The Front Blog

Conversations from the Four Rivers Region

The Changing Face of the Farm Workforce

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by ANGELA HATTON

It’s good to be back at work. Yesterday afternoon’s panel discussion brought out some interesting figures about the immigrant workforce.

Let’s start with some statistics shared by Domingo Martinez, director of the Cambio Center (Research and Outreach on Latinos and Changing Communities). It’s important to note that the United States government counts ethnic groups, not immigrants, which means the statistics on exactly how many Latino immigrants are in the United States legally and illegally is difficult to pinpoint, though some have tried. The Pew Research Center estimates 11.9 million undocumented workers are in the United States. More commonly, statistics simply show the Latino/Hispanic community overall, which includes native-born citizens.  With that in mind, Martinez quoted the latest U.S. Census Bureau’s statistics, which show a marked increase in the Latino/Hispanic community under age 44. Martinez said at the same time, trends show a parallel decrease in the population of all other ethnic groups.

Before 1980, the Hispanic population centers were isolated to the Southwest and major metropolitan cities. Over the past thirty years, immigration has led to more widespread growth. Let’s look at this on the regional level in western Kentucky. The Pew Hispanic Center reports in Christian County, between 1990 and 2008, the Latino population doubled.  Latinos now make up 6% of the population.  Twenty years ago Graves County had 93 Latinos. In 2008, there were 1,802 Latinos residents, an 855% increase.

The experts on yesterday’s panel said these numbers mean the face of the American farm worker is going to be changing, and already has. Martinez said we need to set aside biases about immigration, and look at the issue in terms of labor supply. Jim Dickrell, editor of Dairy Today magazine, said that we also need to examine common misconceptions like the myth that says Latinos take agriculture jobs because they’ll work for less. He said dairy industry jobs have starting salaries of between $30,000 and $34,000. Dickrell said farmers have told him it’s not that they don’t want to hire non-Hispanics; non-Hispanics don’t want the jobs.  Matt Foulkes, University of Missouri Assistant Professor of Geography asked that we consider that, increasingly, Hispanics aren’t just farm workers, they’re farm-owners.  The Census of Agriculture shows that Hispanics, blacks, and women make up a growing number of farm-owners.

A question that was not addressed fully is one of economic mobility. As the non-Hispanic population shuns careers in labor-intensive fields like farming, Hispanics looking for a job are left only with the choice of manual labor. Foulkes countered that argument by saying that Americans in general are less economically mobile than we presume. But, he said, the hope remains with the children of immigrants, those who are born here, and who may have the chance for higher education and alternative career paths.

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Written by Angela Hatton

October 13, 2010 at 12:38 pm

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