Poor regulatory safeguards leave farmworkers suffocating in the face of increasing heat waves

This story is part of the series A Changing Basin from the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk. Take a quick survey and let us know how extreme weather is affecting you.

Juan Peña, 29, has worked in the fields since childhood, often exposing his body to extreme heat like the wave hitting the Midwest this week.

The heat can cause such deep pain in his whole body that he just wants to lie down, he said, as his body tells him he can’t take another day on the job. On those days, his only motivation to get out of bed is to earn dollars to send to his 10-month-old baby in Mexico.

Farmworkers, such as Peña and the crew he leads in Iowa, are unprotected against heat-related illnesses. They are 35 times more likely to die from heat exposure than workers in other sectors, according to the National Institutes of Health, and the absence of a federal heat regulation that guarantees their safety and life – when scientists have warned that global warming will continue – increases that risk.

Over a six-year period, 121 workers lost their lives due to exposure to severe environmental heat. One-fifth of these fatalities were individuals employed in the agricultural sector, according to an Investigate Midwest analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data.

One such case involved a Nebraska farmworker who suffered heat stroke alone and died on a farm in the early summer of 2018. A search party found his body the next day.

In early July 2020, a worker detasseling corn in Indiana experienced dizziness after working for about five hours. His coworkers provided him shade and fluids before they resumed work. The farmworker was found lying on the floor of the company bus about 10 minutes later. He was pronounced dead at the hospital due to cardiac arrest.

“As a physician, I believe that these deaths are almost completely preventable,” said Bill Kinsey, a physician and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Until we determine as a society the importance of a human right for people to work in healthy situations, we are going to see continued illness and death in this population.”

Juan Peña (left) with other farmworkers take a quick break in a field in southeastern Iowa. While this summer has not been especially hot in Iowa, the crew leader (standing) said, he’s noticed over the years summers have gotten hotter.Photo taken on Wednesday, July 20, 2023. photo by Sky Chadde, Investigate Midwest

Peña harvests fields in Texas and Iowa. This summer, he’s overseen five Mexican seasonal workers picking vegetables and fruits in Louisa County, Iowa. With its high humidity and heat, Iowa’s climate causes the boys, as he affectionately refers to them, to end their day completely wet, as if they had taken “a shower with their clothes on,” he said. They work up to 60 or 70 hours a week to meet their contractual obligations.

“I’m lucky because my bosses are considerate (when it’s hot),” he said in Spanish, recalling that he managed to endure temperatures as high as 105 degrees in Texas. “I’ve had bosses who, if they see you resting for a few minutes under a tree to recover yourself, think you’re wasting your time and send you home without pay.”

Some of his friends have been less fortunate, and a few minutes of rest have been cause for dismissal, he said.

When extreme heat is combined with high humidity, the health risks multiply. Summertime humid heat has increased three times more than air temperatures across the U.S. since 1950. On average it has increased between 6 and 7 percent throughout much of the Mississippi River basin. Credit: Climate Central

The fatalities scratch the surface of what is a more extensive issue, according to health experts, academics and advocacy groups, who say the data on heat illnesses and death is inadequate.

“There is a massive undercount,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for United Farm Workers.

She said it is common for the death of a person who died after a heat stroke to be classified as caused by a heart attack on an autopsy.

Strater said it’s difficult to quantify issues that face farmworkers because those that are undocumented tend to shy away from authorities and, in general, the population moves around a lot and lives in secluded areas. “Everything to do with farmworkers is particularly difficult because we don’t know,” she said.

An estimated 2.4 million people work on farms and ranches nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census of agriculture. This population, mostly Latino, is roughly equal to the population of Chicago. More than one-third are undocumented.

A possible federal standard

Although employers are generally responsible for ensuring a safe working environment that protects their employees’ well-being and lives, no federal regulation stipulates a specific temperature threshold that mandates protective measures.

Nearly four in 10 farmworkers are unwilling to file a complaint against their employer for noncompliance in the workplace, mostly out of fear of retaliation or losing their job, according to survey data of California farmworkers conducted by researchers at the University of California Merced Community and Labor Center.

Only four states have adopted outdoor workplace heat-stress standards, and none of them are in the Midwest. California was the first to implement such standards, followed by Oregon, Washington, and Colorado.

This leaves the protection of agricultural workers from heat stress at the discretion of their employers in most states.

OSHA has been working on a heat-stress rule since 2021 that will require employers to provide adequate water and rest breaks for outdoor workers, as well as medical services and training to treat the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses. However, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report, this process can take from 15 months to 19 years.

OSHA officials would not comment on the pending federal heat standard.

A farmworker walks past boxes of donated supplies from the Migrant Farmworkers Assistance Fund at an apple orchard just outside of Waverly, Missouri. The organization gives out donated school supplies, food, eyedrops, insulated bags for cold water, baseball caps and thin long sleeve shirts for the heat. Credit: Zach Perez/KCUR 89.3

Last year, the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Stress Injury, Illness, and Death Prevention Act, which would force OSHA to issue a heat standard much faster than the normal process, failed to get the votes on the floor.

The bill was named in honor of Asuncion Valdivia, who died in 2004 after picking grapes for 10 hours nonstop in 105-degree heat. Valdivia collapsed unconscious and, instead of calling an ambulance, his employer told his son to take his father home. On the way home, he died of heat stroke at 53.

A group of Democratic lawmakers reintroduced the bill last month.

“There is definitely a political decision to be made by members of Congress, in both the House and the Senate, because they have the power to pass legislation to tell OSHA to issue a standard more quickly,” said Mayra Reiter, project director of occupational safety and health at the advocacy group Farmworker Justice.

Reiter added that the legislation would also help shield that standard from future legal challenges in court.

As in several recent years, the summer of 2023 has broken records for heat.

Made with Flourish

In response, President Joe Biden announced new measures to protect workers — including a hazard alert notifying employers and employees of ways to stay safe from extreme heat — as well as steps to improve weather forecasting and make drinking water more accessible.

But farmworker advocacy groups are calling on the administration to speed up OSHA’s issuance of a rule protecting workers. They are also pushing for the 2023 farm bill to include farmworker heat protections.

“Farmer organizations and many other worker advocacy groups are hoping that there’ll be a federal regulation,” Reiter said, “because, going state by state, we have seen that there isn’t that urgency to develop these rules.”

Long way to a new rule

Creating a new rule to protect workers from heat must overcome several hurdles, from bureaucratic procedures to lobbying industries, including the agricultural industry.

“OSHA is uniquely slow,” said Jordan Barab, who served as OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary of labor during the Obama administration.

He said the 1970 act that created OSHA imposes many requirements on the rulemaking process. The agency has to determine the current problem and whether the new standard will reduce risk. OSHA must also ensure that the new standard is economically, technically and technologically feasible in all industries.

Workers sign up to get help setting up healthcare appointments from the Migrant Farmworkers Assistance Fund at an apple orchard just outside of Waverly, Missouri. The organization gives out donated school supplies, food, eyedrops, insulated bags for cold water, baseball caps and thin long sleeve shirts for the heat. Credit: Zach Perez/KCUR 89.3

The road to regulations to protect workers from the heat also has to overcome industry lobbying, including big agricultural and construction groups. One group that has expressed hesitancy to new federal rules is the American Farm Bureau Federation, which has spent on average about $2.3 million on lobbying over the past two years, according to OpenSecrets.

“Considering the variances in agricultural work and climate, (the Farm Bureau) questions whether the department can develop additional heat illness regulations without imposing new, onerous burdens on farmers and ranchers that will lead to economic losses,” Sam Kieffer, vice president of public policy at American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement.

Vulnerable populations

To make a living, Jaime Salinas fills 32 sacks of apples each day in Missouri. His daily quota is one ton, or about 3,200 apples. His wife used to walk 11 miles a day to harvest fruits and vegetables when she worked in the field.

He said when he gets too hot, he sits in the shade to drink water but feels pressured to keep working due to the method of payment, which depends on the amount harvested.

Strater, with Farmworker Justice, believes that the way farmworkers are paid is one of the main obstacles that must be overcome to ensure their safety because it often incentivizes volume, forcing them to expose themselves to continued work without regard to the signs of heat-related illness.

Kinsey, the University of Wisconsin professor and the director of a mobile clinic, said the demographic has a higher incidence of diabetes, hypertension, and chronic kidney disease.

“Climate stress,” he said, “has introduced an additional layer of complexity to these existing challenges.”

Nicolas Romero Dominguez works at an apple orchard near Waverly, Missouri. He says the heat on days like this make him feel weak while he’s climbing the ladder. Credit: Zach Perez/KCUR 89.3

Seasonal visa workers are especially vulnerable because they depend completely on whoever hires them: from the house they live in to the food they eat.

“You’re going to endure as much as you can with the hopes of continuing to provide for your family,” Strater said. “The thing is the endpoint for that is death.”

In Tama County, Iowa, David Hinegardner owns a small farm called Hinegardner’s Orchard, where he grows apples, strawberries, corn and soybeans. He sells his crop to supermarkets, farmers’ markets, schools, and colleges.

The farmworkers are immigrants from Latin America who reside in the surrounding area, and some of them have been working on his farm for decades. One of the measures he takes during the summer to avoid risks to his workers is to change the work schedules to avoid the hottest part of the day.

“I think they do a much better job when they’re treated with respect and taken good care of,” he said.

This story is a product of Harvest Public Media, Investigate Midwest and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk as part of the series A Changing Basin. News outlets can sign up to republish stories like this one for free

The post Poor regulatory safeguards leave farmworkers suffocating in the face of increasing heat waves appeared first on Investigate Midwest.

Livestock are dying in the heat. This little-known farming method offers a solution.

This story is part of Record High, a Grist series examining extreme heat and its impact on how — and where — we live.

Josh Payne planted chestnut trees six years ago. The rows of nut trees haven’t fully matured yet, but he’s banking on the future shade they’ll provide to shield his animals from sweltering heat. 

“We started with that largely because we want to get out of commodity agriculture,” Payne said. “But also because I’m worried that in our area it’s getting hotter and drier.” 

Payne operates a 300-acre regenerative farm in Concordia, Missouri, an hour outside of Kansas City, where he raises sheep and cattle. By planting 600 chestnut trees, he is bracing for a future of extreme heat by adapting an agriculture practice known as silvopasture. Rooted in preindustrial farming, the method involves intentionally incorporating trees on the same land used by grazing livestock, in a way that benefits both. Researchers and farmers say silvopastures help improve the health of the soil by protecting it from wind and water, while encouraging an increase of nutrient-rich organic matter, like cow manure, onto the land. 

It also provides much-needed natural shade for livestock. According to the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit climate change research group, chunks of America’s heartland — including Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Missouri — could experience at least one day with temperatures of 125 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter by 2053. 

When temperatures rise above 80 degrees, the heat begins to take a toll on animals, which will try to cool themselves down by sweating, panting, and seeking shelter. If they are unable to lower their body temperature, the animals will breathe harder, becoming increasingly fatigued, and eventually die.

Research shows that as the planet warms, livestock deaths will increase. Last year, when temperatures exceeded 100 degrees in southwestern Kansas, roughly 2,000 cattle in the state died; the Kansas Livestock Association estimated each cow to be worth $2,000 if they were market-ready, equaling an economic loss of $4 million. And so far this year, the trend is continuing, with livestock producers in Iowa already reporting hundreds of cattle deaths in the latter half of July alone.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, the ideal temperature for beef and dairy cows ranges between 44 and 77 degrees. Above those temperatures, heat stress causes cattle to produce less milk and decreases their fertility. 

Payne’s family farm is a microcosm of American agriculture’s monocrop past and its changing future. He inherited the land from his grandfather, who spent decades tearing trees out of the ground in favor of growing corn and soybeans, using chemical fertilizers for years. His family was hardly alone in doing so: Along with cattle, corn and soybeans make up the top three farm products in the U.S., according to the industry group American Farm Bureau.

Missouri produced nearly $94 billion of agricultural products last year — an economic driver under threat from climate change, which has brought more intense floods and droughts to the state. Last year, the Mississippi River, which flows through Missouri, reached severely low water levels in the face of a historic drought, stopping the barge travel that supports the country’s agricultural economy. When Payne spoke to Grist in July, he was hoping for rain to come soon amid the humid 98-degree heat.

To prevent harm to his 600 sheep and 25 cattle, Payne currently uses portable structures to provide artificial shade while he waits for his chestnut trees to mature. This technology acts like a big umbrella that can be moved as a herd moves, but it doesn’t protect animals from reflected heat and sun rays from the sides the same way a tree canopy can. 

In addition to the shade his future nut trees will provide, they’ll be a source of income, too. Payne said it’s likely he’ll make more money on 30 acres of chestnut trees than he would on 300 acres of row crops like corn.

“We’re rethinking the farm process based on climate predictions,” Payne said. “Here we are planting trees in our pastures, so that in 10 to twelve years we can have dappled shade.”

Planting trees in a field seems almost too simple as a way to keep livestock safe and healthy in a hotter world. But Ashley Conway-Anderson, a researcher at the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry, knows better. She said of all the USDA’s land management systems used to blend forest and livestock, silvopasture is the most complicated, as it requires a delicate balance between planted trees, natural forests and brush, and livestock. 

But she will admit the practice is common sense. 

“Trees provide shade. That’s the place where you want to be when it’s hot, right?” Conway-Anderson said. “The idea behind a well-managed silvopasture is your taking that shade and dispersing it across the field.”

Conway-Anderson said farmers are adapting their land to silvopastures at a time when agriculture as a whole is wrestling with its role in climate change. The sector accounts for roughly 11 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the USDA. 

In addition to mitigating extreme heat risks and promoting soil health, trees planted on pastures and fields act as a way to sequester carbon out of the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. Project Drawdown, a nonprofit known for its expansive list of practices to prevent further climate harm, estimates that silvopastures could sequester five to 10 times the amount of carbon than a treeless pasture of the same size. 

Notably, however, while carbon accounts for the main source of human-caused greenhouse gasses, agriculture’s role in a warming planet largely comes from methane produced by livestock and their waste. But silvopastures help combat that — animals that move around to graze end up trampling on their waste, working it into the soil where it’s repurposed as a natural fertilizer; in contrast, most farm operations pool all livestock waste together in large ponds from which a concentration of methane is then emitted. 

Conway-Anderson said agroforestry and silvopastures aren’t always a one-size-fits-all solution. She said farmers are having to “get big or get out,” and aren’t always able to invest the time or money in planting trees or revitalizing woodland they might already own. 

“We’ve created an economic system where we have incentivized and subsided specific crops, products, and ways of doing farming and agriculture that has really sucked the air out of the room for smaller, diversified operations,” she said.

On the other hand, she said silvopasture practices can be successful because of their flexibility. Farmers can use trees they already own. They can graze goats, pigs, sheep, cattle, and more under the shade of nut trees, fruit trees, and trees whose trimmings and branches can be harvested and sold to the lumber industry. 

“Silvopastures are not a silver bullet,” Conway-Anderson said. “But at this point, I don’t think we have any silver bullets anymore.”

At Hidden Blossom Farms in Union, Connecticut, a rural town located near the border of Massachusetts, Joe Orefice has been methodical in his implementation of silvopasture. 

Orefice, a Yale School of the Environment professor of agroforestry, raises tunnel-grown vegetables, figs, and roughly two dozen grass-fed cows that enjoy the shade of apple trees on a 134-acre farm. He said there are currently only two acres of fruit trees the cattle use for cover. 

Despite the small acreage, Orefice said, he has focused primarily on soil health, a key aspect of silvopasture management. Without properly maintained grasses and soil, trees won’t grow, and there wouldn’t be any shade for his cattle. 

“You need to manage the grasses so young trees will grow,” he said. 

In addition to land management and soil health, Orefice said the animal welfare benefits of shade were top of mind. 

“I don’t want to eat a big meal if I’m sitting in the sun on a hot and humid day, and we want our cattle to eat big meals because that’s how they grow or keep their calves healthy by producing milk,” he said. 

Orefice said a common misconception about silvopasture leads to farmers just taking livestock they own and putting them in the forest without any additional management. He said this can damage soil when livestock, especially pigs, aren’t routinely moved. While it might seem counterintuitive, he said one of the first steps of creating a proper silvopasture from an existing forest is to trim trees and till the soil.

While he only raises 25 beef cattle, Orefice said he’s seen larger farms begin to implement silvopasture practices. He said raising tree crops, like nuts or figs and other fruits, is a boon for farmers who switch to more diversified crop operations versus large, concentrated animal-feeding operations. 

For example, Orefice noted that if farmers in the Corn Belt, who are facing continued droughts and an extreme heat future, switched to tree crops, the upfront costs might be expensive and hard. Still, they would eventually make more money on tree crops than on corn or soybeans. The problem, as he sees it, is there is no incentive or safety net for farmers to begin to adopt these practices at the same rate as they have mainstream ones. 

“The question isn’t really, ‘Is silvopasture scalable?’” Orefice said. “The question is, ‘Does our economy allow us to scale pasture-based livestock production?’” 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Livestock are dying in the heat. This little-known farming method offers a solution. on Aug 15, 2023.