US farms are increasingly reliant on contract workers who are acutely exposed to climate extremes

Fredy Osorio, a contract worker from Veracruz, Mexico, carries tools back while doing maintenance inside a tobacco barn, Tuesday, March 12, 2024, at a fam in Crofton, Ky. The latest U.S. agricultural census data shows an increase in the proportion of farms utilizing contract labor compared to those hiring labor overall. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)

Fredy Osorio, a contract worker from Veracruz, Mexico, carries tools back while doing maintenance inside a tobacco barn, Tuesday, March 12, 2024, at a fam in Crofton, Ky. The latest U.S. agricultural census data shows an increase in the proportion of farms utilizing contract labor compared to those hiring labor overall. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)

Six years ago, Illinois farmer John Ackerman didn’t hire any contract workers at all. Now he typically hires about 22 every year through a local coordinator that helps farmers hire crews of agriculturally skilled, often Latino workers. Those teams hand-weed the soybeans Ackerman grows alongside the pumpkin and corn crops he uses for his primarily fall-focused agrotourism outfit.

He still hires about the same number of locals, around 25 part-time workers in the fall, many of them teenagers or young adults, to run sales and pick pumpkins. He enjoys mentoring young people, but says it’s felt harder lately to justify hiring inexperienced workers when contract workers do the same hard, physical jobs faster and better.

“I worry about the day that comes where it’s a better choice to have contract laborers come and help me” year-round, he said.

A higher proportion of U.S. farms are now using contract workers, according to the most recent U.S. agricultural census data, out last month with a five-year update from the previous 2017 data. Because of the terms of their employment, those laborers have specific challenges voicing concerns about their working conditions, and are more likely to be on the front lines of climate change, facing increasing heat and extreme weather. Climate change affects all farm workers, but advocates and researchers say this is a reason to focus particularly on these workers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines contract labor as including contractors, crew leaders, cooperatives, or any other organization hired to furnish a crew to do a job for one or more agricultural operations. The USDA data showed an uptick in the number of farms using migrant labor, both within farms that already hired contract workers and overall.

Contract workers hired by an agency may work hundreds of miles from where they live, and may move from place to place, making it harder to keep farmers accountable for labor abuses, explained Alexis Guild, vice president of strategy and programs at the nonprofit Farmworker Justice. Some contracting agencies also employ undocumented workers, who may remain silent for fear of being deported. And though some steps are being taken at the federal level to protect migrant workers with H-2A visas for seasonal farm jobs, those regulations have vocal opponents.

Since the immigration status of many H-2A workers is tied to a single job, they may feel they have less agency to voice concerns about their workplaces, added Rebecca Young, director of programs at Farmworker Justice. She said these workers can be isolated from their communities due to language barriers and their living arrangements, often on the same farms where they work. Resources like healthcare and counseling can be out of reach.

“I worry about some of our most vulnerable populations who have contract jobs that don’t have very good protections in place being more exposed to worse conditions,” said Jennifer Vanos, an associate professor at Arizona State University who studies climate and health with a focus on extreme heat. She emphasized that it’s “a scary situation because people die and that’s just not okay.”

Some states have patchwork heat regulations in place for farm workers, but there are no federal rules about heat exposure in the U.S. And making a formal complaint can be fraught, though it’s a legal right, said Abigail Kerfoot, senior staff attorney at Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a nonprofit organization providing assistance to farm workers. “Most workers, particularly migrant workers on temporary visas, find it, unfortunately, a difficult decision to make,” she said.

That’s something Luis Jimenez, a New York dairy worker, hopes to change. He’s one of the leaders of Alianza Agrícola, a grassroots organization advocating for immigrant farmworkers. Jimenez said dairies typically can’t hire H-2A workers because the work isn’t seasonal, but many farmers want to change that. That worries him. He’s tried reaching H-2A workers on nearby farms, but says their supervisors won’t let them talk to him. “A lot of farmers, they use the excuse, ‘I don’t have no workers’ because they want an expanded H-2A,” he says, because “they want to have power.”

A former H-2A worker in North Carolina who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation confirmed Jimenez’s sentiment. He described working for hours in sweet potato fields without overtime pay and without rest or access to shade in extreme heat. Now he has a work permit through a program for workers in labor disputes. But for many, “there’s no other option,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “People with an H-2A visa have to come to work, they have to comply with their work and they have to do their work.”

Some farmers say they see little interest from domestic workers in the jobs they post. Jed Clark, a Kentucky grain farmer, said in the 20 years he’s hired H-2A workers, for about 10 positions on the farm each year, only about 10 locals total have ever shown up to inquire about an open job.

“The number of people that want to farm for a living actively is going down. And with the farms growing larger and larger, we’re going to have to have help to operate,” he said. He added that some row crop tasks can be sheltered from the elements, like operating farm equipment with air-conditioned cabs.

Reforming the H-2A program is a high priority for many farmers, but while they wait for that to happen, many are having to decide whether to switch to less labor intensive crops or try to mechanize their operations, said Stephanie McBath, director of public policy for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. But for many types of crops, that isn’t possible: USDA research shows that demand for H-2A workers boomed from 2010-2019 in sectors like fruit and vegetable production, which require hand labor that isn’t easily mechanized.

“I think fundamentally (farmers) just want to have somebody show up and do a day’s work and be able to pay them a fair wage,” McBath said. But with strong increases in the cost of labor over the past several years, “it’s really just a bottom line business decision for them.”

Bruce Cline, a grain and tobacco farmer in Crofton, Kentucky, has been hiring H-2A workers for over 30 years and said he’s watched all his neighbors follow him since then. For industries like construction and agriculture, “it’s tough to operate without migrant labor,” he said. And Scott Kuegel, who farms about an hour away near Owensboro, says local labor became scarce in his community because, as he puts it, farm work is “hot, it’s dirty, or it’s cold, and wet, and nasty.”

As climate change makes conditions nastier, advocates hope workers will feel empowered to make their voices heard. But many contract workers “can’t advocate for rights, because if they do it, the next year or next season, the farmer just (won’t) bring the same people,” Jimenez said.

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Associated Press journalists Dorany Pineda and Joshua A. Bickel contributed to this report.

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Follow Melina Walling on X: @MelinaWalling.

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