Migrant workers critical to local tobacco harvest

September 29, 2003|PHIL PENDLETON

LANCASTER - English may not be the primary language spoken among workers at many tobacco farms here. With the 2003 harvest season well under way, chances are you will find many laborers speaking their native tongue - Spanish.

"I would hate to think how you would get tobacco in the barn without the Latinos," said Garrard County Extension Agent for Agriculture Mike Carter.

Carter said within the last several decades, migrant workers, most of them from Mexico, have cut most of the area burley and put it in barns. "We didn't have the manpower to get it in the barn," Carter said of a labor shortage that reached its peak in the late 1990s, when a good economy had folks working other jobs.

"It's gone from being a fringe factor to an essential part of the crop."

G.B. Shell and his son, Gary, of Shell Farms on Fall Lick Road, grow about 105 acres of tobacco, with nearly all of their labor coming from migrant workers. "We keep four all winter, with 16 or 18 working right before tobacco housing time," said G.B. Shell. "Tobacco would be out if not for them."


Carter said labor agencies in Mexico work with farmers in the states who need help finding laborers. "You can call them directly, if you need (for example) a half dozen workers," he said. "(You talk to) Jose Bravo, and once you wire him the money to buy their bus ticket, (they're on their way)."

Shell said despite the fact that most of his workers speak only Spanish, there is no language barrier. "No problem," he said. "You show them what you want done, and they will do it. They're good workers."

Juan Garcia is among those who speak a little English. "It's hard," he said of working in tobacco, "but you work." Garcia has been in Kentucky 10 years. "As long as they give me work, I'll be here," he said.

Shell said his first migrants arrived about 12 to 15 years ago from an agency in Texas. "They brought us four, and they kept coming back."

"A different world where we live"

Some of the Latinos stay year round; others arrive about the end of July to the first of August and stay until around Christmas. Garcia doesn't plan on leaving anytime soon. "I like everything here," he said. "A different world where we live."

On payday, the migrants keep enough to sustain themselves until the next payday and send the rest to their families in Mexico. "They make more here in an hour than they could in a day down there," said Carter. "It's been good for Western Union."

And for the local tobacco crop. "Without the help of folks who migrated into here, it would be difficult if not impossible to harvest the crop," Carter said.

But it has become more difficult to get migrants into the states. Gary Shell said the events of 9/11 have made immigration more difficult. Tobacco quota cuts also have hurt, he said.

Some of the migrants have chosen to stay in the United States and have become American citizens. "When they leave here, they go to jobs in all different directions," said Carter. Many have married, started families, and now have children in schools.

"It's a challenge because they're here today and gone tomorrow," said Migrant Student Advocate Martin Bastin.

Bastin works with just over 20 Hispanic students in the Garrard County school district. He said families arrive in the spring to plant tobacco and may stay through November or December for stripping but will leave for Florida to help in the citrus crop or Georgia to work in a chicken factory. "Once the cold weather ends, they come back (to Kentucky)," he said.

Bastin said many of the Hispanic children come into the school system lacking basic needs of clothing and hygiene products. And most don't know English. "These students are historically behind because of their mobility," he said.

"The big challenge is the language barrier," said Randy Hughes, who directs migrant services for Garrard County schools. "We need more teachers who speak Spanish."

A program called English Language Learners has helped break down that language barrier, Bastin said. Elsie Miracle, a retired Spanish teacher from Garrard County High School, teaches the Hispanic children basic English.

"Their English has improved drastically," Bastin said.

Phil Pendleton can be reached at

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