April 12, 2009

The seasonal ag worker

Vicente Villagomez is a good and hard worker, but he's tired of being on the road and longs to spend more time with his family. Still, he says 'it's a good life here'


Yakima Herald-Republic

For someone who’s been living in the United States for 30 years, Vicente Villagomez’s English is not very good. It’s holding him back, and he knows it.

Standing in a Rowe Farms apple orchard near Naches on a crisp October morning, the 47-year-old Mexican immigrant and migrant worker cheerfully swallowed his pride for the opportunity to practice English with a friendly stranger.

Villagomez said he doesn’t mind hard work, but is tired of being on the road all the time.

“I like working all year,” he says, and by that he means having a permanent job in one place so that he can stay home and be with his wife and kids. “I need the good job for my family. Family is No. 1.”

Home for Villagomez means Prineville, a town in Central Oregon about the size of Toppenish where his wife, Gloria, is raising their three children, ages 14, 11 and 2.

Villagomez says he’s been living in Prineville for 15 years but has struggled to find a steady job there. Most recently he washed dishes at a country club, but got laid off.

As a result, he found himself once again on the road in search of work. He says he has picked or harvested just about everything over the years: cherries, asparagus, lettuce, avocados, lemons, strawberries, oranges.

Asked if he likes the work, Villagomez smiled as he struggled to find the words.

“It’s pretty good, pretty good ... there’s no contamination,” he said, gesturing at the clear blue skies overhead and inhaling the fresh air. “Your heart is more strong, you know?”

Formerly known as migrant workers, pickers like Villagomez are now known as seasonal agriculture workers. That’s because not all move around, or migrate. Many seasonal workers stay in one place and work only part time. The fruit industry in Washington employed 20,417 seasonal agricultural workers in 2004, according to the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association. That number, in turn, represented roughly 65 percent of all seasonal ag workers in the entire state.

Seasonal workers earn anywhere from $9 to $14 an hour, depending on whether they’re paid by the hour or by “piece rates,” which are calculated by how much is picked.

Sometimes growers pay by the hour because, due to the type of crop, they want pickers to be choosy and careful with the fruit. Other times they pay piece rates, because speed and efficiency are of the essence.

Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League in Yakima, says hourly earnings have a lot to do with type of crop. Cherries pay the best, apples not so much.

Extremely efficient pickers have been known to make up to $200 a day, he says, adding, “Over $100 a day is not unusual.”

To save money, Villagomez has been living in a barn at the orchard. He says the farmer’s dogs have been keeping him company. It beats sleeping in his Camaro.

On this particular trip north he’s been working about six weeks in Yakima and says he hasn’t been home in that length of time. It could be awhile, too — in a few more weeks he plans to head up the road to Wenatchee.

Villagomez says he first came to the United States 30 years ago and has been traveling north to Yakima and Wenatchee for seasonal work for the past 18 years.

He says he likes the area and would settle down here if he could find something steady. Asked what kind of job he would like if he had his choice, he said he wouldn’t mind working at a dairy.

Possibly due to the language barrier, it was unclear where he grew up in Mexico. The state of Michoacán was mentioned. He said his father was a farmer, that he has three brothers and six sisters, and that he was the fourth oldest in the family.

Whenever the subject of immigration came up, no matter how trivial, he grew wary or vague. However, he took pains to say that his three children are U.S. citizens.

It was on that subject, his family, that Villagomez was happiest to chat. He said his 14-year-old daughter, Marisol, is more comfortable speaking English than Spanish even though that’s all he speaks at home.

“She is speaking not very good Spanish,” he explains. It is unclear if he is aware that generations of immigrant families in the U.S. — regardless of where they came from — have been down this road before.

Using a cell phone, he calls his wife every two or three days to check in. Thanks to interstate banking, he’s able to deposit his wages wherever he goes, so his family has money hundreds of miles away.

Despite his personal rootlessness, he insisted that he considers the United States his country and is anxious to see his children succeed.

That’s why he doesn’t mind that his daughter speaks English most of the time, he said. That’s why he doesn’t really like talking too much about Mexico.

“It’s a good life here,” he said. “My family in Mexico is very poor. Here we have a life.”