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Kentucky Ag Heavily Dependent On Migrant Labor

Richard Sanchez (r) interviews migrant workers on a Central Kentucky tobacco farm to see if they qualify for the federal Migrant Education Program.
photo by Cassidy Herrington
Richard Sanchez (r) interviews migrant workers on a Central Kentucky tobacco farm to see if they qualify for the federal Migrant Education Program.

By Cassidy Herrington


Lexington, KY – The state of Alabama recently passed of the toughest immigration laws to date. As a result, both legal and undocumented migrants have fled the state in droves. Cassidy Herrington reports that Kentucky farmers and workers fear a similar measure would devastate Kentucky's 4.4 billion dollar agriculture industry.

During fall harvest on many Kentucky farms, the majority of hands that will pick the crops these days belong to migrant workers; a group whose labor is no longer welcomed in some parts of the country.

But that's not the case here in Kentucky, at least for now. A tough immigration measure failed to clear the Kentucky legislature last session.

Local farm owner Mac Stone says Kentucky's agriculture economy depends on migrant work.

"Frankly, you don't go on many farms of any scale that you don't see Latino workers anymore."

And Mac Stone should know what he's talking about. He is the executive director of marketing for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. He's also the co-owner of Elmwood Stock Farm, a 375-acre farm that depends on seasonal workers for its fall harvest and spring planting.

Many migrants from countries like Mexico and Guatemala come to Kentucky on a Department of Labor H-2A seasonal worker's visa. In 2009, Kentucky received more than 5,000 H-2A workers, making it the 4th largest participating state.

That's why the ag community has responded graciously to migrant workers.

"We just depend on them tremendously and look forward to them getting there every year. Like I say, we kiss them when they get there in the spring and we kiss them goodbye because we just couldn't do our business without them", said Stone.

Tobacco is another Kentucky commodity that relies on seasonal help.

On a tobacco farm 20 minutes outside of Lexington, twelve workers chop down thick, fibrous tobacco stalks with hatchets.

They stack each stalk onto sharp, wooden spikes. A full spike looks like a tobacco shish-kabob. For every stalk of tobacco they chop down, these workers make around 15 cents.

Richard Sanchez walks the tobacco field interviewing young migrant workers who may qualify for free educational services as part of the federal Migrant Education Program, or MEP.

The young man he's talking to is from Guatemala. For this story, we'll call him Carlo. Carlo is 20 years old, and he came to Kentucky to harvest and dry tobacco. He works 8 to 12 hours a day, rain or shine.

Sanchez began recruiting migrants for the MEP in August, and he is the first to visit fields and orchards to find eligible workers. Looking for temporary migrants is a challenge. They come, and they leave. And they're always working. That's why Sanchez decided to search through the farms.

Sanchez jots down Carlo's information on a clipboard and explains the center's services, like free English classes. Meanwhile, Carlo looks timidly at the ground and quietly responds to Sanchez' questions.

"There are a lot of people that are very shy, they don't want to tell you what they need, unless they really need it.."

The migrants are here to work, and then they leave, without knowing exactly where "here" is. For that reason, Sanchez carries a map on his farm visits. It's a lot of ground to cover, and Sanchez never feels like he's doing enough.

"I have met a lot of farm workers and farm owners that have helped me, have supported the program because they understand what we are doing. And I am glad that I have met a lot of good people out there. And I wish that we could break the stereotype of the migrant worker."

Agriculture is a multi-billion-dollar industry in Kentucky, and without the migrant work, Stone says that aspect of the economy would collapse.

"Production would stop. In many places, I just can't fathom how dramatic of an effect that would have on production"

In the meantime, temporary workers like Carlo will move on to the next seasonal job. Others will return to their families and home countries. Sanchez says they just want work and no conflict, something seemingly worlds away from places like Alabama.