ALBANY, N.Y. - Farmers in New York are studying Spanish and learning about cultural differences between the United States and its neighbors to the south, as the number of Hispanic migrants working on upstate farms has hit a record high.
"We've placed some 250 Hispanic workers on dairy farms that never had Hispanic workers before, prior to us," said F. Brandon Mallory, who launched a worker placement service in 1999 after recognizing the trend. "Only recently, in the last several months, have we been able to keep up with demand because we've added two people to the staff."
Most of the migrant workers are employed on dairy farms, a $1.54 billion-a-year industry in New York state.
"Three or four years ago, only a handful of people used different forms of migrant labor," said Laurie Griffen, co-owner of Saratoga Sod Farm in Stillwater, which employs five workers from Mexico. "Now it's hard to find someone who isn't, in some capacity."
Even during a recession, the need for foreign migrant workers continues to skyrocket, said Mark Maslyn, deputy executive director of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
"U.S. workers just don't want to do that kind of work," said Maslyn, formerly of Delmar, N.Y "It's hard to get locals to show up on time and be there the next day."
While the number of seasonal agricultural workers in the state employed by the federal H2-A program has remained at around 2,000 for the last 20 years, a larger percentage are coming from Mexico and Guatemala because they are available and have farming experience, according to farmers and agriculture groups like the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service.
Under the program, migrant workers in the Northeast earn $8.17 per hour. Wages for migrant workers are set by state and federal standards.
Foreign laborers are permitted to stay a maximum of 10 months at vegetable and fruit farms, nurseries and greenhouses.
Employers pay transportation, housing and travel fees.
The Latin trend has picked up in the last decade, especially on dairy farms that used to be mostly family enterprises and aren't accounted for in the H2-A program. Dairy farm workers work year-round and are not seasonal employees.
10 percent of work force
On New York dairy farms, where there are 7,000 non-family employees, Hispanics make up at least 10 percent of the work force, up from near zero just five years ago, said Thomas Maloney, a senior extension associate at Cornell University.
"The agriculture industry in New York state goes down the tubes without these people," Glen Holt, supervisor of the state Labor Department Rural Services Program, told a group of nearly 50 area farmers recently at a forum in Saratoga Springs titled "Managing the Hispanic Workforce."
The forum was designed to encourage farmers to confront cultural issues like language, where they can get their foreign laborers ethnic food and how to help with issues such as sending their earnings back to Mexico.
"I've been picking Spanish up," said Sean Galvin, a 30-year-old dairy herd manager who grew up in Troy and now supervises four employees at Wagner Farms in Poestenkill. Three of them are from Mexico.
Galvin said the farm has been unable to hire domestic workers for the last five years.
The workers milk the farm's 300 cows three times a day and do the hard work of cleaning out the barns and operating the farm's heavy equipment. They also provide vaccinations for the herd.
Mallory, the president of Agri-Placement Services of Macedon, N.Y., said the percentage of workers at fruit and vegetable farms in the Finger Lakes region was roughly 60 percent Hispanic and 40 percent American and non-Hispanic when he worked for the state in 1991.
"By the time I left in 1999, that percentage was probably 80/20, and it may be 90 percent now," said Mallory, who now fixes up farmers across New York, Vermont, Connecticut and Pennsylvania with Mexican and Guatemalan workers.
Hispanic workers are also popular on apple farms, although they are increasingly being joined by Jamaicans, who specialize in apple picking, farmers say.
On dairy and vegetable farms, Mexicans generally work in the Hudson Valley and Capital Region, while Guatemalans are more likely to work in Central New York, state Labor Department officials said.
Critics of the H2-A program cite its slowness, both in terms of responding to farmer's labor needs and in modernizing the legalization process for foreign workers.
"Fraudulent documents are just pervasive," Maslyn said. "If the grower doesn't ask enough or too many questions, he's in trouble."
If undocumented workers were counted, the number of Hispanic migrant workers would be much larger, experts say.
In Stillwater, Griffen's 20-person work force now consists of 25 percent Mexican labor. She said the biggest pitfall in hiring the foreign workers each year is fulfilling the government regulations surrounding the programs. Like all H2-A participants, Griffen must prove she has exhausted a search for American workers before applying for foreign labor.
"Labor is difficult to find," Griffen said. "People aren't willing to do this type of work for 12 to 15 hours a day."
The workers from Mexico have learned very quickly how to stack, cut and mow grass.
"It's not cheap labor. It's good labor," Griffen said.