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New Opportunities Mean Many Michigan Farmworkers Are Leaving the Fields

Robbie Feinberg/WMUK

Michigan’s $100-billion-a-year food and agriculture industry faces a crossroads. For decades, the system was steady. Farmers grew crops. Hispanic workers from places like Texas and Florida migrated here every summer to pick and harvest, then left before the first frost. Over the past few decades, though, new programs and support for migrants mean many workers aren’t staying in that system. In the first part of our series on the topic, we look at just where many of those workers are going.


This is the first in a three-part series on the changing lives of Hispanic workers in Michigan's agriculture industry.

Nearly every weeknight during the summer, an outreach team from the InterCare Community Health Network in Bangor packs up their van, drives to a tiny camp in the middle of the woods of Western Michigan, and sets up a makeshift medical station for migrant farm workers.

Standing in the front of InterCare’s giant, mobile outreach van is Angela Sanchez. The crew here jokes that Angela and her parents are kind of like the “first family” of Intercare. Angela’s mom, Alicia, is InterCare’s outreach coordinator for the region. Her dad, Carlos, buses workers back and forth to health appointments. And Angela works inside the dental van, registering patients and taking notes. The family knows these fields well.

"I’ve been out in the fields since 12 years old, picking blueberries," Angela says. "That’s all we would do in the summertime."

Sanchez never liked it, though.

"Personally, I sucked. I did," says Angela, laughing "I was out here picking every single day, mad cause I didn't want to be here!"

The toughest part, Sanchez says, was education. She liked school, and always studied. But the constant back-and-forth from Michigan to Texas left her constantly behind. Sometimes, she felt like it wasn’t worth it.

"By the time we left back to Texas, we were always behind on school. Because what they taught here was different than Texas. So we were always playing catch up," she says. "So it was pointless to go to school here, but we had to go! Because my dad was like, If you don't want to be doing this forever, you better go to school and stay in school."

Angela followed her dad’s advice. She stayed in school. She spent mornings in the fields, picking blueberries. Days were 14, 15 hours long. But by the end, Sanchez got into college. The first in her family. And she graduated. 

"So it was pointless to go to school here, but we had to go! Because my dad was like, If you don't want to be doing this forever, you better go to school and stay in school!"

"I had my whole family there," she remembers. "I had my dad's family, my mom's family there. I was the first to graduate. And from then on, it was cousins. Then my brother followed from there. My younger sister. Then my three sibling before me graduated after that."

Go to school. Get into college. It’s a common refrain for most parents. But for farm workers, the message is new. It’s part of a generational shift. For decades, the story was the same for most of Michigan’s farm workers. Live in Texas or Florida, head up to Michigan to pick for a few months, make some money, and head back down. 

The cycle went on for decades. Until today, that is. In 2000, only 3 percent of migrant farm workers had even a little college education. Ten years later, that number has more than tripled.

A few miles away, I meet a worker named Sergio. He lives in a trailer near a migrant camp with his two young daughters. Sergio’s a single dad. He says he lost his wife to a brain tumor a few years ago. His mom is here to help for a few months this summer, but most days, it’s just him getting his kids to school while still making enough money to support them.

He only speaks Spanish, but a few outreach workers translate for me.

"It's all for them," they say. "So he sacrifices what he needs to sacrifice. It's hard for him to do everything. But he does it for the girls."

Sergio’s biggest goal, though, isn’t to leave the trailer or get a raise. He says he wants enough money so his kids can pursue what they want.

"He doesn't want them to end up working in the camps like he did," they say. "What he sees for them is to help them finish school. He sees school as a priority. His child is eight, so within 10 years she'll be 18, graduating high school. So for her, he sees her bettering herself. Not working in camps, doing better than he did. That's why he works hard for himself."

Credit Robbie Feinberg/WMUK
Sergio, a farm worker, and his two young daughters at their home.

  So, how do you make the jump from farm worker camp to university dorm room? Probably with the help of someone like Gustavo Echavarria. He drives across the state, from labor camp to labor camp, finding students to join Western Michigan University’s College Assistance Migrant Program– or CAMP. It’s a nationwide program at more than 40 universities.

Western’s, though, is relatively new, in its fourth year. And it’s small, only accepting around 40 students annually. The goal is to get children out of these camps and into school. Echavarria knows making the jump to college is tough, from experience. He was a farm worker, too.

"It's such a shame," he says. "Because I wasn't the smartest cookie. But I got admitted. I believe there are a lot of people that are like that right now. Nobody has guided them. Nobody has told them anything"

Guiding. Hand-holding. For Echavarria, that’s a huge part of his job. Explaining scholarships and loans. Showing how to file a FAFSA. Even just sorting through a college application.

In the middle of a recent migrant worker "fiesta" in the fields of Southwest Michigan, Echavarria finds a potential CAMP student. He's leading him through the CAMP application process and overcoming a few cultural hurdles along the way.

“You've gotta write in English, you can’t write in Spanish,” Echavarria explains.

"At my home I only speak Spanish, it's natural," the student says.

"Of course, but I just want you to understand at the university, it's different," Ecchavaria responds. "You can still talk with your friends in Spanish, but we need to make sure you're able to communicate."

Adriana Cardoso-Reyes is the director of WMU's CAMP program. And like nearly everyone on staff, she’s a former migrant herself. She was in the exact same position as her students around ten years ago, and she still remembers just how clueless she was.

"So I remember when we were thinking back in that process, I think I wanted to apply to Adrian College, because it had Adrian in the name," Cardoso-Reyes says. "You know, Adriana, Adrian? I thought that'd be cool to go to Adrian College! It just shows the lack of information."

But Ecchavaria and Cardoso-Reyes have emerged from the process as college graduates. And they say because they’re former migrants, it makes the job a little easier.

"I believe there's a lot of talent out there. If it's not for somebody to tell them that they can achieve it, or it's accessible to them, or at least answer those questions. A lot of our population doesn't even know what to ask!"

  "I do, in a sense, take it personally," Echavarria says. "I believe there's a lot of talent out there. If it's not for somebody to tell them that they can achieve it, or it's accessible to them, or at least answer those questions. A lot of our population doesn't even know what to ask!"

He continues: "And I often times, I do refer back to the struggles that my mom and I and my siblings face. I tell them, I know what you're going through! I went through exactly what you're going through. The difference between you and me is I'm here to help you."

CAMP is just the latest in a long line of services available to young migrants now. There’s also the Migrant Head Start program fromTelamon, which keeps kids learning even as their parents are in the fields. There’s the HEP program to help workers get their high school diplomas.

And CAMP has already made a difference on Western’s campus. Staff say the retention rate for CAMP students at Western is more than 90 percent. Add it all up, and things are changing. However, the achievement gap for farm workers’ children is still huge. 90 percent nationwide still aren’t reaching college.

Cardoso-Reyes says there’s work to be done. But with her program, at least, she sees the benefits.

"Your vehicle you don't have to worry about breaking down. Not worrying about how to pay the bill next month. Things like that. So I think financially, they've definitely seen the results of it," she says. "There’s a lot of issues we face, but there’s that hope. And that’s what we tell our students. No matter where you go, they can’t take that from you." 

 This is the first part of a three-part series on the changing lives of Hispanic workers in Michigan. In Part Two of our series, we look at what fewer workers in the fields means for farmers -- and the growing, yet controversial visa program many are using to find new workers. You can hear the entire series here.