Take Our Jobs!?! My experience as a farm worker

This summer I've spent time as a farm worker.

My experience has coincided with this campaign by the United Farm Workers of America and that will be featured Thursday night by Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert  and it's called "Take Our Jobs!"

In a tongue-in-cheek call for immigration reform, they are challenging the public to take the job of a farm worker. There are an estimated one million farm workers in the United States, 85 percent of them immigrants and 70 percent of those undocumented, according to Migrant Farm Worker Justice.

Would most Americans really want to do those jobs?

My mother and her family worked as farm workers and I've heard the stories of them picking cotton and beets. I've never had to do any hard labor myself as I've made my living as a journalist and journalism professor.

But I had an opportunity to do farm work while traveling in Canada this summer and staying with friends on a 100-acre organic farm outside Toronto. I volunteered to do farm work for them and that has included planting lettuce, weeding carrots and picking raspberries.

Planting lettuce

Weeks before I got here they planted seeds in plastic trays. They grow a variety of lettuce including, red leaf, romaine and buttercrunch. Once the plants are about a month old they plant them in the ground. I planted several trays of the lettuce seedlings.

I had to dig a hole in the ground about three inches deep. I tried to use a dull kitchen knife but soon realized it was easier just to use my fingers. Once the seedling roots were in the dirt I patted a  small mound of dirt around the bottom of the plant. Sounds simple and maybe you've done this in your home garden. But imagine hunching over to do this 100 times. That's how many seedling are in just one tray.

I tried squatting relying on some of my yoga moves to not hunch over so much. But doing this for even an hour at a time strains the back. I had to keep standing up to stretch so my back wouldn't cramp up. After just one hour I was in pain and I had to take a break for water. Oh yeah, it it was almost 90 degrees too so there was plenty of sweat dripping down my back. In total I spent about three hours planting lettuce one morning.

Weeding carrots

On an organic farm obviously they don't use pesticides. So that means all the weeds need to be raked out with a hoe or pulled by hand. I was assigned to tackle the weeds growing in a row of carrots. Sounded simple enough. But when I saw the delicate leaves of the carrots and weeds growing entwined I knew it would be difficult. I had to use my hands, mostly my forefinger and my thumb to get at those pesky weeds. Many of them were small too, not your garden variety dandelions.

I started off squatting but again my back started to ache. I tried an new approach by sitting on my butt and scooting back a few inches at a time. It was really hot but I was wearing khakis so I could crawl around in the dirt. I also had on a tank top.

But there was something else that I didn't anticipate. The horse-fly. They look like normal house flies but a lot larger and they bite you. Oh and it hurts. I spent almost three hours shuffling in the dirt trying to weed just one row about 200-feet long. The weeding didn't hurt as much as the dozen bug bites I had all over my shoulders when I was finished.

Picking raspberries

I would say this was my favorite job on the farm. You use your fingers to pluck the red and juicy raspberries from their bushes. It wasn't so much a strain on my back as I was able to stand for two to three hours at a time. I plucked raspberries one at at time filling pint-size cartons I carried in a basket. It takes at least 200 raspberries to fill each basket. In three hours I filled a dozen baskets. I never before contemplated that all the berries I eat are handpicked one at a time.

But the trick with the raspberries is that their bushes have tiny thorns. They sting like roses but the thorns are tiny slivers, almost miniscule, and they scratch up your hands and legs if you're not careful. I didn't wear gloves because they were too big for me to grab the berries. So after I few hours of work I was left with tiny slivers in my fingers and scratches on my legs. I should've worn pants but it was a scorcher of a day. Also, the berries leave blood-like stains on your clothes.

Now I would say my experience on the farm was the most physical work I've ever done. But to be honest it pales to what most farm workers endure.

First of all, I could take a break for water or to go to the bathroom whenever I wanted. And I usually only worked in two to three hour shifts before taking a long break. On the hot days, most of the people on this farm started at 6 a.m. but as a guest I had the luxury to write in the morning and start my farm work at 8:30 or 9 a.m. And when the temperature hit 90 we quit working for the day at noon not wanting to risk heat stroke.
 
Most farm workers go for eight to 10 hours with limited breaks in the sweltering sun. And they have to work with fruits and vegetables that have been sprayed with pesticides.
 
Again, I didn't earn any wages since I was a volunteer. But I'm told in Canada that all farm workers must be paid at least the minimum wage of around $10 an hour and they are entitled to worker's compensation. Some small farms in the United States are not required to pay minimum wage at all and in 15 states farms aren't required to offer workers' compensation.

Some people in the United States complain about undocumented immigrants "taking our jobs."  After trying out farm work, I can tell you it would be incredibly difficult to do this on a daily basis.

But those who do pick the food that is served on our tables should not continue to work in the shadows. There is an AgJobs bill stalled in Congress. It would grant temporary legal status to immigrants if they work on farms for a specific period of time and they could later apply for permanent residency if they meet certain requirements.

"Farm workers do the work that most Americans are not willing to do,"  United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez said in the announcement of the campaign.

He's right. So far more than 4,000 people signed up for the campaign challenge but only a few dozen have followed through, according to a story on CNN.

Take our jobs? Few Americans seem up for the challenge.

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  • Tomato pickers earn 1.4 cents per pound and can earn about $60.00 per day. If pickers received 10 cents a pound, a 'lazy' American could earn over $200.00 a day. The price of a tomato would go up by about 3 cents. I would gladly pay 3 cents more for a tomato to have opportunities where I could earn a decent living. This is a no-brainer.

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