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Cultural Understanding 

Seeing is believing

Cow farmers, or shall I say dairy farmers, in the state of Wisconsin have been hiring Hispanic workers since the late 1990s. Even though 40 percent of all farm workers in the United States today are Hispanic, this represents a trend of Mexican farm labor migrating to the northern states and transitioning from crop picking to dairy farming.

As a result, Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, another state that continues the trend of hiring Hispanic labor for dairy farms, is working with a Wisconsin-based nonprofit program called Puentes (Bridges), which provides cross-cultural education for dairy farmers and their employees. The program offers farm owners the opportunity to travel to Mexico to learn about their employees' culture. Similar cross-border programs for farmers exist in Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

Cornell took its first group of farmers across the border last month, bouncing in vans on unpaved roads into a central Mexican village where the living conditions were, to put it mildly, very different from those in Wisconsin.

"Down there, they're grinding out a living the way we used to farm in this country 70 or 80 years ago," said Thomas Maloney, the Cornell extension associate who arranged the trip. "Once you go and see it, you understand why people travel 3,000 miles for a job [in the US]."

What exactly is this "once you go and see it" academic crap? I'm glad Cornell is spending money on this, and I'm hoping that with a little deeper knowledge of the realities of rural Mexico -- for example, that the government subsidizes crops but wages are measly, regardless of the crop quality or outcome -- US farmers will improve working conditions and increase Hispanic dairy workers' average pay, which is $7.50 an hour.

Wisconsin also has a program that offers English-language classes to Hispanic farm workers. This not only helps close the cultural gap, but it helps improve the farms' productivity. Since productivity equals profit, good workers who learn English can increase their own income with bonuses they receive. In addition, the Wisconsin farmers are learning a little Spanish. Everybody is happy. Everybody wins. But why do people from Cornell University need to help these farmers find a way to understand that other human beings' basic needs are for the good of a whole community? Shouldn't that be obvious?

Farms are like small, isolated communities where employers and employees bond in a special way because they tend to live and work together so closely. They are one of the few remnants of what an extended family used to be, with its good values and clear, linear social structure in which the farmer plays a sort of father figure.

That's why I believe those farmers in Wisconsin could have reached the same conclusions and solutions by just spending time with their employees. But for some reason, the United States has reached the point where it needs scholars to go help people of the land -- people who often have a better sense of right and wrong than most -- understand that immigrants who travel so far for work do so out of hunger and need, and in most cases are willing to work and learn to advance in their life in this new country.

I hope North Carolina farmers don't need this extreme amount of help to achieve an understanding of humanity that should be obvious.

Hernan Mena, a native of Mexico, is associate editor of the regional Hispanic weekly newspaper, Que Pasa.

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