While many headlines talk about abuse of migrant farm workers, one farm family in Kentucky shows an ultimate respect for their workers that will remind you of a platonic love story. Sadly, one does not need to go far to find articles about sexual violence or mental and physical abuse by employers toward migrant farm workers. Typical headlines about the issue of foreign farm workers (whether legal or illegal) often include news like how comedian Paul Rodriguez is getting serious about the illegal immigrant border crisis.
On the other hand, there are many migrant farm workers from Central or South America that work in the United States on visas. On top of that, their arrivals each season are anticipated by migrant farm worker employers and their departure after the agricultural season closes is mourned. At least, that is one such love story that has developed over the past 20 years at one farm in Western Kentucky.
Published in the February edition of Ag Families, the article tells the tale of a tobacco farm family from Cadiz, Kentucky, that adores the migrant farm workers that have been employed at their farm for the past two decades as part of the H-2A work visa program. While most farmers in Cadiz have one tobacco barn and farm less than 10 acres in their spare time, Beverly and Todd Harton have 34 tobacco barns and 16 greenhouses that employ 70 or more migrant workers each year.
About the experiences of hiring migrant farm workers, Beverly Harton says, “They have become part of our family and we have meaningful relationships with them. We respect each of them for the sacrifice that they are making and try to make their work experience with us a great one.”
At the end of the year, when all the tobacco has been taken out of the barns and processed by hand, the Harton family starts to feel sad. Beverly says, “When the season comes to a close each year, we are thrilled to have it behind us, but that also means that the guys will be leaving. It’s a sad, quiet day when they leave, and we are always happy to see them return.”
But is this love story about migrant farm workers the norm? Online, the Human Rights Watch website says, “State laws to protect farmworkers from abuse are appallingly weak, or nonexistent.” In general, the summary of life for migrant farm workers in America reflects the views of the Southern Poverty Law Center, that says, “This broken immigration system fails to recognize the people who work hard to put food on grocery store shelves, restaurants, and dinner tables across the country. Instead, they are marginalized and face abuse, detention, and [or] deportation.”
Does being kind to your migrant farm workers make a real difference? There is academic evidence that seems to point to the correlation between respecting your migrant farm workers and their quality of life. For example, years of abuse and poverty lead to substance abuse issues among migrant farm workers.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania recently published a report about migrant farm workers in the mushroom industry and studied “the relationship between situational factors—living arrangements, social isolation, and peer pressure to drink—and problem drinking.”
What the study found is that the stress of being away from their families and working excessively promotes problem drinking among migrant farm workers. The study says, “Our findings reveal that there is an alcohol abuse problem among the migrants as a consequence of situational and other factors, such as festive occasions, bad news from home, and a long work week.”
Back in Cadiz, Kentucky, this is hardly the scene you see at Beverly and Todd Harton’s farm. In her Ag Families interview, Beverly Harton shows the genuineness of her relationship with the migrant farm workers her family hires and states the following.
“When you work with these guys day in and day out for that many years, they become a part of you, an important part of you. We have been with them through sickness, a death in their family and lots of happy times. While they are here, they depend on us to help them with any problem or issue that they may have. Should there be a death in one of their family, all of the other guys take up money to send to Mexico to help the family. We also contribute to that fund.”
Each February, during the off-season, the Harton family tries to take a trip to Mexico to visit the families that work for them to “live in their world for awhile.” Migrant farm workers in America all might wish to work for the Harton family.