MEDINA – Tom Rivers, the Orleans Hub editor, was the featured speaker last week at the Medina Lions Club’s meeting at the Junior Wilson Sportsmen’s Club. He discussed his experiences back in 2008 when he worked at about a dozen local farms as part of a series on farm labor for The Daily News in Batavia.
Rivers worked at The Daily News for 16 years before leaving in March 2013 to help start the Orleans Hub. He covered agriculture, Orleans County and other local issues for The Daily News.
Farmers have long struggled to have a stable workforce. The issue became more dire with immigration raids not long after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Many farmers have had workers removed by immigration authorities, often during the peak of harvest season.
Rivers wanted to find out why so few local people would do the field work and other farm jobs. He planted onions, milked cows, and harvested cucumbers, cabbage, pumpkins, apples and other crops to give a glimpse into what the work is like. He found it to physically exhausting, with pressure on the farmers and their workers to pick produce that is near perfection in order to be sold at Wegmans and other grocery stores.
Farmers have been pushing for about two decades for action at the federal level so more farm workers can be in the country legally.
The workers are vital to agriculture, rural New York’s leading industry, Rivers said. Orleans County and other rural counties also are facing steep population declines. If the federal government overhauled its immigration policies, allowing more long-term farmworkers to stay in the country legally, those workers could help reverse the population decline.
The workers also are skilled and have ambition. They might buy and rehab many of the vacant houses in the county, and could open businesses, Rivers told the Lions Club.
Rivers won several state and national awards for the series on farmworkers. The articles in The Daily News were compiled and expanded into a book, Farm Hands: Hard work and hard lessons from Western New York fields.
To see a review of the book, click here.