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The increasing global demand for food has implications for agricultural production, food processing, regulatory oversight, and immigration policy. Often overlooked is the health and well-being of agriculture workers including safety, access to health care and successful integration into local communities. Successfully addressing the complex challenges that surround the changing agricultural workforce benefits from bringing together diverse stakeholders to find common ground.
On January, 16, 2014, more than 60 agricultural workers, producers, health professionals, extension agents, university faculty and other interested individuals gathered at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Chanhassen, MN, to explore The Changing Agriculture Workforce: Challenges and Opportunities for the Worker, the Employer, and the Community. This forum was jointly hosted by the Center for Integrative Leadership, the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety, the Global Initiative for Food Systems Leadership, and the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center.
Mexican Consul, Alberto Fierro, opened the forum by stating the consul's commitment to enhancing the relationship between Mexican agricultural workers and farmers. A panel of stakeholders, including a dairy farmer, clinician, agricultural worker, and an extension educator shared their perspectives on the changing agricultural workforce. Each described the current environment in which agricultural workers function as well as pointing out the opportunities and challenges. Some challenges included culture and language barriers, gaps in health services, scarcity of accessible safety programs, lack of resources and knowledge among workers and employers, and the uncertainties of immigration reform and documentation issues. One farmer described the importance to him of discovering that both he and his Hispanic employees shared a deep commitment to family. Examples of opportunities included the empowerment achieved through bilingual language training, common skills development, utilizing relationships with farmers' cooperatives and professional organizations as a platform to provide information and resources and to build confidence in health, educational, legal and occupational systems.
Two examples were presented to demonstrate farmers and workers have found common ground for progress. Both embrace the concept that a safe and healthy workforce means productive workers that contribute to the farm's success and the community's vitality. Beyond the economic value of positive employee-employer relations, there are higher-level gains, like mutual happiness and a stable workforce.
Small group conversations were facilitated to share diverse perspectives and find consensus. Six focus areas emerged: 1) Easier access to healthcare; 2) Increase farmer-worker cultural and values awareness; 3) Ensure certification programs such as fair trade labeling include agricultural worker safety and health; 4) Social networks for workers to share resources; 5) Methods to distribute useful information and resources to farm owners, and 6) Understanding the spheres of influence around the farmer.
Small groups were then asked "Given these opportunities and barriers, where could we make the greatest gains in the shortest period of time with the resources and the group that is gathered here?" After developing various approaches, each group came up with a big idea: "What happens next? What's the first step for moving this idea toward success?"
Eighty-nine percent of forum attendees indicated that they found the program to be valuable, increased their understanding of the issues, helped them listen to others with an open mind, gave them a greater respect for different viewpoints, and felt the knowledge and insights gained from the forum will impact their workplace. In addition, 94% felt the format allowed them to share their views openly and helped them find common ground.
The May 2014 issue of Successful Farming featured an article on the topic of immigration reform and the impact on agriculture.
The article mentions the Finding Common Ground Forum, and also includes interviews with FCG attendees and panel members.
The Upper Midwest Agriculture Safety and Health Center (UMASH) will be requesting small grant applications ranging from $5,000 to a maximum of $20,000 to address health and safety issues related to agricultural workers and their families. As part of this RFA, proposals are encouraged that follow-up on ideas developed through this Finding Common Ground Forum event.
Application Deadline: April 17, 2014