Un Puente a la Vez – One Bridge at a Time

Answering the need for better communication

Published in the May 2009 Issue Published online: May 03, 2009 Terri Queck-Matzie
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For Luis de la Garza, work is about bridges. As Hispanic Consultant for Lookout Ridge Consulting, de la Garza is trying to bridge the gap between U.S. farm owners and managers and Spanish-speaking farm workers.

“There are all kinds of language barriers,” says de la Garza, explaining that often the problem isn’t “language” per se, but communication style that varies between cultures.

Lookout Ridge, with offices in Michigan, Idaho, Wisconsin and Minnesota, is working to overcome that. The family business consulting firm offers services in succession planning, alliance development, business planning and personnel management.

“We need to explain to farm owners what types of communication can best reach their Hispanic workers, and workers need to understand the U.S. management style,” says de la Garza.

 

COMMUNICATION CULTURE

According to de la Garza, bridging the gap is increasingly important as a second generation of immigrants comes into play and their issues become more complex.

These are people born in the U.S., with every intention of staying and working here.

They are in line for promotions into farm management positions and even possibly taking on their own farms. But the cultural communication gap needs to be addressed for this to happen effectively.

“There is much to learn about our systems,” continues de la Garza, “technical information, how to transfer farms, how the finance industry works, how government farm programs work.”

The trend toward people of Hispanic culture integrating into agriculture is more pronounced in the Southwestern and Western United States, but is moving into the Midwest.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 40 percent of those engaged in agriculture are of Hispanic decent, of all types, with residency tenures ranging from a few weeks or months to several generations.

In many areas, Hispanic ethnicity is the fastest growing segment of the population.

 

COMMUNICATION SAFTEY

Serving those increased numbers in Idaho is the responsibility of the University of Idaho Extension Service. As an extension educator, Wayne Jones presents classes in Spanish as well as English, one of two educators in the Idaho Extension Service to do so. A third position is being filled.

“There is a need,” says Jones. “We have a growing Spanish-speaking population and they need to know how to do things safely.” Jones says much of the education offered is in chemical handling, equipment calibration, pest identification and control, and health issues. He has just penned and published a Field Guide to Potato Pests that is printed in both English and Spanish.

“Ideally, these people would come in to the area and learn English,” says Jones, “but that takes time and in the meantime, they have to know how to do things correctly and safely.” Jones and his team conduct educational sessions at industry conferences and go to farms to talk with workers.

They are beginning to offer lifestyle services as well. Soon the popular Master Gardener program classes will be offered in Spanish.

There is a Spanish language website, Extensión en Español, with extension information, including 4-H programs.

Publications like “Dealing with Storm-Damaged Trees” and “Homeowner’s Property Insurance Issues” are available in Spanish and English. And the site provides links to events and other items of interest like the “30th Annual Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication” and sites on food safely, health, scholarship and educational opportunities and stress management.

“These people are staying here, living here, and entering farm management positions,” says Jones. “Assimilation takes time and we need to help bridge the gap.”

 

USDA TRAINING

Luis Urias, Agriculture Program Specialist with the USDA, is addressing the issue through programs aimed at worker protection and rules compliance. His department provides training to Spanish-speaking workers and English-speaking managers in pesticide handling, worker safety and food safety.

“We have several labor contractors who are educated as certified trainers,” says Urias. “Employers are requesting the service.” On the farm, he suggests those training Hispanic workers train them not just as farm workers, but as pesticide handlers, so they can perform more duties such as mixing pesticides.

The USDA provides free bi-lingual materials to farmers training their workers, such as posters, manuals, videos and books. “We want to give them the tools they need to train workers correctly,” says Urias.

He has seen a decline in numbers of Hispanic workers recently due in part to the economic times, but the need still exists.

In addition to formal training programs, his staff makes on-farm visits—reaching around 400 per year—discussing training and safety issues, and completing compliance assessments. He says the outreach program is well received.

They also offer training in Spanish at conferences and seminars such as the University of Idaho Sugarbeet Conference in Twin Falls, Idaho. And they cooperate with migrant clinics, providing materials on pesticide handling and warning signs of pesticide poisoning—a partnership Urias deems “very productive.”

 

COMMUNICATION CONNECTION

Another sign of the times, the USDA is facing budget cuts, making to harder to provide these services. But Urias is optimistic that the program will continue to reach those who need it.

“What we really need is for the public to see us as not just a regulatory and compliance enforcement agency, but as an educational resource,” he says. He encourages growers and workers to contact his office with any issues.

“We’re not just about enforcement,” he reiterates. “We’re here to serve in a better way.”

Serving a Spanish-speaking labor force and the growers who utilize it is the premise behind private and public programs aimed at bridging the communication gap.

“Communication is engagement,” says de la Garza, “and this is about people engaging people. That is necessary for shared opportunity.”