As the heat rises, farmworkers band together

From wildfires to extreme temperatures, climate change is driving activism in the farm fields

Our climate is changing, and our approaches to activism and politics have to change with it. That’s why FERN, in partnership with The Nation,  launched Taking Heat, a series of dispatches from the front lines of the climate justice movement by journalist Audrea Lim. Lim explores the ways the communities that stand to lose the most as a result of climate change are also becoming leaders in the climate resistance—from the farms of Puerto Rico to the tar sands of Canada, from the streets of Los Angeles to Kentucky coal country, communities are coming together to fight for a just transition to a greener and more equitable economy. At a time when extreme weather events and climate policy impasse are increasingly dominating the environmental news, Taking Heat focuses on the ways climate change intersects with other social and political issues, showcasing the ingenious and inventive ways people are already reworking our economy and society. 


Ramón Barba Torres had been working in the fields of Delano, California, for more than a decade when he decided to head north. The summer heat, which he recalls approaching 100 degrees nearly every day, was forcing employers to stop field work after about five hours, and he simply wasn’t making enough money. Torres had migrated from Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2003, at age 16, to help support his mother after his father died, and now he had a family of his own to support. He’d heard rumors that field work paid better, and the weather was more hospitable, in Washington State. So in 2012, he migrated for the season to pick strawberries and blueberries on the Sakuma Brothers farm near Bellingham.

Summer temperatures there rarely rose above 80 degrees, far more tolerable than in the California fields. Some other differences, though, were less welcome. For instance, Washington labor laws allowed children as young as 12 to work in the fields for less than the minimum wage, while in California farmworkers were required to be at least 14 years old. But because he was returning to California after the season, he kept quiet and did his work.

When Torres returned to Washington the following year, however, he got involved. A fellow worker who had just been fired for requesting a 2-cent raise asked him to intervene. “I was just too nice,” Torres said with a laugh, explaining why the worker had singled him out. He noted that most workers spoke only Mixtec or Triqui, indigenous languages from Oaxaca and Guerrero, while he, a Spanish-speaker, could better communicate with their employers. Soon, Torres had helped organize the support of 240 families in the Sakuma Brothers camp. A worker strike got the man rehired, but it got Torres fired. The consumer boycott of Sakuma Brothers that workers launched in response broadened in 2014  to include Driscoll’s, the California-based transnational berry company that the Sakuma Brothers were supplying, and then became an international affair in 2015 when they joined forces with tens of thousands of workers at farms in Mexico who were also supplying Driscoll’s. The sustained pressure seemed to work: in 2016, when Sakuma Brothers workers voted to unionize, the Familias Unidas por la Justicia farmworkers union, which now represents some 700 workers across several nearby farms, was formally recognized.

Today, Torres leads the union. It is both a time of hope for farmworkers, and also one of growing concern, as climate change is adding to the challenges the workers, and their representatives, must deal with. Torres sees farmworkers continuing to arrive from California, drawn not only by the union’s capacity to secure better working conditions and pay, but also to escape California’s heat. (The latest  National Agricultural Workers Survey, based on data from 2015-16, found that only 19 percent  of U.S. farmworkers were migrants and only 30 percent of these migrant workers followed the crops—a steady decline over the last two decades. But state-level  data only exist for California, and the survey doesn’t indicate where workers are migrating to and from.)

What’s certain is that temperatures are rising. The hottest year in recorded history was 2016, followed by 2017, 2015 and 2018, and California’s summers have increasingly been punctuated  by record-breaking heat waves. A 2018 California government report  projected even more severe heat waves, droughts and wildfires for the future, with major public-health consequences for residents and workers, who will be exposed to more intense smoke, heat and disease. (“All Californians will likely endure more illness and be at greater risk of early death because of climate change,” the report says.)

Washington State will hardly be spared (a 2018 federal climate change assessment warned of growing wildfires, droughts and disease in the Northwest), but temperatures there have increased more slowly  over the last three decades than in any other U.S. state.

Climate-driven migrations are almost certainly already happening, though there is debate among researchers about how realistic it is to reduce the decision to migrate to a single cause. The number of farmers fleeing north from Central America’s “Dry Corridor,” for instance, a region that stretches from Mexico to Panama and is home to 10.5 million people, has been rising for several years, spurred by longer and more frequent droughts that are linked to climate change. And the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center  estimates that about 1.7 million people migrated within the U.S. in 2017 as a result of disasters (up from 1.1 million in 2016, and 63,000 in 2015).

Globally, an average of 21.5 million people were displaced each year between 2008 and 2015 from weather-related hazards, and within decades these migrations “could vastly exceed anything that has occurred before,” according to the UNHCR and World Bank. Experts have predicted that the South will lose 8 percent of its share of the U.S. population by 2065, while the economies of the Northwest and West  will grow.

In August 2017, Torres and his union experienced the all-too-real consequences of this new reality. With smoke from Canadian wildfires descending on Bellingham, which is less than 20 miles from the U.S.-Canada border, Torres began receiving emergency text alerts urging people to remain indoors because of the poor air quality. He asked for the days off and was told “no.”

Co-op workers planting blueberries in Everson, Washington. Once they’ve logged enough hours, they will become worker-owners.

At the nearby Sarbanand blueberry farm, 28-year-old Honesto Silva Ibarra, a worker from Mexico, collapsed. He had complained for three days about feeling sick and needing to see a doctor. He fell into a coma and later died, prompting protests and strikes. “They didn’t care about us,” said Torres.

The union blames Ibarra’s death on the heat, smoke and poor working conditions, but Sarbanand Farms and a relative claims that it resulted from untreated diabetes. A state Department of Labor and Industries investigation concluded that the company wasn’t responsible for his death, but the agency fined it $150,000 for separate labor violations unearthed in the process.

Torres, who was at a different farm picking blueberries when Ibarra collapsed, is cognizant of how immigration status separates him from Ibarra, who was working on an H2A visa, a program that allows companies to bring in foreign nationals for short-term agricultural work. The H2A program has been called a “modern-day system of indentured servitude” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, as it prevents workers from changing jobs and allows bosses to fire, deport and even blacklist them if they complain. The program, says Torres, is “taking all the jobs away from us,” as farms choose not to rehire many of the California migrants they had employed in the previous season. In Washington State, the H2A program expanded from 3,000 workers in 2006 to almost 14,000 workers in 2016.

But Torres also understands that they all are “workers in the fields” — and his union includes many H2A workers. Together, these different classes of farmworker are caught between two migration realities: one driven primarily by the desire for a better life in an era defined by climate change, and the other by the need to protect corporate control and profitability.

The creation of Familias Unidas por la Justicia was an important step for the region’s farmworkers. It demonstrated that “immigrants can organize and win,” said Edgar Franks of Community to Community, a Bellingham-based immigrant-rights and food-sovereignty organization that helped establish the union. But in light of these new realities, Torres and others soon sensed that simply pushing for better pay and working conditions was no longer going to be enough.

They wanted more control — over things like the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which they worried were harming the health of consumers, including their families, and the workers being exposed to them daily—but also over whether it was too hot or smoky to work on a given day. They wanted the option to “choose if they want to be working under a union contract, or if they want to be owners,” Torres said.

So last year, Torres and three other union farmworkers launched the Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad, an organic farm cooperative whose name — “Land and Liberty” — references a slogan popularized by the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata during the 1910 Mexican Revolution. With the fundraising and legal support from Community to Community, they are now leasing 65 acres of land in Everson, Washington, and growing raspberries and blueberries, with plans to grow corn for tortillas they hope to make on site.

The worker-owners decide everything from how to produce and distribute their crops, to what tasks need to be completed each day. Workers take breaks and eat lunch when they want, knowing that the work will still need to be completed. And when another heat wave or smoke advisory arrives, they will be able to decide collectively, during their daily morning meeting, whether to halt work for the day. (In August 2018, smoke from Canadian wildfires was twice as dangerous in Bellingham than the previous year, when Ibarra died.)

Pedro Torres, one of Tierra y Libertad’s founders, plants blueberries on the farm.

Once the 12 workers currently employed by the co-op log a benchmark number of hours, they will join Torres and the other founders as worker-owners. The goal is to eventually buy the land, an option the current owners are open to and that Torres hopes can be achieved with the help of government funding. (The federal farm bill includes a program that provides grants to “socially disadvantaged farmers,” for instance.) And if, in 10 years, they do own the land, and the same workers are still with the co-op, Torres’s plan is for each to receive a house and a small plot rent-free, where “you can grow whatever you want,” he said.

A 2010 report by the U.S. Agency for International Development on climate migration said that land tenure “will be instrumental in managing the increased population in migrant-receiving communities … The poor, indigenous peoples, women, and other people with limited property rights are the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Their limited capacity to invest in adaptation measures makes them less resilient.”

If Ramón Torres and his colleagues can pull it off, the cooperative’s vision would be an example of one way to mitigate the dire future described in the report. But their effort is important on a much more immediate level, too. Torres says that his cousin, Pedro Torres, one of Tierra y Libertad’s founders and the father of five children, sees the cooperative as “an opportunity to be a farmer and have something to give his kids.”

It won’t be easy. The reality of visas and corporate control, to say nothing of the growing problem of climate change, is hardly in retreat. And while life in the cooperative involves long days packed with meetings, managing inventory, working in the field, and then cleaning and locking up, Ramón Torres has no doubt that it is a far better life than the one he had picking strawberries for the Sakuma Brothers. A life that required him to show up at 4:30 am, work at least 8 to 10 hours on his knees in the mud and rain, and wait for supervisors to announce a break, before realizing at day’s end that they never did. “It was really hard,” he said. “And really boring.”

The cooperative, meanwhile, is filled with opportunity and potential. “There is that thing about how capitalism creates his own gravediggers, and we’re seeing it,” said Edgar Franks, referencing The Communist Manifesto. “Industry is so bad that it’s created people that will end the bad agricultural system and create a new one.”

Top photo: Ramón Torres, co-founder of the Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad farm in Everson, Washington.

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