Lupita López Dearcia Comitán is a farmworker in Sonora, Mexico. She’s forty-four years old, has five children, and just so happens to grow the cucumbers you put in your salad last night. It’s a job she has a lot of pride in. Most people don’t know that cucumbers grow on vines like tomatoes, requiring constant care to ensure that the plant grows in the proper direction. It’s a technique called “training”, and Lupita has the practice down to a science.
Lupita knows that agriculture is important work, as do Rubi Lucero Pazos Ávila, 24, and Juan Ricardo Pérez Núñez, 18, who are also employees of Grupo Alta, a Fair Trade Certified farm in Northern Mexico. Each year Lupita and Rubi travel from their home communities, in Chiapas and Veracruz, to work the harvest. This is Juan’s first season with Grupo Alta; he also grew up in Chiapas in Southern Mexico. Together they’re part of a global agricultural workforce more than 1.2 billion strong, lending their time and their skill to the task of growing the world’s food.
Given that it’s Farmworker Awareness Week, we asked Lupita, Rubi and Juan to share their thoughts on what it means to be a farmworker, why Fair Trade matters, and what it takes to produce our favorite fruits and veggies. Here’s what they had to say:
1.) The Work is Not For The Faint of Heart:
Farm labor is not easy, no matter how you slice it. Lupita explains that “the work can be hard on the waist and back sometimes.” Juan adds that the climate can be a challenge as well: “walking a lot and being in the sun in very hot weather” can take a toll, which is why he’s happy to work on a Fair Trade Certified farm. The Fair Trade standards require measures to reduce heat exhaustion, such as shade and water breaks, along with 200 other criteria to protect the health and safety of farmworkers.
“Every type of work is difficult in its own way, and many things seem easy until you have to do them yourself,” says Rubi. Spend a day in a farmworker’s shoes and you’ll see why.
2.) We All Have the Same Hopes and Dreams:
The further we distance ourselves from the fact that there’s a human face behind our food, the less we seem to care about their wellbeing. Out of sight, out of mind.
That has to change. Farmworkers have families, lives, communities, hopes and dreams. Lupita, who loves to embroider, hopes that her son will continue to study so that he can get a good job one day. “My dream is to raise my son well, and to take advantage of the time that God gives me in this life.”
Juan’s outlook is simple –“My hope for the future is to be happy. I ask for nothing more.” Juan is also a movie buff and a soccer player. Fun fact- the farmworkers at Grupo Alta constructed a soccer field for the workers and their families using Fair Trade Premiums.
Rubi, who volunteers her free time to help families in the community and loves to eat out on Sundays, says that she wants to “grow professionally here at Grupo Alta so that I can move into larger positions and earn a larger salary.”
3.) Farmworkers are Stewards of the Land:
Just as people are responsible for destroying the environment, so too are people responsible for protecting it. In agriculture it’s the farmers and workers who steward the land, which is why Lupita wants people to know how hard they work to “take good care of the trees on the farm, and also protect the local water sources.”
Rubi also adds that they have a robust recycling program at the farm – a key way to conserve the environment.
4.) Sanitation is Essential:
We forget how our own health and safety is linked to the health and safety of farmworkers. Treating workers well, conducting trainings on safety, and incentivizing best practices leads to better product outcomes and better working conditions for farmworkers – all of which are essential on a Fair Trade Certified farm. “We need to pay lots of attention to cleanliness and consistency,” said Rubi. “The work can be hard, but it is very important because it lets us earn money for our families.”
5.) Fair Trade Really Matters:
“Fair Trade is important to me because it’s fair to the workers. It let us plan major projects that don’t just benefit the workers, but our families & home communities as well. [In this way] Fair Trade will help us for the whole year – both while we are here at the farm, and when we are back in our communities.” – Rubi Lucero Pazos Ávila.
There are two important elements to Fair Trade: the Standards and the Community Development Premium. First, all Fair Trade farms must meet and adhere to hundreds of individual compliance criteria, for example:
- Child labor is prohibited & access to schooling and daycare are required.
- Forced labor is prohibited. Workers are free to leave at any time.
- Housing must be safe & sanitary; bathrooms and showers must be in good working condition.
- Farms must show continuous improvements over time.
Workers also benefit from the Community Development Premium, an additional amount of money that goes directly into a worker-controlled bank account with every Fair Trade sale. The Fair Trade committee, which Lupita, Rubi and Juan are members of, votes democratically on how to use this money to address important needs on the farm and in their home communities.
In addition to the soccer field project, workers at Grupo Alta are using Fair Trade Premiums to enhance and expand services of a dental program for the community in collaboration with The Alta Foundation, a nonprofit organization. Gerardo Ramierz, who has worked at the farm for 19 years, explains: “Fair Trade funds are helping workers on this farm. Thanks to the farm & our Fair Trade Premiums, many of us have access to dental care for the first time.”
The Big Picture
There is a broad spectrum of agricultural operations around the world. There are farms like Grupo Alta that are working hard to increase social and environmental responsibility, through Fair Trade and other initiatives, year over year. Unfortunately, there are also farms that need a lot of improvement, where conditions are poor and farmworkers are simply not valued.
It’s also important to note there are many farms that want to improve but simply can’t afford it. Even something as simple as buying new mattresses for four thousand workers can put a huge financial strain on a business whose margins are already so small. For real change to occur, even the first baby steps, business and consumers must commit to supporting the journey.
What you can do:
This Farmworker Awareness Week, use your voice and your dollar to say thank you to farmworkers around the world. Think about Lupita, Rubi and Juan, and how directly our lives are connected through something as simple as a cucumber.
Looking for the Fair Trade Certified label is a good way to celebrate farms working for change. Fair Trade products can be found at Whole Foods Market, which purchases the vast majority of all Fair Trade Certified produce, as well at retailers like Earth Fare, Costco, Safeway and smaller natural food stores.
Being a farmworker “is very hard work,” says Lupita, “and consumers should appreciate the people who do this work, because they we put a lot of effort into caring for the products.”