On The Farm, An Immigrant's Work Is Never Done

Norteno music blares through the dark, dripping rooms where workers straddle stacked beds of manure piled eight feet high, carefully picking the mature mushrooms from among the plentitude of round white caps sprouting in the musty black material.

Among the names scrawled on each stack of beds are Gustavo, Aidee, Efrain, Ramos. Signs reminding workers to wash their hands are printed in English, Spanish and Laotian.

The workers at the Monterey Mushrooms plant in the tiny town of DePue, Ill. are predominantly Mexican. They operate forklifts in a vast warehouse of steaming piles of manure; man assembly lines where mushrooms are sliced, diced, sorted and shrink-wrapped with mind-boggling speed; drive little trains pulling stacks of mushroom-filled cartons through damp, dark hallways; and pile packaged mushrooms in 35-degree cooling rooms.

In the special section for portabella mushrooms, many of the workers are also Laotian women. This is a glimpse of the modern face of much of the farming industry, and of immigration, in the American Midwest.

With the wide-scale automation of farming practices, from plowing and seeding to packaging, the need for manual labor in the industry has significantly decreased. But there are some jobs that will probably never become automated, like straddling the stacks of mushroom beds to select the mature mushrooms in groups of three and snipping their stems off, while leaving the non-mature caps intact.

Whether it is mushroom farming, apple picking or detassling corn, these remaining non-automated farming jobs are the hardest of the hard, entailing long hours of intense physical labor in less than comfortable environments, like the stinking manure warehouse or the freezing storage rooms. Not surprisingly, the majority of white people and other American citizens don't want these jobs. So they are left for immigrants, many of them undocumented and fleeing dire economic and political situations in Latin America, Africa or Asia.

"Anything mechanized is still done by Anglos, while anything that cannot be mechanized is done by immigrants," said Louise Cainkar, a researcher with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR). "Corn harvesting is still done by Anglos, because that's a mechanized process. But immigrants are detassling, the part of production that still has to be done manually. The manual aspects of agriculture and meat processing are done mostly by immigrants."

From Cities to Farms

A recent study by the ICIRR found that in many small towns, the population of Latinos has increased many-fold in the past decade as immigrants and refugees have come for farm work like the mushroom factory. The number of people from the Middle East, Asia and Africa who have moved into small midwestern towns has also risen significantly. For example, in Illinois the Latino population grew 34.6 percent and the Asian population by 36.4 percent between 1990 and 1998. In Iowa, the Latino population grew a whopping 73.5 percent. The Latino population of Ohio has increased 27.5 percent between 1990 and 1998, while the Asian population increased 38 percent. While some of this increase is in major cities like Chicago and Cleveland, a large percent of the increase is in small farming towns like DePue.

"In the last 10 years there's been a major increase in immigration to the U.S. in general and also parallel to that a major shift to areas away from the big cities," said Cainkar. "They're going to areas like Iowa and Nebraska where a lot of immigrants didn't used to go."

For example in tiny Arcola, Ill. Latino immigrants are employed making the town's famous Amish brooms. In Joslin, near the Quad Cities, hundreds of Latino immigrants as well as Bosnian and African refugees work at a meatpacking plant. In southern Illinois many immigrants come to pick apples, and in central Illinois immigrants work in corn mills and other types of farming or food processing.

This quick growth has led to growing pains and racial tensions in some areas, as well as cultural fusion. In Rockford, Ill., a Laotian temple housed in a farmhouse has been burned down and attacked by long-time residents twice.

"It can be hard, there's some tension, you hear comments like 'What are you bringing these people in for?'" said Ann Grove, director of the Moline, Ill. Office of World Relief, which helps resettle refugees from Africa and other countries. "But most people are supportive, and employers are amazed at their work ethic."

Taming Tensions

A group of Latinos gathered in a lakefront park in DePue, which was once a port of entry for immigrants including Slovenians, Italians and Irish, and talked about some tensions with residents of European descent.

"When my mother and father first got here, it was difficult," said Felisitas Garetto, 68, whose parents came to the U.S. from a small town in Jalisco called Lagos de Moreno. "They didn't want Hispanics here. But it doesn't make sense for them to look down on us because they were from somewhere else also. It's not like they were native born from DePue."

There are only about 1,600 people in DePue, which is known mainly for its yearly speedboat races. Monterey Mushrooms employs about 500 people, from DePue as well as surrounding small towns including LaSalle, Peru and Ottawa. About three quarters of the Monterey workers are Mexican, according to workers and supervisors.

"There are only two American [Anglo] women in harvesting, the same number as when I first started here," said Delores Cain, the harvesting supervisor, who has been at the factory for more than 20 years.

"The work is too hard for them [Anglos]," added Alfredo Godizes, another harvesting supervisor. DePue is typical of many small towns throughout the Midwest, where the promise of jobs lures scores of people from Mexico and around this country.

"Most people I know came to work at the mushroom plant," said Francisco Ramirez, a relative of Garetto who came to DePue six years ago from Lagos de Moreno. Ramirez said he considered applying for work at Monterey, but friends convinced him to get a job where more English-speakers work, so he could practice the language.

"I used to pick tomatoes and grapes in California," said Jose Madrigal, 39, whose brother works in the mushroom plant. "Then my brother said to come over here to pick mushrooms. The Mexican community makes it easier to come here. We would help each other out, with sandwiches, tortillas, clothes."

The Monterey plant sells about 400,000 pounds of mushrooms each week to clients like Jewel, Domino's Pizza and even the U.S. Army. It is not unionized, but pay is relatively good. The pickers work piecemeal, which most say they like, and earn an average of $10 an hour working seven to 12 hour days. Pay is about $9 an hour for packing, wharf and assembly line jobs, according to human resources manager Michelle Rispoli.

The plant is essentially the lifeblood of the town, supporting a small but vital majority Mexican community that includes two Mexican grocery stores, a Catholic church with masses in Spanish, a tiny public library and a few bars in the downtown. There is a section of the town called "White City" which was formerly home to white residents and now houses many Mexicans. The name refers not to race but to the fine white dust that settles on cars from the nearby factories.

Migrants and Amnesty

Heavy industry as well as farming is part of the local fabric in DePue, as in many small towns. That means that immigrants in these rural areas, like immigrants in the poorer areas of major cities, suffer the de facto effects of environmental racism. They say the once-clear lake is contaminated by silt and pollution from steel plants and factories in the area. The zinc smelting plant was shut down by the EPA for environmental violations, and residents report remediation has still not been completed on the heaps of slag that sit next to the town.

When the zinc plant closed up, DePue residents looked for jobs outside the town, commuting as much as two hours to Joliet, Moline or other areas.

The local economy got a boost when Mobil and a few other factories opened up. Then, 25 years ago, Monterey moved in. The cycle continues, as last year Monterey had about 40 percent turnover because of workers moving to the newly built Wal-Mart regional distribution center. As with Monterey, many people in Mexico heard about jobs at Wal-Mart and migrated north specifically for that reason. While in the past many immigrants would go first to a major industrial city like Chicago and then branch out into rural areas, now many are skipping the traditional port-of-entry cities and heading straight for towns like DePue where they often have family members or contacts.

"It's all word of mouth," said Cainkar. "They're coming here to work and raise money for their families, so they come when they hear about jobs."

A recent report by the Illinois Migrant Council noted that there are 32,000 migrant farmworkers in agriculture in Illinois this year. Earlier this year Bush had actually proposed eliminating the National Farmworker Jobs Program, which provides emergency job training services including English as a Second Language to farmworkers. But funding for the program was restored by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Before Sept. 11, President Bush was actively engaged in talks with Mexican president Vicente Fox about loosening border restrictions on immigrant workers, including migrant farmworkers. Many thought the two were close to reaching a more liberal immigration agreement. But the terrorist attacks and ensuing crackdowns on immigration make it unlikely that migrant workers will enjoy amnesty any time soon.

Whether the government liberalizes laws affecting undocumented migrant workers or not, the fact is that the farming industry wouldn't be able to proceed as it is today without the labor of immigrants, including scores of undocumented workers who in places like DePue often end up buying houses and becoming permanent fixtures in new cultural hybrid communities.


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