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Migrant workers climb ladder

Nowadays they’re involved in every aspect of farming

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PERRY, Box Elder County — For years people thought all the new-fangled farm machinery would do away with the need for migrant farm labor.

But life loves a good irony.

Today, many of those migrant workers are operating the machines.

"More and more farmers are mechanizing today," Jerry Ferguson, who handles labor relations for the Utah Farm Bureau, said. "And more and more migrant workers are getting involved with driving tractors, operating spraying machines, irrigating. Their jobs have evolved. Things are in transition."

And where is the farmer in all this?

"He's inside," Ferguson said, "operating the computer."

Indeed, the era of "stoop labor" with a short-handled hoe has vanished. Mechanical cantaloupe pickers, corn pickers and cherry tree shakers have phased out a lot of traditional "field work." So, the field workers have had to phase themselves into new jobs.

"On almost every farm I visit, the main foreman is from Mexico now," said Heinz Silz, a produce buyer from Fort Morgan, Colo. "They can handle the other workers and communicate with them. In some businesses, the labor force is 75 percent Hispanic now."

Getting an accurate number of migrant farm workers is always tricky business. A good many workers are here illegally and avoid any contact with officials. And many workers still move from state to state. Still, Utah agricultural statistics set the number of migrant workers in Utah at approximately 20,000, with about 31 percent of them living in the state full time.

As for the new breed of savvy foreman Silz mentioned, along Perry, Utah's "Fruit Alley," the trend holds true. At the Nielson fruit stand and farm there, Clemente Lemos and his family are that new breed.

"They do everything," said owner Ralph Nielson. "They sort, they box, they work as clerks in the fruit stand. We still need pickers — without them I'd have to close my doors. But we also need people like the Lemos family. Almost every farmer I know has someone like them now."

Natives of Michoacan in central Mexico, the Lemos clan has an especially rugged trip north each year, often spending 44 hours on the road to reach Utah. But like swallows to Capistrano, they return every spring on cue. Clemente, the family patriarch, has been coming for 18 years now. For the past few years he's been bringing his wife and children.

"I even come when there's no fruit," Clemente said. "I find other work."

"The first year I felt sad to be here," wife Griselda said. "But now I'm getting accustomed to things. And I like what I do. I like it all — sorting, weighing, charging the customers. On Saturday mornings, I enjoy getting the fruit out by 8 a.m. so it's ready and looks good."

And the fruit business has been a great "school" for teaching their children about work. Daughter Anabel said she misses her family in Mexico, but relishes her time here.

Their son Hugo — at age 12 — has already learned enough farm skills to guarantee him a job wherever he goes.

"Farm work is good work," Clemente said. "You don't earn a lot of money, but it's good work."

Added Nielson, "Nobody makes any money in the fruit business. All we do is supply a lot of jobs."

In the end, many things have changed in the 18 years Clemente Lemos has been coming to Utah. He said he finds less discrimination here now, and "the Spanish people are more established in Utah today. They are more a part of things."

The question then arises, if he and his family feel so much at home here, why not make Utah home?

Clemente takes a few moments to find the right words.

"I actually have my U.S. citizenship papers now," he said. "But I'm afraid we're all Mexicans at heart. We have some land in Michoacan where we graze animals. The rest of our family is there. Every fall, we know it's time for us to go back."

Yet just as certain as those autumn trips home are the pilgrimages back north in the spring. They always come back.

And Nielson is glad they do.

"The Lemos family are good people," he said. "And I need them. Without them and others like them, well . . . I'd be like a newspaper without someone to run the presses."

E-MAIL: jerjohn@desnews.com