Two Farmworkers Come Into Their Own, Escaping Low Pay, Rigid Hours and a High Risk of Covid-19

Thanks to a nonprofit that teaches everything from composting to adapting to climate change, Cecelia Rojas and her husband no longer work other people's fields.

Jul 28, 2020
Cecelia Rojas, harvesting dinosaur kale, her largest crop. She used to pick strawberries as a farmworker, literally backbreaking work, but can take breathers these days.

Cecelia Rojas, harvesting dinosaur kale, her largest crop. She used to pick strawberries as a farmworker, literally backbreaking work, but can take breathers these days. Credit: Evelyn Nieves

SALINAS, California—It's harvest time in the Salinas Valley, an urgent business that Cecelia Rojas,12 years a farmworker, knows all too well.

The fields of Monterey County, California known as "America's Salad Bowl—rows of greens for thousands of acres every which way you turn—are packed with workers bending and picking from the wee hours of the morning through the hottest peaks of the day.  Until three years ago, Rojas was one of them. She harvested strawberries, crouching and contorting her body over short, dense bushes for hours on end.  Never did she have a say over when or where or how long she picked, until she made a rare move for a farmworker: She became a farmer.

These days, Rojas still spends long hours under the sun harvesting produce, but with a profound difference. At 35, she is her own boss.

Farmworkers—more than 90,000 in the Monterey Bay area, 600,000 in California and 2.4 million across the country—tend to stay farmworkers. The vast majority are new immigrants when they start, desperate for work. Their meager paychecks and, for over half of them, undocumented status, keep them in survival mode, chained to the worst-paying, least-wanted, essential job in society. 

Rojas and her husband, Alejandro Tepetitlas, who emigrated from a small town in Hidalgo, Mexico, escaped the farmworker trap after having three children (now ages 15, 9 and 4).They joined a program at a Salinas nonprofit, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (known as ALBA) that trains students, mostly farmworkers, to become organic farmers. Students learn everything from composting to marketing.

Three years into the five-year program, the Rojas-Tepetitlas Organic Farm grows lettuce, celery, bok choy and three types of kale on nearly six acres of ALBA land. It's a thriving business with steady wholesale customers.Tepetitlas had joined ALBA's program before Rojas, but dropped out because of work obligations. (Rojas took his spot in class). The farm's success—with kale, alone, they have more than 12,000 plants—allowed him to quit his job at a packing plant to farm full-time.

"What I feel most grateful for is the freedom to come and go," Rojas said on a breezy, deep blue sky morning, as she and Tepetitlas harvested dinosaur kale with their son, Giovanni, ("almost 10," he said). They wore the unofficial farmworker uniform: layers of clothing, hoodies and bandanas over their faces, a hedge against a day's dirt, dust and bugs. 

On the Frontlines of a Pandemic

Farming is demanding, often grueling work, of course, and it keeps getting harder. In recent years, farmers have had to contend with increasing weather extremes—record heat, drought, wildfires and floods—all expected to get worse with climate change. Since March, growers have had their businesses upended by the coronavirus lockdowns. In farm bureau surveys across the country, growers have called the pandemic at best damaging, at worst, devastating. 

So far, the Rojas-Tepetitlas farm has lucked out. Organic produce is in more demand than ever, as people stuck at home invest in cooking. What the couple suffers from most is survivors' guilt. They know people who know people getting sick, and they see the news stories. Farmworkers are falling victim to the coronavirus. 

A report by the California Institute of Rural Studies analyzed Monterey County's daily Covid-19 cases by the industry in which each person was employed. It found that agricultural workers were three times more likely to contract Covid-19 than workers in other industries. Monterey County officials estimate that farmworkers make up almost 40 percent of its total coronavirus cases. 

The Salinas Valley is not the only hotspot. Throughout California's agricultural hubs, frontline workers for the nation's food supply are contracting the coronavirus at high rates. The Imperial Valley, at the state's southern tip, has the highest infection rate in the state. Hospitals are overwhelmed and patients are being airlifted hundreds of miles for treatment. 

In the San Joaquin Valley in central California, one of the most fertile farm regions in the world but one of the state's poorest, U.S. military medical teams have had to assist overwhelmed health care workers. While most counties do not  keep tallies based on occupation, officials say the hotspots in farm country, with Latinx patients comprising a majority of cases, reveal a pattern.

In fact, farmworkers are becoming infected in agricultural regions from New York to Florida to Washington state, just as social justice advocates predicted in March when the coronavirus lockdowns began for all but essential workers. Farmworkers, living in crowded quarters, commuting in packed buses and vans, and working side by side, are easy victims of Covid-19. 

Advocates say that the fact that this demographic is being ravaged by the disease despite the warnings before the pandemic spiraled out of control, says everything about how farmworkers are and have always been treated: as disposable. 

Luis Magana, a long-time advocate for farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley, said he has been kicked out of farms when he has tried to check on farmworkers and distribute masks. It dismays but does not surprise him. In recent years, he said, as workers have been falling ill from heat waves or complaining of "allergies" from drought-fueled pesticide dust, they've been left to fend for themselves. The few laws passed to protect them are rarely enforced. In the San Joaquin Valley, the new practice for protecting farm workers from extreme heat is to make them start their days at 2 a.m.. 

Ceceiia Rojas and her husband Alejandro Tepetitlas pick the ripest kale leaves to bunch for their wholesale customers. Their son, Giovanni, 10, works right alongside them because he loves to, he says.

Ceceiia Rojas and her husband Alejandro Tepetitlas pick the ripest kale leaves to bunch for their wholesale customers. Their son, Giovanni, 10, works right alongside them because he loves to, he says. Credit: Evelyn Nieves

In the Salinas Valley, an alliance of growers, farmworker advocates and civic leaders has distributed hundreds of thousands of masks and conducted numerous social distancing education campaigns in farmworker hubs. Salinas also provides a safe place to quarantine, a motel or hotel room, usually, for farm workers who test positive or have been near someone with Covid-19. The program, run by the Grower Shipper Association of Central California, has housed more than 200 workers. (On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he is expanding the program, called "Housing for the Harvest," as part of a $52 million "unified, coordinated response" to the hardest hit rural  counties in the Central Valley. It includes sending "strike teams" to the rural towns, as he has done in Imperial County, to help communities contain the virus.). 

Still, systemic causes of their Covid-19 vulnerability—jammed worker houses and packed transportation—remain in place.

To drive around the deep green fields just outside ALBA's 100-acre farm incubator is to see a flurry of workers in close company, harvesting and loading produce onto trucks. On a recent day, most workers wore masks—farmworkers have commonly used face coverings—but worked within a few feet, sometimes inches, of one another. At one large lettuce farm, workers harvesting plants, as if in a race against time, worked elbow-to-elbow, picking and loading plants. 

If she were still a farmworker, Rojas said, she would worry nonstop about contracting the coronavirus, or worse, infecting her children. At ALBA, newbie farmers social distance without effort, thanks to farming acres away from one another. (Classes are held online via Zoom.)

Respect and an Occasional Day Off 

Had a friend not mentioned ALBA's farm school to Tepetitlas, he and Rojas would still be farmworkers, a reality they now find unfathomable. Not only have they been spared work in coronavirus hotspots but also the rigidity of those jobs, the fixed hours and paltry paycheck that deny farmworkers the chance to improve their lot.

As farmers, Rojas and Tepetitlas are more mindful of their health (they eat better, too) and spend more time with their children. On days when the sun is expected to sear the valley, they call it a day before noon. On occasion, one or both take a day off.  Besides making more money than they would as farm workers, they relish having their children join them whenever they want.

They have two more years to farm at ALBA, which leases its land at subsidized rates to its farmer graduates for up to five years, as it continues to offer guidance in environmentally friendly land practices and business and marketing skills. Then farmers are on their own, although ALBA also helps them find farmland. Running an independent farm, which seemed impossible before ALBA, now seems within reach.

"I have always loved farming," Rojas said. A small woman swamped by her oversized red hoodie,  she was red cheeked from the sun, despite the pink bandana covering half her face. She smiled so widely that it kept knocking her bandana loose.

Both Tepetitlas and Rojas prefer country living, the way they grew up. Rojas started growing vegetables when she was five years old, planting, tending and harvesting corn and beans with her father in their backyard. They didn't call it organic farming or sustainable land management, but it was, with only the rain to water the plants and crushed chicken bones as fertilizer.

When she began taking classes at ALBA, she took to its emphasis on conservation and an array of practices to mitigate and adapt to climate change. "I've learned so much," she said.

Nathan Harkleroad, ALBA's program director, calls Rojas a "superstar farmer."

"From the beginning, she was smart and creative—both Cecelia and her husband," he said. "Not to mention, they're willing to do the hard work to be farmers. Because it is hard work."

Since ALBA's founding in 2001, over 340 students have graduated from the Farmer Education Course, he said, but the vast majority who have gone on to become successful farmers are former farm workers.

"They're highly motivated," he said, adding that their intimacy with the land and farming practices helps them excel.

Mexican immigrant farm workers have proved ALBA's biggest success stories, Harkleroad said. In a survey, the association found that 75 percent made under $30,000 a year as farmworkers. As new farmers, that percentage dropped to 25 percent, with nearly half earning over $50,000.

Moreover, as they grow, the farmers have employed workers, protected land and created healthier communities.

Unasked in ALBA's survey is how farming has changed the lives of former farmworkers in big, intangible ways. Farm labor is the most stigmatized vocation in the country, so reviled that farmers have to import guestworkers every summer to help harvest. In the Salinas Valley, made famous by native son John Steinbeck's paean to poor migrant workers in "The Grapes of Wrath," farmworkers remain the poorest, most powerless segment of the population.

As farmers, Rojas and Tepetitlas are spared the stereotypes outsiders foist on farmworkers. They are treated with respect by their customers, a new feeling. Another one: They can dare to dream.

Rojas and Tepetitilas envision a family farm that they could leave to their children. They are learning to farm to adapt to climate change and finding their way around the coronavirus. "I think," Rojas said, "we are on our way."

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