Migrant Farmers and Seasonal Farm Workers
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In a project which attempts to profile all types of farming in Maine, it is important to include the contributions of migrant and seasonal guest workers. Several crops would not be harvested in Maine if it weren’t for the efforts of these individuals. 

Migrant workers have contributed to a multitude of farming-related operations in Maine including blueberries, chickens, seafood, tree planting, broccoli, cranberries, dairy, wreath making, egg, turf, and the greenhouse and nursery industries.

According to a Maine Migrant Health Program flier, “The Maine Department of Labor estimated that in 2003, there were between 8,000 to 12,000 migrant farmworkers and 8,000 seasonal farmworkers in Maine.”  It was also stated on the flier that, “Migrant  and seasonal farmworkers in Maine are primarily Mexican, Mexican-American, Phillipine-American, Native Americans, Jamaicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, Haitians, and Mainers.”

Maine is the largest producer of wild blueberries in the United States and migrant workers have long played a crucial role in their harvest. Workers are drawn to the harvest because there is a potential to earn several hundred dollars a day. That the work of raking blueberries is arduous, is quite an understatement.  It involves constant bending and lifting.  It usually takes place in the hot summer sun.  While casual observers might assume that it is enjoyable to be outside with an opportunity to rake the berries, it is quite a different scenario when one considers the reality of the situation. Migrant workers often rake from early morning to dusk with little rest.  Older migrant children often have the responsibility of contributing to the support of the family during the blueberry harvest.  If they are not caring for younger siblings or relatives, they may be expected to rake or work in a processing plant.

Because the field work is so grueling and the blueberry harvest season is relatively short, the owners of the blueberry fields need to be able to count on dependable, skilled, hard-working individuals who are strong enough and determined enough to stay the course.  The Hispanic workers who hail from Mexico and Central American countries have a long- established tradition of traveling to Maine each August for the blueberry harvest. A number of Haitian workers have joined the blueberry harvest work force.  Micmac families frequently travel from Canada to participate in the harvest and Passamaquoddy Indians in the area work

in the fields, as well.

Several organizations are working together in Maine to assist the migrant workers.  Because migrant workers move from place to place and often hail from impoverished economic backgrounds, they are confronted with many  obstacles. They often don’t have the financial means, transportation, work schedules, or language proficiency to connect with medical services.  The Maine Migrant Health Program has proven to be an invaluable resource in overcoming the obstacles to health care.

The Maine Migrant Health Program is Maine’s only farmworker health organization.  It was established in 1991.  Each year over 1,200 migrant workers receive health care due to their efforts.  They provide mobile medical and nursing care to the farmworkers at the various farm camps.  They also help coordinate and connect migrant workers to many community providers throughout the state.  In addition to reaching the migrant workers during the blueberry harvest, Maine Migrant Health Program sends their mobile units to other agricultural operations such as areas where migrant farm laborers are planting trees, making wreaths, picking apples, gathering eggs, or raising chickens.

Farming often causes anxiety because of the many unpredictable factors such as market prices, weather, reliable skilled labor, etc. Migrant workers often experience even more heightened levels of stress. Many have chosen to travel exceptional distances to various harvests throughout the year.  They often face severe loneliness and worry from being separated from their families in their home country. Many are struggling with issues of immigration status. 

Frustration can result in many migrant workers from an unfamiliarity with the legal and health systems. Because stability and solid educational opportunities are often not possible due to their constant migrations, their proficiency in English is often limited or even non-existent. Their low incomes often correspond with worries about meeting costs for food and transportation. Health concerns are often placed on the sideburner.  Hypertension, depression, heat stress, dermatitis, urinary tract infections, dental issues, back and joint pain, and parasitic infections are often common conditions that migrant and seasonal workers face.

Farmworkers are often exposed to pesticides and it is crucial that they have a full understanding of the proper methods of application and disposal.  The Maine Board of Pesticides Control works with the Maine Migrant Health Program to train migrant and seasonal workers to avoid pesticide risks under the EPA Worker Protection Standard.  Because of the frequent exposure to chemicals, farmworkers are faced with a high percentage of toxic chemical injuries and skin disorders.  The occurrence of eye injuries and headaches are also fairly common.

During the blueberry harvest when hundreds of migrant workers may be in the Washington County area, the Maine Migrant Health Program sets up the Farmworkers’ Resource Center.  This past year the Raking Center was headquartered in the Town Hall in Columbia.  In addition to the mobile medical unit, migrant workers can access social services, a food pantry, legal aid, and educational services.

For individuals not familiar with the history of the blueberry harvest in Maine, it may come as a surprise that thousands of migrant workers over the years have traveled to the Washington County area to help with the raking of the berries.  In the early 1990’s,  a large number of migrant workers decided to curtail their traveling and set roots in the Milbridge area.

Thanks to efforts of the local schools and town organizations such as the Milbridge Library and the Milbridge Town Office, services to the newly-settled residents began to be offered.  Language classes and after-school programs were begun.  In 2005, Mano en Mano was officially incorporated as a 501c-3.  Their mission is to “build a stronger and more inclusive Downeast Maine.”  They have reached out to farmworkers who are earning income from seasonal farm work such as blueberries, lobstering, clamming, wreath-making, and aquaculture.

The Maine Migrant Program has played an important role in providing educational services and social services for the migrant workers.  In 2013, they contracted with Mano en Mano in Milbridge to conduct the Blueberry Harvest School.  It was headquartered at the Harrington Elementary School.

The Blueberry Harvest School welcomes migrant children to a three-week summer educational program that they describe as “innovative, hands-on, activities-based, thematic, interdisciplinary, and fun.”  The students have opportunities to participate in reading, discussions, group project work, and several field trips.  Lessons that focus on marine studies, ecology, and sustainable food systems were shared over this past summer.

On-site lessons are provided by Mano en Mano to students working in some of the isolated harvest camps.  There is a large focus on helping with life skills, one-to-one tutoring, job training opportunities, high school graduation or the acquisition of high school equivalency.  The educational assistance that Mano en Mano offers is geared to all ages. Encouraging school readiness for  pre-schoolers has been demonstrated through the “It Starts at Home” project which has incorporated the use of iPads.  Students interested in attending college are able to access help with their planning, application, and financial aid paperwork.

Mano en Mano sponsors scholarships for higher education.  The Latino Scholarship Fund was established to provide renewable financial aid to Latino students interested in accessing post-secondary educational pursuits.  Scholarships are also offered to the Intensive English Institute at the University of Maine at Orono for four weeks of intensive English lessons.

The Blueberry Harvest School and the scholarship  programs are just one of the many programs that have been undertaken by Mano en Mano.  Part of their mission is to provide affordable housing opportunities and rental assistance.  Thanks to Mano en Mano, farm workers are assisted in filling out rental applications and in preparing for lease agreements.  Mano en Mano built the affordable Hand in Hand apartments that are homes for six families.  A playground was constructed and children living in the apartments had the opportunity to enjoy gardening through the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension Kids Can Grow program.

Mano en Mano also plays a pivotal role in helping to facilitate essential services.  They offer translation and interpretation assistance for better communication and understanding.  Because they have earned a reputation of being a trusting and confidential resource, farmworkers feel comfortable asking for various recommendations for social services and assistance with health referrals.

In regard to their mission of working towards a more-inclusive Downeast Maine, Mano en Mano

welcomes volunteers from the community to become involved.  Volunteer participation is encouraged from all ages and backgrounds.  Mano en Mano recognizes the value that individuals can contribute in all types of occupations whether it might be an accountant, farmer, teacher, musician, artist, mechanic, summer resident, computer savvy individual, language tutor, or childcare provider, etc.

Many family-friendly community events and activities are organized by Mano en Mano.  Workshops are conducted in both Spanish and English on such topics as banking, nutrition, fire safety, and financing. There have been programs that foster language skills in both Spanish and English and Civic Engagement Initiatives to increase voter turnout.  Local businesses and agencies have benefitted from trainings that share information about positive ways to relate to diverse populations.

Mano en Mano assists individuals to connect with agencies that can help with legal concerns.  The Farmworker Unit of Pine Tree Legal Assistance specializes in providing legal services to agricultural workers.  Services are available to eligible farm workers whether they are migrants or whether they reside in Maine.  They focus on disputes with employers, denial of public benefits, substandard worker housing, workplace injury, wage violations, tax questions, medical care, questions about unemployment insurance, discrimination complaints, domestic violence, and inadequate drinking water or sanitary facilities at work or in worker housing.  The Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project has provided direct legal aid (free or low-fee), educational outreach, and systemic advocacy.

The Eastern Maine Development Corporation, a private non-profit organization,  has been overseeing the National Farmworker Jobs Program in Maine since 2009.  The farmworker program has been funded through the Employment and Training Administration Program of the U.S. Department of Labor. 

Christopher Huh, the Program Manager for the National Farmworker Job Programs in Maine, was kind enough to explain how the program provides workforce development services and assistance with training for eligible migrant and seasonal farmworkers. Training may include basic skills, high school equivalency preparation, approved trade schools, on-the-job training, or attendance at a community college.

The criteria for eligibility for the program is that the farm worker, who is of at least seventeen years of age and who is eligible to work in the United States, must have earned more than fifty percent of their income from agricultural labor in the past two years.  Qualifying farm work includes the harvesting or production of potatoes, blueberries, dairy, Christmas trees, maple syrup, and broccoli.  Other types of agricultural work may also qualify.

Unique Maine Farms only had the opportunity to visit farm operations that relied on the efforts of blueberry rakers, cauliflower and broccoli harvesters, and apple

pickers.  Migrant and seasonal workers can be found throughout the state in all types of farm jobs. They work long hours in challenging weather conditions.  Because many are desperate to accept any paying job that is available, they can become easy targets for exploitation.

Over the years isolated stories of horrid working conditions and mistreatment have been reported.  The fact that migrant workers often have limited English proficiency and fear retribution and loss of employment for reporting abuse is certainly unsettling. Fortunately organizations like Pine Tree Legal and the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Program and the Maine Department of Labor are in existence.

A large percentage of farmworkers are living below the   poverty line.  Many travel from place to place 

following the crops.  Because of the circumstances of

their low income, often weak educational background, and resident status in many cases, they have found themselves in jobs that are often physically grueling and for which no one else applies.  When one has the opportunity to observe how capable and hardworking so many of them are, it is only fitting to see them recognized as important contributors to the Maine’s agricultural scene and most worthy of being profiled in the Unique Maine Farms’ project. 

If you have had the opportunity to observe Mexican or Honduran migrant workers showcasing their soccer skills at the Wyman’s Cup competition, or a young Haitian worker attending an evening literacy class, a young Hispanic father sending money back to his family in Texas, or the Jamaican workers singing to reggae music in the orchard while they are working, they serve as fitting examples of the exceptional perseverance and character of the migrant and seasonal farmworkers in our state.

The efforts of all the individuals and agencies working collaboratively to assist migrant and seasonal workers are, without a doubt,  a ray of hope for a population of farmworkers whose contributions to our food system are often overlooked, not fully appreciated, or totally misunderstood.  It is because of the efforts of so many migrant and seasonal farmworkers that we have access to quite a bit of the fresh food that is found on our tables.

High School Equivalency Program

                    Ian Yaffe

Executive Director of Mano en Mano

Photo courtesy of Maine Migrant Health Program

Photo courtesy of Maine Migrant Health Program

Photo courtesy of Wyman’s.

Photo by Tim Peters.

Photo courtesy of Wyman’s.

Photo by Tim Peters.

Photo of Wyman’s Cup soccer competition at the Wyman’s  blueberry harvest camp in Deblois.

Photo by Ed Flanagan.

Photo of Wyman’s Cup soccer competition at the Wyman’s  blueberry harvest camp in Deblois.

Photo by Ed Flanagan.

Ben Hummel of the Maine Migrant Health Program is pictured with Joanna Villa and Berta Lopez, two promotoras de salud who led a workshop on colorectal cancer at the Wyman’s blueberry harvest camp in Deblois.