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Couple, migrant workers bridge cultural gap: H-2A program gets the job done, builds bonds

Beverly and Todd Harton live in Trigg County where they have been farming for more than 20 years. The Hartons have 34 tobacco barns along  with16 greenhouses where they grow and process more than 350 acres of tobacco. Harton Farms employed more than 70 migrant workers last year. Photo By Zirconia Alleyne

Beverly and Todd Harton live in Trigg County where they have been farming for more than 20 years. The Hartons have 34 tobacco barns along with16 greenhouses where they grow and process more than 350 acres of tobacco. Harton Farms employed more than 70 migrant workers last year. Photo By Zirconia Alleyne

By Mayra Diaz-Ballard
Todd and Beverly Harton have been using the H-2A program for almost 20 years to find reliable workers to harvest their tobacco crops. This past year, the Hartons employed more than 70 migrant workers on their 357-acre farm in Cadiz. The couple agreed that the program has been a valuable asset for not only getting the job done but building relationships across cultures.
The H-2A program allows farmers who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreigners to the United States to fill temporary or seasonal agricultural jobs.
Employers must prove that there is not a reliable, domestic labor force to do the job, which turns out to be a big issue in agriculture.
The Hartons said a dependable labor force has been the biggest advantage of the program.
“It provides people that are willing to work and that are wanting to work,” Todd said. “The workers want to do a good job, and they take pride in their work.”
Before using the program, Harton Farms — which has 16 greenhouses and 34 tobacco barns — was a lot smaller and relied on family to help harvest the crop.
“The demand was not as necessary as it is today,” Todd said. “Family did play a factor before the H-2A program and still do today.”
The couple only used local help for two years before going to the H-2A Program because, they said, the local workforce was not dependable or willing to do the work.
“The local help expected to be paid on a daily basis, which guaranteed a ‘no show’ the next day,” Beverly said. “A farmer cannot operate like that. Harton Farms could not do what we do today without the H-2A Program.”
Beverly said one of the tough aspects of the program is the guidelines they have to follow.
“There is entirely too much government red tape. This is a great program for farmers and the workers as well, but the program needs to be simplified.”
Being part of the program for two decades, the Hartons have experienced many obstacles, such as overcoming language barriers and finding care for sick workers with a bilingual doctor in Cadiz.
“We have been fortunate in always having one or two workers that could speak some English,” Beverly said. “After 20 years, we have picked up on our Spanish, and the workers have picked up on their English. When the workers first started at the farm, they used lots of sign language and hand gestures, even some drawings. We have learned from each other over the years and communicate very well now.”
Because the workers live on the farm, the couple said they have become more like family than hired help. Many of the workers have been working on their farm for 18 years.
“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,” Beverly said. “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.”
Many days after work, the guys will get a volleyball game going, and Todd doesn’t hesitate to join them.
Todd has taken two trips to Mexico to visit the workers and their families during the off-season. He even stayed a few days with the workers and lived in their world for awhile.
He and Beverly try to take at least one trip to Mexico each February when they have down time.
“They have become part of our family and we have meaningful relationships with them,” she said. “We respect each of them for the sacrifice that they are making and try to make their work experience with us a great one.”
Beverly said they couldn’t do what they do without the workers and the end of harvesting season is always bittersweet. Once the H-2A visas expire, they must return home until the next year.
“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,” she said. “It’s a sad, quiet day when they leave, and we are always happy to see them return.”

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