The Bureau of Labor Statistics consistently ranks farm work as one of the three most dangerous industries. Right now, it has the highest fatality rate of any job in the United States. Despite the perils, there are more than 3 million farm workers in the United States.
Most of them will stay in the fields their entire working lives. But each year, a small group of these workers find their way onto a new career path.
David Strauss, the executive director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, or AFOP, which represents Telamon, and many similar organizations, explains that a typical day for a farmworker during harvest season means getting up at 4 a.m., and being in the field, ready to work at 5:30 a.m.
"If it's a really big crop, they may work well into sun down," says Strauss. "It could be easily a 12 to 13 hour work day." Many work that schedule 6 days a week, with no overtime pay.
That's why, Strauss stresses the importance of empowering farm workers to educate themselves and find safer, better paying jobs.
Sara Lopez is one of the people making that happen. She's a case worker for Telamon Corporation, a non-profit organization that helps legally residing farm workers do things like learn English, and enroll in GED classes. Fewer than half of the United States' 3 million farm workers are in the country legally, but for those she can help, Sara's job is to go to the fields, speak with workers, and explain that by getting more training, they can completely change their lives.
In the Telamon offices in Montross, Va.,, Sara fields calls and writes out a check for one of her clients, Vanessa. Vanessa's mom is a farm laborer, and would bring Vanessa and her siblings to work during planting and harvesting, to make a little extra money. If Vanessa were to follow the same path as her mother, she could expect to make about $8,000 a year.
Vanessa, 20, is here with her daughter, Yamily. She just began a course in phlebotomy. So far, it's going well. Vanessa unfolds an invoice from her purse. It's from Yamily's new daycare. Telamon will pay for daycare while Vanessa is at class, letting Vanessa maneuver around a stumbling block that otherwise would have stopped her schooling at once.
All the funding comes from the Department of Labor, through the National Farmworker Jobs Program. It provides just under $85 million to help farm workers across the country train for safer and more lucrative jobs. Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware's five Telamon field offices share roughly $1.5 million.
Lopez sees her role as an enabler, but also a cheerleader. "I always try to encourage them and say 'you're doing great.' Often family members, they'll be in farm work, and they don't understand the importance of education and better jobs. They won't have that emotional support."
More than 83 percent of the people who come for jobs are placed, according to recent data on the National Farmworker Jobs Program. Of those placed, 80 percent keep their new jobs for 6 months or more, which AFOP's David Strauss attributes to "the fact that they're extremely dedicated to hard work, and they expect to earn money through their labor. Not everybody has that approach."
Telamon in Virginia has served nearly 200 people over the past year. The program has been around for decades, but there's no certainty it will survive from one year to the next, and from one administration to the next.
"I try to get them to take advantage of the opportunity that here for them now," says Lopez. Once someone takes that first step, she says, they keep going and never look back.
[Music: "Wealthy Man" by Cat Power from Myra Lee"]
Photos: Farm Workers