Early-season crop freeze affects migrant workers as well as farmers | PostIndependent.com

Early-season crop freeze affects migrant workers as well as farmers

Sharon Sullivan
Sharon Sullivan | Free Press
Staff Photo |

Tamales for sale

Chicken, pork and vegetarian tamales are for sale at the Child and Migrant Services Hospitality Center, 721 Peace Ave., in Palisade, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Tamales can also be pre-ordered and picked up in Grand Junction at Chopstix Express, across the street from Colorado Mesa University on North Avenue.

The tamales are handmade in the licensed, commercial kitchen at the CMS Hospitality Center. Tamales are $15 for a dozen.

To place an order, call 970-464-5226 or visit http://www.migrantservicesgv.org.

When crops freeze — as cherries, apricots and peaches did this past spring — fruit lovers are not the only ones disappointed. Farm workers, many of whom have traveled from their homes in Mexico and Central America, are forced to get by on less work, thus less pay — much of which they send to their families south of the border.

On Tuesday, at Child and Migrant Services’ Hospitality Center in Palisade, farm workers came for a simple meal of tortillas and menudo — a traditional Mexican stew, prepared in the center’s commercial kitchen. At one of the tables, men from Michoacan, Mexico, talked about the impact of the April storms that froze the budding fruits.

The four men are luckier than some of the other farm workers; as guest workers with the H-2A visa program, they’re guaranteed 75 percent of their usual pay for the season. Still, a 25-percent reduction in pay is significant for these workers earning $10.08 an hour.

The H-2A visa program allows foreign nationals to come to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs.

Julio Ruiz, 34, has been traveling to Palisade to work in the orchards as a guest worker for the past four years. Ruiz sends about three-quarters of his earnings home to his wife and two children, who are not legally allowed to accompany him to the U.S. for work.

Although there is agricultural work elsewhere, “we can’t go to another farm — we have a contract to fulfil,” Ruiz said.

His 21-year-old friend, Juan Luis, has been coming to pick peaches and prune trees in Palisade since he was 18. Luis sends money to his parents in Mexico, where his father works for “little money” as a “campesino” or farm worker, he said.

Filiberto Noyola Bueno, 25, of San Luiz Portosi, Mexico, also sends a good portion of his paycheck to his mother in Mexico because “she needs food to eat. I have to help maintain the family.”

“The young help the parents,” said Child and Migrant Services program coordinator Karalyn Dorn, who also serves as a translator for the Spanish-speaking farm workers. “There’s no social security system there.”

For five years, Mario Mendoza has been spending eight months of the year in Palisade, starting in January pruning fruit trees so that he can support his wife and three children in Mexico. He said it is hard to leave them for that long and wishes they could come with him.

“We want Obama to give them documents so we can bring our families,” Mendoza said.

The guest-worker program doesn’t allow for that, however, Dorn said.

“They have to (leave) the day after the work is done,” she said.

Not everyone comes through the H-2A program. A 50-year-old farm worker named Sergio has lived and worked in Palisade for 15 years — earning $10 an hour. He’s never had a raise in all those years, yet the work has allowed him to support his family who came with him to the U.S.

He left Mexico when the company where he worked as a mechanic closed and he couldn’t find another job.

Sergio typically works year-round except for October, a break between harvest and pruning time.

“I need to save money for one month of no work to pay bills, pay rent,” Sergio said.

He owns a mobile home, but pays a site fee, plus utilities and his car insurance.

“It’s difficult to live one month and no work,” he said. This year, it will be harder, he said, because of the freeze.

Later in the growing season laborers will welcome 14- to 15-hour work days.

When workers leave, farmers lose

Longtime fruit grower Bruce Talbott said there’s about half the work this year than what is normally available to farm workers. Most of his employees are unemployed construction workers, he said. Most live in the U.S. year-round. About a quarter of his employees go home to Mexico for part of the year.

“Twenty years ago, 95 percent would have gone home,” Talbott said. “It used to be migrants — all the farmers came here to supplement (their income).”

The cost and difficulty in obtaining work visas has made it harder for workers to migrate back and forth and for farm owners to retain workers, Talbott added.

“A tight border creates immigration if the job is on this side and the family is on the other side. If you can’t get back and forth easily, you find a way to get your family up here and you stay,” he said.

And when there’s a freeze, farmers lose three times, Talbott said.

For example, crop insurance only pays for about a third or maybe half of the value of a fall crop.

And, when Palisade farmers are not able to supply their markets dependably, those markets go elsewhere.

The third loss occurs when, after years of identifying and investing in a labor force, a year comes along where there’s not enough work and those laborers leave for jobs in Washington, Arkansas or South Carolina, Talbott said.

When that occurs, “there’s a good chance we’ll never see them again,” he said. “They get settled, find a job. We really hate to lose quality people because of a freeze.”

For that reason, the Talbotts diversified by planting grapes as well as the peaches they’re known for. “It gives us an opportunity to keep our guys busy,” he said.

The extreme subzero temperatures in January killed the buds and vines of Talbott’s grapes. The plant survived but there will be no fruit this year, he said. So, Talbott is putting his employees to work training the vines.

Thirty farm workers, 20 fewer than usual are working at Talbotts this year.

Not all Palisade farmers lost their crops — some areas survived the extreme temperatures earlier this year.

Serving the farm workers

Child and Migrant Services (CMS) was founded in 1954 by Talbott’s grandmother Margaret Talbott, his great-aunt Vera Foss and another Palisade woman and family friend, Dorothy Powers. They wanted to help migrant farm workers during an era when farm worker conditions throughout the country were often dismal.

At the nonprofit’s Hospitality Center, located at 721 Peach Ave., volunteers serve hot meals four times a week during the harvest season.

In June, meals were cut back to twice a week because of financial constraints. Like other nonprofit organizations, grant money and donations have decreased, said CMS Executive Director Claudia McClintock.

“Given we’re a staff of two, we rely heavily on volunteers,” McClintock said.

Roughly 50 volunteers help prepare, serve and clean up after the meals; assist with social activities and holiday celebrations for the farm workers; teach English as a second language classes; provide transportation; and help maintain the Hospitality Center.

The center also provides a food pantry where workers and their families can come for provisions.

“We get really low on dry beans and rice,” Dorn said. “We’re looking for donations — especially for pinto beans and white rice. That’s what we need most in our pantry.”

While there are fewer workers this year, there are greater needs for those who are here, McClintock said.

The center has tried to help people find work to supplement their regular farm work.

From cleaning out a garage to helping homeowners with harvesting their few fruit trees, “we try and connect workers with employees,” McClintock said.

In her office, Dorn holds a thick stack of medical bills incurred by a farm worker who needed a medical procedure last year. The bills came after the man had already returned home to Mexico. He recently returned and Dorn is helping him sort through the paperwork.

“We help with medical bills, tax-related stuff, all the complicated things in American life,” Dorn said.

Child and Migrant Service’s signature fundraising event is Saturday, July 13. Quemando, an 11-piece salsa band from Boulder will perform outdoors at Grande River Vineyards in Palisade. See page 22 for a story about the concert.

There will be fresh-made tamales, salsa, beans, rice and tortillas for sale before and during the concert.

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