Taste

Riveting Photos Of Migrant Workers Remind Us Who Really Harvests Our Food

"They feed America."
03/22/2016 11:04am ET | Updated March 22, 2016

Much of what you eat -- from the onions and eggs in your omelet to the kale salad you posted on Instagram -- came to you by the hands of migrant workers.

Migrant labor is relied upon all over the world and is just about as old as civilization itself, "a global flux as complex and shifting as weather, with nations of fewer resources off-loading their ambitious working poor and relying on the money that comes back in their place," as reporter Cynthia Gorney described it in National Geographic.

It's a nomadic existence dictated in many ways by the seasons. The work is temporary, so the workers are notoriously undervalued by employers and underrepresented in the field. They rarely have rights nor unions to represent them, many are afraid of reporting abuse, and the average migrant worker makes only make about $10,000 a year in the U.S.

Sometimes migrant workers are pushed into the work by violence in their home country, such as those fleeing Syria to escape violence brought by ISIS and the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Others seek migrant work for economic reasons, sending much of what they make back home to their families.

Odelia Chavez, a mother of three from Mexico, found work picking cherries, blueberries and grapes for raisins on farms in Madera, California. In 2013, she explained what her life was like to Modern Farmer:

"On all the harvests, men and women work side-by-side doing the same job, and women work just as fast as the men. ... You come home really tired. I’ll come home, take a shower, put lotion on my hot feet, and be ready for the next day. I’m usually in bed by 9:00 to get up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning to make and pack some tacos for the day. Also, undocumented workers don’t have any medical insurance -- so the majority of us just buy over-the-counter pills for any problems. Luckily, I haven’t had many health issues yet."

While migrant labor is found in many sectors -- room service, entertainment, and electrical repair, for example -- we focus here on agriculture to be reminded of who really harvests our food and the conditions in which they work.

California: Lettuce
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A Mexican agricultural worker cultivates lettuce on a farm in Holtville, California.
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Thousands of Mexican workers cross the border legally each night from Mexicali, Mexico into Calexico, California, where they pick up work as agricultural day laborers in California's fertile Imperial Valley.
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Mexican farm workers commute each day from Mexicali to work in the fields for about $9 an hour, which many local U.S. residents shun as too low pay.
Kentucky: Tobacco
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Migrant workers participate in the U.S. Department of Labor's H-2A temporary agricultural program, which allows agricultural employers to hire temporary help for seasonal work.
Indiana: Watermelons
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Migrant workers harvest watermelon from an irrigated farm field in a drought-stricken region of Indiana in 2012. Indiana is one of the nation's largest producers of watermelon.
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A migrant worker harvests watermelon from an irrigated farm field in Indiana.
Colorado: Organic Parsley
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Mexican immigrant workers harvest organic parsley at Grant Family Farms in Wellington, Colorado. Although the farm requires proof of legal immigration status from its employees, undocumented migrant workers frequently obtain falsified permits in order to work throughout the U.S. Many farmers nationwide say they have found it nearly impossible to hire American citizens for labor-intensive seasonal farm work.
California: Strawberries
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Migrant workers harvest strawberries at a farm near Oxnard, California.
Illinois: Pumpkins
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Juan de la Cruz, second from right, checks pumpkins as migrant workers put them in the box at the pumpkin farm in Cissna Park, Illinois, in 2007. Cruz, who lives in Texas after he emigrated from Mexico, has been coming to Illinois during the summer for the last 40 years for migrant work.
Colorado: Organic Kale
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Mexican migrant workers harvest organic kale at Grant Family Farms in Wellington, Colorado.
Colorado: Organic Zucchini
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A migrant farm worker from Mexico harvests organic zucchini while working at the Grant Family Farms, the largest organic vegetable farm outside of California. It hires some 250 immigrant workers during the peak harvest season. "They feed America," owner Andy Grant said of immigrant workers in 2011. "They should not be victimized." At the time, he said his workers start at $7.25, which was the minimum wage in Colorado (it is now $8.31).
Colorado: Organic Spinach
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Migrant farm workers from Mexico harvest organic spinach while working at Grant Family Farms.
Colorado: Organic Cilantro
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Mexican migrant workers carry boxes of organic cilantro in Colorado.
Colorado: Onions
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18-month-old Vanessa Torrez sleeps in a field at Mayer Farm in Colorado where her mother, Veronica, a Mexican migrant worker, picked onions.
Thailand: Oolong Tea
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A Burmese laborer works in a tea plantation in Mae Salong. While the plantations are owned and run by Chinese Thais, much of the fieldwork is done by migrant Burmese labor.
Germany: White Asparagus
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Polish migrant workers harvest white asparagus from an asparagus field at the Buschmann und Winkelmann Spargelhof Klaistow asparagus farm in Germany.
Sean Gallup via Getty Images
Polish migrant workers load boxes of freshly-harvested white asparagus onto a truck at the Buschmann und Winkelmann Spargelhof Klaistow asparagus farm in Germany.
Sean Gallup via Getty Images
A Polish migrant worker brings a box of white asparagus he just harvested from an asparagus field to a truck at the Buschmann und Winkelmann Spargelhof.
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Polish migrant workers harvest white asparagus from an asparagus field at the Buschmann und Winkelmann Spargelhof Klaistow.
Maine: Broccoli
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Mexican laborers cut broccoli stalks for Smith Farms in Maine as the harvest season gets underway. In 2006, Smith Farms employed over 150 migrant workers to help in their harvest of both broccoli and potatoes.
Mexico: Migrants Travel Between Farms
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With their belongings piled high on the back of a pick-up truck, a migrant family of 14 travels the road to a farm pueblo near Leon, Guanajuato. Those on the tailgate secured themselves with ropes to avoid falling when they dozed off. Dozens of migrant pickers traveling in open vehicles like this have died in accidents across Mexico in recent years.
Mexico: A Migrant Child Takes Time Off
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Holding the shard of a broken mirror, 12-year-old Alejandrina Castillo dabs on lip gloss before she goes shopping in Teacapan, Mexico. In spite of her exhausting days in the fields and a nomadic lifestyle, the migrant child farm worker takes pride in her appearance.
Brazil: Migrant Slave Workers Rest
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Slave workers at the Macauba Ranch in the state of Para rest in their hammocks after a Brazilian anti-slavery team raided the farm in the eastern Amazon jungle. Like many slave workers, the men are migrant workers from Brazil's poorest state, Piaui, and were brought more than a thousand miles to the ranch with promises of big pay and only a verbal agreement.
Florida: Oranges
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A migrant worker picks oranges at a grove in Bradenton, Florida. Much of the agriculture work in the area, including winter vegetables and citrus fruits, are planted, harvested and processed by immigrants, both legal and illegal.
Jordan: Drinking Tea On The Farm
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Bashir, 23, pours tea for members of his family inside their tent on a farm where his family and other Syrian refugees work near Dier Alla, Jordan.
Turkey: Syrian Refugee Children On A Farm
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Syrian refugee Vermin and sister Yasmin work at a farm in Kilis, Turkey. Kilis a city located just 6 miles from the Syrian border and the location of the Oncupinar Border crossing has been Turkey's frontline during the refugee crisis.
Turkey: Carrots
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Syrian refugees who escaped from the Syrian civil war work in the carrot farm in Hatay, Turkey.
Colorado: Mexican Migrant Workers Take A Break
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Migrant farm workers from Mexico take a break while working at the Grant Family Farms in Wellington, Colorado. The farm was the largest organic vegetable farm outside of California.
Greece: Strawberries
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A migrant fruit picker holds up a carton of strawberries inside a greenhouse in Nea Manolada, Greece. Nea Manolada was a quiet village in southern Greece, unknown to many, until a strike by "strawberry slaves" exposed the dark underbelly of one of the country's key economic sectors.
Punjab: Rice
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Migrant labourers from Bihar work in the paddy fields near Chandigarh in Punjab. Forced by the shortage of farm hands during 2008's crucial sowing and transplantation season, farmers in Punjab have doubled the wages of migrant workers from Bihar in 2009.