As fall break comes to a close, I reflect back on my week that surprisingly did not include a week in bed, gorging on “Breaking Bad” episodes or road tripping with friends to the beach. I instead caravanned up to Washington’s Yakima Valley with 15 other students from UP to learn about migrant worker and agricultural issues as part of the Moreau Center’s Rural Plunge. Despite co-coordinating the trip with Cassie Van Lier, my knowledge of migrant farm workers was reduced to the relationships forged between my grandfather and the Latino workers thatharvested his pear orchard years ago.
Having never spent much time in Washington, let alone the agricultural Mecca of the state, I could only guess what the valley would hold. It did not disappoint — a gorgeous landscape of patchwork farms framed by rolling hills, and the turning trees was a welcome change from the urban forest of Portland. Without cell phones to distract from the scenery, our group had plenty of opportunities to enjoy the landscape and also each other’s company. The lack of electronic distraction allowed us all to critically examine the farms and organizations we had visited as we traveled to our next destination.
The experience of meeting small, independent farmers to see their livelihoods and hear their stories was powerful. Our personal assumptions about immigrants in the United States and the roles they play in our food system were challenged to a degree that many were admittedly surprised to experience. Hearing commentary from immigration lawyer Tom Roach regarding his experience with migrant workers over the past 30 years was reaffirmed by every dairy and farm we visited. The praise these farm owners sang for their dedicated workers was touching and telling - produce farmer Lon Inaba estimated that up to 75 percent of the workers he relies on are undocumented.
And yet, the need for farmhand positions in Yakima Valley continues to persist, largely due to refusal on the part of others to fill them. Before conforming to ideas of deportation of undocumented workers, one must consider all the implications, such as a serious lack of workers to harvest our food. But it does not boil down to simply economics - these are hard-working people that deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, which I believe translates into all of the rights andbenefits of a U.S. citizen. To compromise the life of any person that has worked so hard for our country’s benefit is, in my opinion, criminal.
Ultimately, this week has reminded me to never be quick to claim simple, one-dimensional solutions to complex issues with very serious implications for manypeople. I was amazed at the beauty and generosity of so many people and organizations working to better the lives of themselves and others. With a simplehelping hand, we can affect great personal and social change. I am so grateful for this opportunity to learn and grow with an amazing UP community and the hospitality of all those who had a hand in the journey.
Alyssa Thornburg is a senior environmental ethics and policy major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.