Workers weed strawberry rows outside Salinas, California, March 20, 2012 (Photo: AP)
Many large farms in Northern California's Salinas Valley (nicknamed "America's salad bowl") rely on seasonal workers from rural Mexico to pick crops including lettuce, celery and spinach.
Those workers "seem destined for a life in the fields," Kirk Siegler writes on NPR, but there's a program in the area that's helping some of them start their own farms and businesses.
The Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) "provides educational and business opportunities for farm workers and aspiring farmers to grow and sell crops," according to its website.
The program offers workers the opportunity to lease farmland at very low rates, provides them with training in organic farm management, and gives them fertilizer and tools for irrigation.
Once a grower is producing crops on the land, he or she can sell it back to the ALBA cooperative, which does business with many grocery stores in the Bay Area.
Ideally, program participants will start to make enough money from crops to invest in more land and hire other workers.
"It gives them a chance to take a bit of control of their lives, and not have to work for somebody else," Nathan Harkleroad, the head of ALBA's training programs, told NPR.
A worker passes by a lettuce field near Salinas, California (Photo: Reuters)
But he admits the program doesn't work out for all the workers who participate: "Is everyone going to make it? Probably not," he said.
ALBA only offers the low-cost leases on farmland for a few years. After that, the farm workers must find the money to pay full price for land.
Some of the workers who have gone through the program have managed to start their own farms: 90 ALBA graduates are now business owners in their own right. The program's been running since 2002.
Gail Wadsworth, the head of the California Institute for Rural Studies and an advocate for the rights of farm workers, is skeptical of the program.
She says that while farm work is hard and low-paying, it may be more secure than trying to start a business.
"Agricultural work is physically very demanding," she says. "It's one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. But you're not risking everything that you own basically. You don't have the risk of owning land or a business."
Wadsworth's observations about the dangers of farm work are underscored in a study of migrant workers in seven California communities.
Carried out by the Institute for Rural Studies, the report found that agricultural workers had an "alarmingly high risk" of heart disease, stroke, hypertension and diabetes.
"It is a travesty that the families who produce such an abundance of healthy food for our tables suffer from a poor diet and limited or nonexistent health care," said Robert Ross, president and chief executive officer of The California Endowment.
And low pay is a major problem among U.S. farm workers. According to the National Farm Worker Ministry, a farm workers advocacy group, "farm workers have the lowest annual family incomes of any U.S. wage and salary workers."
In the period from 2007-2009, 23 per cent of U.S. farm workers had a total family income level below the poverty line, a National Agricultural Workers Survey found.
In Canada, the majority of migrant farm workers come to the country through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP).
As of 2012, the wage for a SAWP worker in Ontario was $10.25 an hour, CBC reports.