In 1996, I took a course offered through Duke University and the Center for Documentary Studies titled “Into the Fields.  Farmworkers in North and South Carolina.”  During the class I learned about something that I had never really paid much attention to:  farmworkers.  I had heard of farmworkers but I just assumed they were people who worked on a farm.  The word “farmworker” didn’t conjure up any images in my mind.

It turns out that many farmworkers are actually more like indentured servants and slaves than workers.   Many farmworkers are brought here through the H-2A “guest worker” program that allows them to come to the U.S. and work in the fields.  The H-2A program has some basic requirements to protect the workers from exploitation, however they are rarely enforced.  Farmworkers often arrive with large debts that are incurred during the recruiting.  When problems arise, workers are hesitant to speak up for fear of losing their jobs and being blacklisted from the program.  Living in remote areas with limited transportation and facing a language barrier compound the problem. 

When the class was over, I had the opportunity to become an intern with Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF).  What I learned in the classroom was something I was able to go out and see first hand. 

Farmworkers live well below the poverty line and are among the most marginalized people in the world.  They are exposed to extreme summer temperatures and work in pesticide covered fields earning piece rate instead of an hourly wage.  Workers often live in run down, overcrowded shacks that lack even the most basic necessities.  As a result, farmworker health is similar to what one would find in Third World countries. 

By the end of the summer, I realized a few basic things.  Small family farms have been replaced by gigantic agricultural corporations who determine how much they are going to pay for the crops before they are even planted.   The primary goal of the corporation is to maximize its profits, even if it is at the expense of the workers.  As for the farmworkers, even though many of the people I encountered were in unthinkable circumstances and surroundings, they simply wanted to provide for their families, at any cost.

Now when I hear the word “farmworker”, lots of images come to mind--some good, some bad.  I feel fortunate to have had this experience and that I can share it with others.  This is how these pictures came to be.


Photography by Chris Johnson

“It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.”

--Cesar Chavez