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Harvesting Change: From Farms to the Nation's Capital

The summer's bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables was joined by a two-decades-in-the-making step forward to a more just food system. In a win for farmworkers, farmers, and consumers, the only federal standard intended to protect agricultural workers from pesticide exposure and poisonings—the Worker Protection Standard—was finally updated with significant advancements on September 28, 2015.

From across the country, farmworkers brought their stories directly to policy makers in Washington. Their goal: to connect policy set in our nation's capital with the reality of life on the frontlines of the agriculture system.

“Is it ever too late to do the right thing? It’s been a long time coming, but it has come today.” – Giev Kashkooli United Farm Workers, Vice President, on the release of the new Worker Protection Standard.

  • Picking tomatoes in California.
    Photos by Dave Getzschman for Earthjustice
    Tomatoes picked and packed in California.
  • Harvesting strawberries in a Southern California field.
    Photos by Dave Getzschman for Earthjustice
    Harvesting strawberries in a Southern California field.

1 Whether you hunt and gather at Walmart or at your local farmer’s market, chances are, someone cut that melon off the vine or picked the lemon off the tree. Some produce can be mechanically harvested. But most of what we eat has been plucked from plant to container by another human.

How those people are touched by the process of growing our food is a sobering story. Pesticides are a significant occupational hazard to agricultural workers, a grim reality for anyone who has worked in conventional agriculture.

Now, the new Worker Protection Standard may finally change that reality for the better.

  • Graciela Silva worked for nine years in the fields harvesting lemons, lettuce, cucumbers, and strawberries.
    Photos by Dave Getzschman for Earthjustice
    Graciela Silva worked for nine years harvesting lemons, lettuce, cucumbers, and strawberries. "I’ve been sprayed by pesticides in the fields … Pesticides are a necessary evil in our fields. But more emphasis needs to be placed on protecting workers." Graciela's story »
  • Elvia Vasquez, near a lettuce field where she harvested crops on the Central Coast of California in the 1990s.
    Photos by Dave Getzschman for Earthjustice
    Elvia Vasquez, near a lettuce field in California's Central Coast where she harvested crops in the 1990s. "We followed the crops up and down the coast: blackberries, blueberries, wine and table grapes and many others … Workers come home with pesticides on their clothes. They pick up their kids after a long day at work, and they want a hug. That hug comes with toxic chemicals." Elvia's story »
  • Renato Hernandez plays with his son in Pierson, Florida.
    Photos by Dave Getzschman for Earthjustice
    Renato Hernandez with his son in Pierson, Florida. He and his family live adjacent to a fernery. The ferns are used in floral arrangements. "The ferneries don’t provide any kind of notice when they’re going to spray here. They just come in with the tractor and begin." Renato's story »

2 Adopted in 1995, the Worker Protection Standard was notoriously difficult to enforce. From working fields, nurseries and greenhouses across the nation, farmworkers have fought for decades for meaningful improvements—and parity with the level of protections given in most other industries.

An update to the Standard was finally proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in early 2014.

During the public comment period that followed, more than 200,000 people across the country—including nearly 90,000 Earthjustice members and supporters—stood in support with farmworkers and called for the proposed new Standard to be strengthened.

Jaramillo (center), with farmworkers and advocates, greets EPA officials during a meeting in Washington, D.C.
Dave Getzschman for Earthjustice
Jaramillo (center), with farmworkers and advocates, greets EPA officials during a meeting in Washington, D.C.

3 In early June and as the EPA worked to finalize the proposed new Worker Protection Standard, Earthjustice, in partnership with a diverse coalition, brought voices of farmworker communities impacted by pesticide exposure to the nation's capital.

The farmworkers' presence grounded decision makers in the reality of the policy being made, underscoring why stronger protections were necessary—and tragically overdue.

Estefani Gisel Jaramillo, the teenage daughter of farmworkers and a farmworker herself, came from Minnesota. She spoke of the need to protect all workers—particularly children—from pesticide exposure. Jaramillo was one of several young farmworkers who strongly support minimum age requirements to handle pesticides.

Delgado gives a Spanish language briefing to farmworkers and advocates on the proposed changes to the Worker Protection Standard.
Dave Getzschman for Earthjustice
Delgado gives a Spanish language briefing to farmworkers and advocates on the proposed changes to the Worker Protection Standard.

4 "This is a story for farmworkers and their families to tell in their own voice," said Sr. Legislative Representative Andrea Delgado of Earthjustice, honoring the principles of environmental justice. "Their voices are one of the most powerful tools their communities have."

Delgado highlighted the importance of farmworkers being heard by decision makers: "These are people who are literally getting sprayed with chemicals while picking crops. It’s one thing to read about this happening, but it’s quite another to hear it from those who had no knowledge that these pesticides are hazardous."

Flores recounts her experience with airborne pesticides.
Dave Getzschman for Earthjustice
Flores, during a meeting in Washington, D.C., recounts her experience with airborne pesticides. To her left is Bruce Goldstein, President of Farmworker Justice.

5 Blanca Flores, a former farmworker from California, spoke of how airborne pesticides often land on workers—who then in turn take the chemicals on their clothes home to their families.

The farmworkers' personal stories cut through false claims from the agricultural industry's high-powered lobbyists that updates to the Worker Protection Standard were unnecessary.

Ceja, during the Washington, D.C., briefing.
Dave Getzschman for Earthjustice
Ceja, during a briefing in Washington, D.C.

6 Amelia Morán Ceja, a former farmworker who came to the United States as a 12-year-old grape picker, now runs an award-winning Napa winery. Ceja spoke of the benefits of fair labor practices and using organic pesticides or none at all. She emphasized that protecting both land and workers from pesticide exposure can be great for business.

"You have to take care of your team—and they will take care of you and your business," Ceja has said. "We, as businesses and as consumers, have the power to change how farmworkers are treated." (Watch a video about Ceja Vineyards.)

Betchart, during the Washington, D.C., briefing.
Dave Getzschman for Earthjustice
Betchart of Worker Justice Center of New York, during a briefing in Washington, D.C.

7 Paola Macas Betchart, a farmworker advocate, serves farmworkers in the western areas of New York. Stressing the need for whistleblower protections, she shared insights into the barriers workers face in speaking out about pesticide exposure.

"Although workers may feel isolated by the nature of their work, their immigration or economic status, by going to them and bringing them to D.C., we let them know that they are far from alone, that there are many just like them who are living similar experiences," said Earthjustice's Delgado.

"We let them know that the status quo is wrong and inequitable—that we won't stand for it and in working together, we can secure change."

Ana Alicia Torres Aguirre, a farmworker and worker safety trainer from Arizona,  thanked EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy (far right) for listening to their experiences.
Dave Getzschman for Earthjustice
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy (right) is thanked by Ana Alicia Torres Aguirre, a farmworker and worker safety trainer from Arizona, for listening to the farmworkers' experiences.

8 The farmworkers and advocates who went to Washington did so not only for themselves and their families, but on behalf of the many other workers who are afraid to speak out. They brought their voices to give their communities the hope and strength for a better future.

The new Worker Protection Standard was finalized and released in September. Although it isn’t perfect, the new Standard was welcomed by farmworkers and advocates.

Agricultural workers will now be better protected on many fronts—as long as the agencies responsible for implementing and enforcing the new rules do their job. (With the exception of California and New York, the State Departments of Agriculture are in charge of implementation.)

Delgado made it clear that Earthjustice's work continues, even as the hard-won improvements are celebrated: "As advocates and organizers, we know that policy making in the Beltway is only as valuable as its ability to be impactful for the most affected and as a resource for community-based organizations."

"To ensure the new protections reach the fields and the communities where they are needed most—and in a language that workers can understand—the priority will continue to be bilingual outreach and engagement in close collaboration with our partners in the farmworker, labor, and Latino community.”

Olivia Flores, a farmworker in a Florida nursery, mixed chemicals with few protections or handling instructions.
Dave Getzschman for Earthjustice
Olivia Flores, a farmworker in a Florida nursery, mixed chemicals with few protections or handling instructions. She sees a better future: "I hope that working conditions are better when my children are grown. I’m thinking positively. Maybe they won’t be 100% better. But I’m hoping there will be some changes from generation to generation."

9 A safe and fair food system would protect everyone, safeguarding the health, environmental and economic needs of farmworkers, farmers, rural communities and consumers. Shifting away from reliance on hazardous pesticides is a key step toward this goal. (Learn about Earthjustice's legal work targeting the most dangerous chemicals.)

But so long as harmful pesticides are in use, farmworkers need—and deserve—the strongest protections from exposure. The hard-fought gains achieved in the new Worker Protection Standard are a significant step forward to a cleaner, safer and more just environment for all.  

A Two Question Quiz: Know Your Facts

Question One

How many farmworkers are in the United States?
10,000 farmworkers
1 million farmworkers
2.5 million farmworkers
There are an estimated 2.5 million farmworkers in the United States—nearly the same number of people who live in Chicago, the nation's third most populated city. Members of the farmworker community often work in multiple places, moving around to follow seasonal crops.

Question Two

Over what period of time are 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides applied in the U.S.?
each year
every decade
since modern agricultural practices began
1.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops annually in the United States—resulting in 10,000–20,000 pesticide poisonings among farmworkers each year.

Published October 15, 2015.

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