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Migrant worker Francisco Pacheco shows his calloused hands before eating his dinner at the Child & Migrant Services' Despedida at Veterans' Memorial Park in Palisade, Colo., on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. The annual farewell party honors migrant agricultural workers. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Francisco Pacheco is in his 39th year working the peach orchards around Palisade.

He was 17 when he first took a bus from his home in Sonora, Mexico, to join a seasonal crew pruning, thinning and picking peaches. He is about to wrap up a year that has been particularly tough because of sweltering heat and a bumper crop. There have been many 10-plus-hour shifts and too few days off.

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Ask him how difficult that work is, and he simply holds out his large hands in answer. The palms are yellowed with callouses and as thick and tough as a heavy pair of leather gloves.

“Hay muchos duraznos,” he says – there are many peaches needing to be picked.

That is particularly true this year because the harvest was delayed by unusually cool spring weather. For Pacheco and some of the hundreds of other migrant farm workers in Colorado’s prime peach country, that delay means they still have weeks of picking left. They are in the thick of a harvest that would usually be winding down. For some growers, it means peaches might be left on trees because some of the workers’ visas are expiring and they must return to their home countries before the harvest is complete.

But for one evening, such headaches are set aside. Dozens of workers are enjoying a break — a party in their honor. They are lounging at tables in a town park in Palisade in their Sunday shirts as the muffled sounds of Norteña music thumps from a portable speaker, and as a phalanx of volunteers fusses over trays of tacos, beans, rice and salads.

A box of fresh peaches in Palisade. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

This is the “despedida” — the annual farewell party a grateful community has been hosting for more than two decades to say “thank you” to the laborers who have come so far to work so hard to make the fruit harvest possible. 

In an era blighted by go-back-where-you-came from politics, this party plays out like an old-fashioned, culture-melding community celebration.

Girls swirl in colorful traditional Mexican folk-dance dresses. Young Hispanic men kick soccer balls or dig in their heels for a game of tug-of-war as older workers watch from under the brims of cowboy hats or ball caps.

A large sheet cake decorated with frosting peach trees and puffy clouds and a “gracias” message printed across the blue sky waits in the shade. 

Social changes in Mexico are narrowing the pool of migrant workers

Harry Talbott, the blunt-speaking patriarch of Talbott Farms, the largest peach operation in Colorado, has also found a spot under a cottonwood where he can make sure the celebration is going as planned.

 “Without these workers, we would not have a peach harvest in Colorado,” he said. “Period.”

Peaches require hands like Pacheco’s. They are too delicate to be picked by machine. But the number of migrant workers to pick peaches and other non-mechanized crops is falling behind the demand.

The Western Growers Association estimates that more and more of the 1.1 million  to 1.4 million immigrant workers living in the United States are moving away from onerous farm labor and on to jobs in construction, landscaping, oil fields or restaurants. The American Farm Bureau counted only 243,000 workers in the country on temporary visas last year to help fill 2.4 million farm jobs. A bureau survey found that 40% of farmers have been unable to hire enough workers in the past five years.  

Most farm workers now come in to the country for temporary shifts under the H-2A visa system. H-2A visas allow agricultural workers to come for specific periods of time. They are complicated and unwieldy for growers. Growers are forced to guess what Mother Nature will do because they have to lock in numbers of workers and dates for their employment months before they are needed.

That is why this year some growers are having to send workers home while peaches still hang on the trees. Others, like the Talbott’s, guessed right and staggered their H-2A crews so there are some workers remaining to pick a late crop.

The numbers of H-2A workers are dropping because of demographic shifts in Mexico, where most of the workers come from. Mexico is becoming more urbanized so there aren’t as many youngsters growing up on farms who are willing and able to do that kind of work. Mexican families, once known for large numbers of offspring, now average 2.15 children so worker ranks aren’t being replenished. The existing workers are getting older: Fifteen percent of migrant farm workers are now over the age of 55, a change reflected in the lined faces of many of the workers enjoying the despedida.

Julio Guirra, a migrant worker from Michoacan, Mexico, plays tug-of-war with other guests at the Child & Migrant Services’ Despedida. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Harry Talbott’s tenure in the peach orchards outdoes any of the workers’. This year is his 74th harvest and he took a turn at the portable microphone in the park to outline the difficult history of trying to find enough workers to pick fruit.

In the early days of Talbott Farms, family members did all the planting, irrigating, weeding, spraying, pruning, thinning and picking themselves. During World War II, when the domestic worker ranks were decimated, there was a bracero program that allowed millions of Mexican workers to come into the country to work in farm fields.

It was simple. The workers traveled around to various parts of the country where their labor was needed. But the program ended in 1964 in spite of the objections of many growers, including the Talbotts.

Toward the end of the war, German prisoners-of-war were brought in to augment the harvest crews. When the war ended, Midwestern wheat and grain farmers would come to make extra money during picking season. That was followed by African American crews from Southern states and by some short-lived American Indian crews.

Since the 1970s, Talbott said, they have been dependent on Mexican workers. This year they brought in 55 workers on H-2A visas after they did not receive any applications for orchard work from locals.

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$13.13 per hour in the U.S. shores up business at home

Showing appreciation for the immigrant workers has a long history around Palisade.

In 1954, Harry Talbott’s mother and some other Palisade-area farm women started the Child & Migrant Services program, the grant- and donation-funded organization that has been throwing the appreciative send-off for more than 20 years.

The center offers support services throughout the harvest season. Three nights a week, the center serves hot meals to worn-out workers. They send a van out to pick up those without vehicles. The workers can also get basic medical help, English language classes, interpretation aid, clothing donations and food pantry items.

“They don’t ask for much,” said Peg Martinez, the community health worker at the center. “And they are very appreciative of anything we do for them.”

Kay Sullivan, a regular volunteer at the center who was serving up carne asada at the party, said she does this volunteer work because, “We are enjoying the fruits of their labors, so it is nice to give back to them.”

The hard work for the laborers begins before they even reach the orchards. They must make 27- to 40-hour trips in vans and buses to reach Palisade. Many leave spouses and families behind in Mexico.

But the money they can make dragging peach-laden canvas sacks up and down ladders is better, by far, than what they can earn at home. This year, the mandated wage for H-2A workers in Colorado is $13.13 an hour — a 23% increase over last year.

Gianna Salinas, 15, dances with La Nueva Generación Baile Folklórico dance group during the Child & Migrant Services’ Despedida. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Working peaches for this kind of money allows them to build houses in Mexico, to send kids to college, to buy cars, to start businesses, to keep their own small farms going south of the border.

Francisca Vazquez has been packing fruit and working the orchards since 1998. She said her work has paid for her son’s college tuition back in Mexico. He is on track to graduate with a law degree in December. 

As Ivan Meza waits in line for ice cream, he explains why he came to pick peaches this year.

“I am happy to have this work. It is very hard, but it makes exercise for me. It is good for my health,” said the 30-year-old Meza, from San Luis Potosi.

He has a college degree and works at a desk job as a computer engineer in Mexico. But he said he earns six times more picking peaches than he does building computer systems. His plan is to work several seasons in the peaches so he can start his own computer business back home.

“They know our orchards better than I do”

David Perez, 49, has been coming from the State of Michoacán, Mexico, for 26 years. It has allowed him to build a house and it pays for his daughters’ education. He works in construction there — work, he says, that is harder and much less lucrative than picking peaches.

Harry’s son Bruce Talbott said he will start work on locking in these laborers — and more — for next season even as some workers still toil in the orchards to finish harvesting this year’s crop.

He said he trusts the Talbotts’ 500 acres of orchards and vineyards to these workers, and it is an understatement to say that he couldn’t run a successful farm operation without them.

“They know our orchards better than I do,” he said. “They require very little supervision and very little direction. They know what to do.”

A going-away party and a banner that reads: “A los trabajadores del campo: Gracias por todo lo bueno que traen a esta comunidad” — “To the farm workers: Thank you for all the good you bring to this community” — doesn’t seem like a lot for such a crucial workforce. But local growers and volunteers say it does seem to make a difference. They believe more workers return year after year to the Palisade orchards than they do in other places.

Maria Lopez serves dinner to migrant workers during the Child & Migrant Services’ Despedida. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We can get the best of the best here. It helps with productivity,” said Jeff Howard, chairman of the Child & Migrant Services board of directors. “These are good workers. You gain a deep appreciation for the physical aspect of the job they do and for the knowledge it requires. It is hard work. You don’t ever underestimate that.”

Many of the workers lined up for their slice of the “Gracias” cake said the appreciation was “bueno,” but they needed to be out in the fields by 7 a.m. the next day. They weren’t griping about that.

“I am happy to have work,” Perez said. “I can’t complain.”

Pacheco shrugged off the difficulty of the demanding labor as he used his orchard-hardened hands to stab a little plastic fork into a plate heaped with food.

He was sagging with exhaustion, but he said he will be back on an orchard ladder in the morning. His wife and four children back in Mexico are counting on him. So are the growers he works for.

So are peach lovers, including those who came out to a Palisade park on one evening to say, “muchas gracias.”