Hot times in the fields Watsonville group works to protect farmworkers from climate change

Regeneración marching | Provided photo

By Kathryn McKenzie

Some of the world’s poorest and most marginalized populations are also those most affected by climate change. Extreme weather created Hurricane Maria, for instance, which devastated Puerto Rico; Hurricane Dorian just sideswiped the U.S. territory. African countries are suffering in prolonged droughts, and island nations like the Maldives are disappearing under rising seas.

Yet to many Americans, all of this often seems far away and not of immediate importance. In the mild weather of the Central Coast, it seems even more remote.

But climate change is turning up the heat here as well. Just ask local farmworkers, who are enduring more dangerous and hotter days while working out in the fields.

The Watsonville-based environmental nonprofit Regeneración-Pajaro Valley Climate Action is shining a light on the social justice aspect of climate change, most vividly through the Farmworker Reality Tour that is slated for Sunday, Sept. 8, and is co-presented by Regeneración and the Center for Farmworker Families.

Regeneración is also working to make changes at the state and local levels to protect farmworkers’ rights in a world that is rapidly warming. In addition to having to work through an increasing number of hot days, farmworkers also are more likely to be breathing smoke during harvest time, as they did during last year’s unprecedented wildfires in California.

“As we talk to more people, we hear more stories,” said Regeneración executive director Nancy Faulstich, who helped conduct a grassroots survey of Watsonville residents to find out if they, their families or people they knew have had problems working in adverse climate conditions. Three-quarters of the respondents in the 2017-18 survey said they had experienced symptoms from extreme heat at work, such as fainting or dehydration.

That survey became the basis for a policy analysis published in May by CSU-Monterey Bay environmental science professor Dr. Victoria Derr, her students Caitlin Becerra and Kianni Ledesma and others from Derr’s research and methods class. The analysis found that local governments and the state haven’t adequately planned for changing climate as it affects farmworkers, and makes recommendations for change, including providing public transportation options for farmworkers and more consistent monitoring of farmworkers’ health on the job.

And these are not minor inconveniences. Heat-related illnesses can kill people, according to a 2018 article in Mother Jones, with the organization Public Citizen reporting nearly 70,000 serious injuries from heat and 783 deaths among outdoors workers between 1992 and 2016.

Migrant laborers, immigrants and non-English speakers are often reluctant to report heat illnesses or seek medical attention for fear of being deported. The nature of the work, too, is problematic, said Faulstich: Because people are paid by the box or piece, they know that they’ll lose money if they rest.

“Water and shade has to be supplied (according to California regulations passed in 2005), but because it’s piecework, people don’t want to take breaks,” said Faulstich. Workers even resist drinking adequate amounts of water because they don’t want to take time going to the bathroom, she said. Chronic dehydration has been linked to kidney stones, high blood pressure, urinary tract infections and reduced kidney function.

In the Pajaro Valley, extreme temperatures are still relatively rare, but the nature of some agricultural work can make it hotter. Inside the hoop houses that are set up for growing berries, for instance, temperatures can be 15 degrees warmer than outside, said Faulstich.

“I cannot imagine being inside them for hours,” she said.

Attention to farmworker rights is just one aspect of Regeneración, founded in early 2016 through a series of conversations with community leaders, and spearheaded by Faulstich. A former bilingual kindergarten teacher, she had become increasingly concerned about climate change after giving birth to her daughter, now 11.

“I really got it,” said Faulstich. “I have a child who could potentially be alive in 2100.” With so many dire predictions for the years to come, Faulstich vowed to make a difference any way she could.

She also was aware of the need to include many diverse voices in the discussion of climate change.

“The majority of people get that something’s different and wrong” with the climate, she said. “But they can’t explain why. They don’t have that basic understanding. Or they don’t realize the urgency, that’s there’s just a short window of time in which to act.”

Faulstich said part of the problem is that climate change is a huge problem, and is so spread out. “It’s hard for people to grasp what’s happening, and to hold in mind the big picture,” she said.

And yet, despite the predictions and the challenges of change, she has hope.

“The climate crisis presents us the opportunity to set right what has gone wrong in our societies for hundreds of years. It’s clear we need to end divisions between individuals and groups if we are to succeed at making the sweeping changes needed to rapidly lower emissions and maintain a livable planet.”

One way in which she and her team are getting the word out is through neighborhood “Healthy Children for a Healthy Planet” resource fairs that are held in or near housing complexes, making it more convenient for people to attend and learn about the environment. Information is presented in English and Spanish by volunteers from other local organizations and programs, helping people connect with low-cost solar programs and electric vehicle information, and there are also fun activities like yoga classes and free food.

Regeneración also partners with the Watsonville Film Festival on presenting environmental justice films and a high school video project, and on tree planting projects with Watsonville Wetlands Watch. A mural project completed in 2017 shows a future living without fossil fuels. And alliances with other community organizations, such as Community Bridges and the Pajaro Valley Health Trust, have also been vital.

The service learning partnership with CSUMB has also been an important step forward, says Faulstich, because the analysis done by Derr and her class gives important facts and statistics that can be handed to policymakers, with the goal of effecting change at local, state and national levels.

The Farmworker Reality Tour on Sept. 8 is an up-close-and-personal way to get to know the issues. The tour, which will be held at a local farm, includes a lecture on immigration and farmworker issues in addition to testimony by workers. A picking demonstration and tour of a migrant camp will conclude with a homemade dinner at the camp.

Faulstich said that farmworkers are not the only group of people affected by climate change, and points to the fact that Central Coast schools, by and large, do not have air conditioning. That means students, teachers and school staff will also suffer during the hotter days.

“It’s important for people just to talk about this,” said Faulstich. “They need to know what it is, why it happens, and to push for community and government action.”

And as far as people making a difference through individual actions, the most important things they can do, said Faulstich, are to reduce their vehicle emissions — by buying electric vehicles, riding bikes or using public transportation, for instance — and to eat a more plant-based and locally-grown diet.

September will be a busy month for Regeneración. In addition to the Farmworker Reality Tour, the organization is hosting a Youth Climate Rally on Sept. 20, from 3:30 to 6 p.m. at Watsonville’s City Plaza Park, and on Sept. 25, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., an open house to celebrate the opening of its new office inside the Plaza Vigil Center at 23 E. Beach St.

That day will also mark the launch of Regeneración’s Heat Stress Awareness and Prevention campaign, with community partners from governments and nonprofits speaking at the event.

More information on upcoming events is available at Regeneración’s Facebook page.

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Kathryn McKenzie

About Kathryn McKenzie

Kathryn McKenzie grew up in Santa Cruz, worked for the Monterey Herald for 10 years, and now freelances for a variety of publications and websites. She and husband Glenn Church are the co-authors of "Humbled: How California's Monterey Bay Escaped Industrial Ruin" (Vista Verde Publishing, 2020).