Migrant farmworkers’ exhibit puts human face on products most take
By GLENN ADAMS, Associated Press Writer
AUGUSTA, Maine, March 16, 2008 (AP): When harvest time rolls around in Maine, 10,000 to 12,000 migrant farmworkers and their families come to the state to harvest wild blueberries and cranberries, pick apples and cut broccoli. Others tend chickens, work in the forests and help grow Christmas trees.
The workers who travel from México, Central America, the Caribbean and Canada play a key role in keeping Maine-grown food on the supper tables at a reasonable cost.
Their unsung role is documented and celebrated in an exhibit of photos and comments which itself will migrate from Augusta to Boston and back to Maine in the weeks ahead. Its final tour will be in areas where migrants will toil during the next harvest season. The list of stops is being finalized.
About 85 percent of the fruits and vegetables in the United States are harvested by hand, said Barbara Ginley, executive director of the Maine Migrant Health Program, one of the sponsors of the exhibit titled ``Farmworkers Feed Us All.''
``We really think it's important for people in Maine and the rest of our country to be aware of the human labor that contributes to our health,'' said Ginley, who hopes the exhibit can put a human face on products most Americans take for granted.
The lives of the migrants are dramatized by more than 150 color pictures from the fields, farms and temporary homes occupied by the part-time Maine workers. Some are also shown being treated by the migrant health program, which took on 1,219 cases in Maine in 2007.
They include a Jamaican apple picker who was treated for sinus pain, high blood pressure and diabetes, a Honduran tree planter who suffers lingering pain from an auto accident, and a broccoli cutter treated for a broken tooth. The words of the workers themselves also offer a glimpse into their lives and health.
``We come here to improve economically, to look for a better life, to make some money and then to return to Honduras,'' forestry worker Manuel Ordonez Flores says in a caption.
``Sometimes it's hot, you are sweating and then it rains. You can get a sore throat or a headache. We are always carrying medicine for headaches. You can get sick to your stomach because you get hungry, but you want to keep working so you suffer from hunger because you do not want to stop,'' Flores says.
Migrants confront health problems
The leading diagnoses listed by the nonprofit health program are hypertension, upper respiratory infection, dental issues, back and joint pain and diabetes. Some of the others include rashes, dermatitis, abdominal and gastric pain, coughing, sprains and strains, and headaches.
Maine’s program is notable if not unique nationally in a couple of respects, said its medical director Mike Rowland. It's the only state that runs its program entirely with mobile centers, which include a converted box truck, two RV-type vehicles and an SUV.
Rowland said the program's team of camp health aides, who act as a liaison between the medical staff and patients, is ``probably the most important secret to our success.''
The program's core full-time staff of about four expands to roughly 50 doctors, nurses, medical and nursing students and others who are paid, contracted with or volunteer during the harvests, Rowland said.
More than three-quarters of those treated by the program's mobile clinics are men, mostly between 25 and 64 years old. Of those treated last year, 75 percent were Latino, 14 percent Native American and 2 percent white. Of the total, 97 percent fall below poverty level, according to officials for the program, which is funded through grants, donations and the federal government.
Most encounters occur in Washington County during the blueberry harvest and in Androscoggin County, between the apple and cranberry harvests. Egg farm workers also account for many of the treatments.
The photos in the exhibit were taken by Earl Dotter of Silver Spring, Md.
Tennessee Watson, a Colby graduate now at Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies, conducted interviews with the workers. Some excerpts are featured as text blocks in the photo exhibit. Watson also produced several slideshows using audio and Dotter’s photos. They are temporarily housed at
www.dlanderson.com/farmworker and will be permanently featured on
Ginley sees the commitment to migrants' health as a trade-off for the service they provide to consumers who count on abundant supplies of fresh produce at the stores. She also hopes to debunk what she calls a myth that migrants are taking away local, year-round residents' jobs.
``If you talk to growers across the state,'' she said, ``they (say they) wouldn't be able to get their crop in without migrant workers.''