Farmerworkers' Health Problems Increase As Workforce Gets Older : The Salt As the number of immigrants available for farm work has dwindled in California, many who are left are older, and suffer from health problems related to decades of difficult labor.

Health Risks To Farmworkers Increase As Workforce Ages

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President Trump often talks about getting tough on illegal immigration, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border. But authorities actually have been clamping down on that since the administration of President George W. Bush. And that has led to some unexpected results, among them the farm workers who are harvesting the nation's crops are overall older and struggling with health problems caused by decades of physical labor. Sarah Varney has our story.

SARAH VARNEY: That bag of frozen cauliflower sitting inside your freezer likely sprang to life here in a vast field north of Salinas, Calif. A crew of men and women use a machine to drop seedlings into the black soil. Another group follows behind stooped over, tapping each new plant. It's back-breaking, repetitive work, 10-hour days that start in the cold, dark mornings and end in the searing afternoon heat.

Brent McKinsey, a third-generation farmer and one of the owners at Mission Ranches, surveys his freshly planted fields. He has over 7,500 acres here and grows vegetables for major retailers like Costco and Walmart. But with fewer younger farmworkers coming from Mexico, McKinsey relies largely on older immigrants, who after years of demanding physical work are aging and slowing down.

BRENT MCKINSEY: The slowdown is happening. You could just see your production drop. But it's difficult to really manage because there's not - the younger people aren't wanting to come in and work in this industry.

VARNEY: Gonzalo Picazo Lopez limps down a side street in Salinas.

GONZALO PICAZO LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARNEY: After a long day hunched over cutting and bunging mustard leaves, the pain shooting down his leg is acting up. Lopez has been working in the fields since the 1970s, when he crossed over from Mexico. At 67 years old he looks time-worn with silver hair and a white beard. Deep lines mark his face.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARNEY: As Lopez describes how he carefully picks the leaves with his right hand and bunches with his left, he opens and closes his fingers with difficulty.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: He says that in 2015 his left hand started to hurt. He went into work one morning and his hand was cold - ice cold.

VARNEY: Lopez is now a citizen and has Medicare. He hopes to work for almost another decade until his wife, who is 61 and picks broccoli, can collect her Social Security. Chronic pain is a common complaint at Clinica de Salud in Salinas. Nearly all of the patients at this community clinic are farm workers or their children. Many don't have health insurance and pay what they can for medical care. Those fortunate enough to have immigration papers rely on Medicaid.


ORALIA MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARNEY: Oralia Marquez, a physician's assistant here, says older farmworkers often develop arthritis, back pain, foot infections and breathing problems from pesticides.


MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

VARNEY: Many of her patients, like Amalia Buitron Deaguilera, are also struggling with diabetes. Deaguilera is 63. She has Medicaid for insurance, but she's losing her vision from the disease.

MARQUEZ: When she was working in the fields she never had time to take care of herself, herself and her health.

VARNEY: Health workers in the fields often can't take their insulin because they have no place to refrigerate it, says Marquez. And they miss doctor's appointments during the busy harvesting seasons because many don't get paid when they don't work.

MARQUEZ: Most of our patients want just something to relieve from the pain and to continue working. Most of the time they don't ask for disability. They don't ask for days off. They say that they don't have time to miss days.

VARNEY: Field laborers often delay care, which can lead to serious medical problems. Older Latino farmworkers are much more likely to end up in the hospital compared to older whites, according to researchers at the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State.

Back at Mission Ranches, owner Brent McKinsey says faced with an aging and dwindling workforce, farmers are trying to mechanize planting and harvesting and reduce their labor needs.

MCKINSEY: The guys would come up to this piece of sprinkler pipe.

VARNEY: But machines can only do so much, he says. You can replace the human hand in a factory perhaps. But out here the fields are bumpy and the winds are strong, and you need people to bring the plants to life. I'm Sarah Varney in Salinas, Calif.


Sarah Varney is with our partner, Kaiser Health News.

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