner and otherRMM operatives.

Here are links regarding what happened last year, how poor the federal crop insurance is, and how we received virtually no assistance despite massive losses: (you can download my written testimony and fast forward to our panel's 45 minute presentation)

Where do the proponents of this legislation expect the money to come from to pay for the results of enactment? I don't have it, and neither do the bulk of my neighbors. My employees were paid last year, I was not. Will they be assuming any of my debt?

Or will the very large and powerful and quite hypocritical religious organizations driving this want to pick up the tab? Not likely, since they don't pay overtime to their own employees and further, few institutions and types of employment have a more dismal record when it comes to allowing collective bargaining (let alone encouraging it) than religious organization connected businesses. Try to establish a union at a Catholic school or hospital and see what happens. Why don't they encourage their staff at the diocese offices to form a union? They don't, a few years ago I asked the major religious groups behind this measure if they encouraged their own employees to unionize and virtually none of them responded.

Oh that's right ... "do as I say ... not as I do" & "let me remove the beam from my own eye, so I can remove the small splinter from yours ...."

Nov. 25 2012 12:52 AM
Chris Pawelski from Warwick, NY

There is a bill before the state Legislature titled “The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act” (S. 2247-B; A. 1867-A). There is a great deal of misinformation surrounding this bill as well as the issue of agricultural labor. Allow me to address a few of these issues.

The primary proponent of this bill is a religious nonprofit organization called Rural and Migrant Ministry (RMM). The ministry acts as a self-appointed farmworker advocate organization because the overwhelming majority of farmworkers in New York state have neither elected nor chosen this organization or its designated leaders to represent them or speak on their behalf. Farmworkers do not attend their board or planning meetings and the handful that attend RMM’s annual Albany lobby day event are paid by RMM to be there. These facts were admitted by RMM Executive Director Rev. Richard Witt during his sworn testimony before the state Lobby Commission in 2001.

RMM and its allies consistently claim that there are virtually no laws protecting farmworkers and they are “invisible” and ignored by society. The truth is there are roughly a dozen local, state and federal governmental agencies that enforce a plethora of laws that govern both the living and the working conditions of farmworkers in the state.

Some of these laws, like the federal Migrant and Seasonal Protection Act (MSPA) only apply to farmworkers. Farmworkers are one of if not the most protected work force in the state. New York farmworkers earn, on average, more than $10 an hour. Most also receive free housing and all that it entails, including heat, electric and utilities. Many receive free cable or satellite television.

continued ...

Nov. 24 2012 01:46 PM
Chris Pawelski from

... continued

Farmworkers in the state also benefit from a number of governmentally funded social-service programs that, in many cases, only exist for their benefit, including their own free government-funded health clinics, free day-care centers for their children (now 14 throughout the state) free child and adult migrant education programs, as well as their own free government-funded law firm which works only in their behalf. How does a farmworker compare with an urban resident working on the same wage tier when it comes to protections and programs?

What we are talking about are five or six exemptions to state labor law. These exemptions, like the one for overtime pay, exist because of the production and marketing realities associated with farming. Farming does not take place in an enclosed building with a regulated environment. We have a limited time to plant and harvest. If overtime is enacted, farmers will have to cut hours during the growing season so as to afford the overtime at planting and harvest time which can’t be avoided. This may mean fewer overall hours and take home pay for farmworkers. And farmers do not control the prices we receive and cannot pass on increased costs. We absorb it or go out of business. Because of pricing and weather disasters, much of New York’s agriculture is reeling. In four of the past five years, my farm income was below the federal poverty line for a family of four. In 2009, my employees earned more than I did. Where would these self-appointed advocates and legislators who support them like the money to come from to pay for these mandates?

I have no problem defending each and every one of the exemptions within the real world context of agriculture’s production and marketing realities. But I can’t, because the self-appointed advocates’ mantra is that these exemptions are “immoral” and “unjust.” They state that “there can be no justification for this unequal treatment. Attempts at justification of this exclusion are offensive.” Who assigned these organizations the authority to decide which exemptions are “just?” And many of these same exemptions that apply to farmworkers, like overtime pay, also apply to the employees of nonprofits and religious organizations. Yes, the very same organizations that are pointing their fingers at agriculture can legally “exclude” their own workers from receiving overtime. State legislative staffers also are exempt. Yes, the people who work for the people who want to end our exemption are exempt from overtime. The level of hypocrisy is astounding and they don’t have a leg to stand on to play the “moral” card.

continued ...

Nov. 24 2012 01:45 PM
Chris Pawelski from Warwick, NY

... contined

A number of farms in Orange County have switched from mono-cropping onions to growing a variety of vegetables. These farms supply the local farmers’ markets and the green markets in New York City. To grow those vegetables they have had to rely on a much bigger labor force than needed for the more mechanized onion farming. End the overtime exemption and they will be unable to afford their labor bill. They will go back to mono-cropping onions, if they can continue to farm at all. New York state’s unemployment and overtime exemptions for agriculture match the federal standard, making us competitive with neighboring states. If overtime is enacted you can kiss that local fresh produce goodbye as New York farmers will be unable to compete with New Jersey or Pennsylvania farmers who don’t have to pay it. And many farmworkers will lose their jobs. That will be the real world consequences of this legislation.

The people who travel so far up the migrant labor stream, many year after year to the same farms, come here to work as many hours as possible to provide for themselves and their families back home. If the self-appointed advocates ever actually talked to farmworkers they would learn a common complaint is they aren’t receiving enough hours versus working too many. No one forces a person to work on a farm. If someone wants the benefits associated with factory work, they are welcome to work in a factory. But to attempt to apply the rules associated with factory work to agriculture is foolish public policy. Enactment of this legislation will undoubtedly lead to less locally produced food for our markets and a severely impacted upstate economy that is already hurting considerably.

Christopher Pawelski is a fourth generation onion farmer in Orange County and is a member of the New York Farm Bureau’s labor task force.

Nov. 24 2012 01:43 PM
Chris Pawelski from Warwick, NY

Here are links to a couple of op-eds that discuss this issue in more detail:

As John so aptly said, it is a matter of economics and acknowledging production and marketing realities. Farmers would love to pay our employees even more but where will the money come from? We don't control our prices, and in the U.S. less than 10% of our disposable income goes for food and the farmer on average receives roughly 20% of the retail dollar. We don't control our prices, they are dictated to us by our outlets and we cannot raise them to offset increased labor costs. Further, we are getting paid, dollar for dollar, the same amount for our onions as we were paid close to 30 years ago. That's the economic reality and context you must deal with this issue in.

I'll also post the text of one of my op-eds that addresses this more fully.

Nov. 24 2012 01:42 PM
Chris Pawelski from Warwick, NY

part 2

Here are links to a couple of op-eds that discuss this issue in more detail:

As John so aptly said, it is a matter of economics and acknowledging production and marketing realities. Farmers would love to pay our employees even more but where will the money come from? We don't control our prices, and in the U.S. less than 10% of our disposable income goes for food and the farmer on average receives roughly 20% of the retail dollar. We don't control our prices, they are dictated to us by our outlets and we cannot raise them to offset increased labor costs. Further, we are getting paid, dollar for dollar, the same amount for our onions as we were paid close to 30 years ago. That's the economic reality and context you must deal with this issue in.

I'll also post the text of one of my op-eds that addresses this more fully.

Nov. 24 2012 01:40 PM
Chris Pawelski from Warwick, NY

I'm a 4th generation farmer from Orange County who is also a friend of John's. I've been dealing with this issue, and its primary proponents, for roughly 16 years. I have dealt a great deal with the primary org pushing this, Rural and Migrant ministry. The amount of misinformation, distortions of fact and flat out falsehoods spread by this org and its operatives blows my mind.

The fact is that the overwhelming majority of farmworkers in NYS have nothing to do with this agenda or the groups pushing it. They act as self-appointed advocates. Virtually no farmworkers attend their board meetings and planning sessions and the paltry few farmworkers that attend their orchestrated events are PAID by RMM and others to be there, making them no more than props, versus active participants. These facts were admitted by the Executive Director, Richard Witt, in a sworn deposition, taken by the NYS Lobby Commission, in the course of an investigation (RMM was eventually given a stiff fine for egregious violations of NYS lobby laws).

The fact is that farmworkers are not "invisible," roughly a dozen local, state and federal agencies enforce a plethora of laws that govern not only the working but also living conditions in NYS. This makes them one of the most regulated and protected workforces in NYS. One of those agencies include OSHA, which enforce a variety of workplace safety laws.

Despite what jlghertner laments, RMM and its allies have used demonizing rhetoric and have employed a slash and burn rhetorical approach in regards to their agenda. They have frequently called farmworkers "slaves" and farmers "slave owners." And as I have said they have consistently lied regarding the facts.

We are talking about 5 or 6 exemptions to the various labor laws, and many of them apply to OTHER workforces. For example, in regards to overtime, the employees of non-profits as well as the staff of the state legislature are also exempt. To cast this issue as a "moral" one is quite frankly absurd, because the religious non-profit organizations that are pushing ot are also exempt from it as well, making them blathering hypocrites. The day they call for the end of their own exemptions will be the day they can sit high above on a moral perch and declare who isn't and is "just" or "moral."

end of part 1

Nov. 24 2012 01:39 PM

A very fair article which shows the complexity of the issue of food and farm labor justice. We cannot demonize anyone over this issue. The farmers are trying to make their farms profitable; the farmworkers are trying to feed their families; the consumers want cheap, safe food on their tables.

But there is always a cost of ignoring the human rights of anyone in our society. Our farmworkers must be treated fairly, they must be paid equitably, and they must have the same guarantee of workplace safety. Our society carries the burden of maintaining a third class of the extremely poor farmworker and his/her family and of ignoring the moral obligation to treat everyone fairly, including the farmworkers. We must recognize that everyone living in this country has a right to dignity and safety and no one has the right to treat others as we now treat farmworkers.

The excuse that our society cannot bear the increased cost of food because we pay our farmworkers fairly is immoral and unjustified. There is no logical reason why we have inequitable labor laws for one segment of our population. All employers should bear the same responsibility to their employees to pay them a fair wage and to protect them while they are working. We have a responsibility to pay a fair cost for our food.

Nov. 22 2012 01:07 AM
Tami from Bayville

I work in a middle school on Long Island and was forwarded your article. Each year our MS has a school wide reading and this year it was "The Circuit" - a true story about a child migrant worker. Our students have had their eyes opened to the plight of migrant workers, especially children. We are looking into ways to help but I keep coming up short on info about organized groups on Long Island. Perhaps you can help? Thank you.

Nov. 21 2012 03:57 PM
Aurora Almendral from Brooklyn

@nicada I talked to several workers at John Glebocki's farm and was there for a day. They said he was a good person to work for, and he was concerned with treating his workers well. The Glebocki farm stand is a good bet.

Nov. 21 2012 03:22 PM
nicada from Brooklyn, NY

Thank you for this article. I wish there were a way to see which farms have fair labor practices and which don't. I want to make sure I am supporting the right places. If anyone has access this information, do share!

Nov. 21 2012 02:29 PM

Thoughtful article. Nice work!

Nov. 21 2012 12:21 PM
Audio lover from NYC

Can you please put the audio for this piece up?

Nov. 21 2012 12:09 PM
Eleanor Lunn from Queens

I used to go to the neighborhood green market but the produce is too expensive for my budget. I think that more investigation is needed, I don't think that this piece is the complete picture. Until I read a more comprehensive piece I will resist feeling guilty eating my veggies.

Nov. 21 2012 09:54 AM
jkurland from Pomona, NY

I live here in the Hudson Valley and I'm really shocked to discover that our local farmers are using migrant workers and not paying them fairly. They should definitely start paying a fairer pay and better accomodations for the workers. If they need to raise their prices then so be it - and post signs to let the buyers realize why they needed to. If buyers don't like the prices, let them go elsewhere and get lower quality produce, flown in from foreign ports, or raised by migrant workers in CA that are paid more fairly.

Nov. 21 2012 08:41 AM

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