Climate of Fear

The Trump administration's hard line against immigrants is affecting all farm workers, including those in the cannabis industry.

The Trump administration’s hard line against immigrants is affecting all farm workers, including those in the cannabis industry.

(The following story was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of SunGrower and Greenhouse)

In the new packaging room at the Sticky Budz farm and processing facility outside Yakima, Washington, two women monitor a machine that hums and clanks as it weighs out buds and drops them into jars.

Both are young, bright-eyed, hard-working and speak perfect English.

But while Christine* is a natural-born American citizen of Hispanic heritage, Nancy* is not. She was brought here from Mexico by her parents when she was 2 years old. America is only life she knows, though technically, she is “undocumented,” or what many consider to be an “illegal immigrant,” not that any of it was her doing.

“I didn’t even know I was born in Tijuana until I was 12,” says Nancy, who currently has a work visa allowing her to legally stay in the country and continue working. But she looks over her shoulder more these days.

Nancy’s status in the country weighs heavier on her shoulders than ever before, as President Donald Trump follows through on the anti-immigration — and anti-Mexican, in particular — stances that were a key part of his campaign.

“It’s always in the back of my mind,” she says.

Nancy and many of her friends now find themselves changing plans based on rumors that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) might be planning a sweep at the local Walmart.

“It’s just scary,” she says.

Despite being an American citizen, Christine is equally concerned about the ICE raids and the fact that some people feel entitled to lob insults at anyone who looks Mexican. She worries for friends and family, who might be taken away at any time. Christine worries that she, too, could be a target and says she doesn’t regularly carry around her birth certificate.

“How do they know the difference between them and me?” she asks. “How do they know I was born here?”

The uncertainty does not stop with the women, however. Questions about Trump Administration policies are rippling throughout the agricultural community, including the cannabis industry, causing a potential shortage of labor just as the farming season kicks into high gear.

“Normally, I’ve got a very thick a stack of resumes,” says Sticky Budz Director of Agriculture Jeffrey McPhee. “Now, I can say two-thirds of them will not pick up the phone at this point.”

Nestled among dozens of traditional farms, Sticky Budz will look to hire part-time, migrant workers when it comes time to transplant from its propagation rooms to the outdoor pots, assuming there are workers available to hire.

AMONGST THE FARMS

The Sticky Budz facility, a Tier 3 with both indoor and outdoor grow operations, is located in Washington’s beautiful Yakima Valley, nestled among acres of vineyards and traditional farms that grow apples, cherries and 75% of the nation’s hops.

With 300 days of sun each year and a high steppe desert climate, the region provides excellent growing land for a wide variety of products, as well as the agricultural facilities and pack houses that handle and ship the crops each farm cultivates so diligently.

Each crop requires additional hands come harvest time. And the vast majority of the people who do that labor are Hispanic.

According to Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, a nonprofit created to represent farmers on labor and employment issues, there are approximately 100,000 immigrants employed in Washington agriculture. The vast majority of them are undocumented and potentially in the country illegally.

“The anecdotes are up to 70% of seasonal workers are undocumented,” Gempler says.

Unlike many cannabis growers who have simply scaled up basement or garage operations, the crew at Sticky Budz treat their business like any other agricultural business in the county, including the hiring of migrant and immigrant farmworkers to help out during the busy season.

“Our business model is built around being able to access that labor pool,” McPhee says. “And that workforce is dwindling as we speak.”

McPhee is a fourth-generation farmer who cut his teeth in the cherry, apple and hops businesses of the Yakima Valley. He has also been growing cannabis on the side for about 25 years, initially to treat a personal illness, but then to help supply one of Yakima County’s former medical marijuana dispensaries. However, his real interest lies in the horticultural aspects, which is not surprising for a guy who grew up on one of Central Washington’s many family farms. Somewhat ironically, McPhee is also an immigrant, but coming from Canada, he doesn’t draw the same ire from the Trump administration as his workforce.

His goal is to now apply his years of agricultural knowledge and experience to cannabis, including how they handle their team of workers.

“Like a traditional farm, we don’t carry a large, full-time roll of employees,” he says. “We follow the same business model (as traditional farms); we bring in workers when needed.”

Sticky Budz maintains a full-time staff of fewer than 20, but the force expands to at least 40 when it comes time to harvest or transplant crops from one section of the farm to another. During the fall 2016 harvest, the company hired 25 additional workers on a part-time basis. Though Sticky Budz is not looking for workers right now, there are worries that in the near future, there won’t be people to fill all the necessary jobs, especially considering the number of signs at farms in the valley advertising job openings in Spanish.

“It’s the most I’ve seen in my lifetime as a farmer in this valley,” McPhee says of the signs.

According to Gempler, it’s a trend that has been on the rise for about three years, as the economy has improved and the atmosphere for immigrants has gotten “less friendly.”

“People are scared,” Gempler says. “That’s definitely had an impact.”

McPhee adds that the entire economy of the area is built on the backs of migrant workers, both doing the work and spending their pay at shops in the community.

“The current administration is threatening that on a very large scale,” he says.

With fewer farmworkers available in the area due in part to the Trump administration’s immigration policies, Sticky Budz, and other farmers in Eastern Washington and  around the country, expect to have trouble filling positions in their greenhouse later this year.

FEAR OF TRUMP

Though conditions have been shifting for a few years, the tenor has definitely changed since the election of Trump, who began his campaign for president by attacking Mexican immigrants as “rapists” who are “bringing crime” and “bringing drugs” into the United States. The president made a “big, beautiful border wall” between the U.S. and Mexico the centerpiece of his campaign.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate crime incidents increased following Trump’s election in November. In the month following the election, the number of hate crime incidents reported topped 1,000, with the highest number — 315 — described as “anti-immigrant.” Of those, the largest group targeted were Hispanics, with 152 incidents nationwide.

California, New York, Texas and Massachusetts led the nation in incidents, but Washington ranked fifth, disproportionately high for a state ranking 13th in population.

The Trump administration has also increased enforcement actions against immigrants. According to The Washington Post, immigration arrests were up 32.6% in the first weeks of the Trump administration. While two-thirds of those arrested have criminal records, the Post reports that the biggest spike in the numbers were the arrest of immigrants with no criminal record, with some offices reporting double, even triple the numbers from the prior year.

The spike in both hate crimes and immigration arrests has created a climate of fear for migrant workers and has members of the agricultural community concerned that the administration is indifferent about their businesses.

“People are recognizing the Trump administration might not be adequately sensitive to the labor situation in agriculture,” Gempler says. “There’s some real zealots that have been appointed to Department of Homeland Security posts.”

Gempler says continuing the increased enforcement without addressing a path to legal status for those who have been here and working for years would be “ruinous,” as it is already affecting the people he represents.

“To have this as a limiting factor,” he says, “It’s bad business and bad policy.”

Sticky Budz CEO Jamie Muffett, a third-generation farmer himself, says the area is inherently tied to its immigrant workforce. He says the local economy would collapse if the president pushes too hard and the immigrants begin to disappear.

“Any farmer in his right mind is going to say that,” Muffett says.

The folks at Sticky Budz are clear that they follow any and all state laws regarding employment and as far as they can tell and have been able to check, all of the workers on their farm are legal.

“But it’s a massive concern moving forward,” McPhee says.

“If I were still in the orchard business, I’d be terrified,” Sticky Budz owner Mike Muffett says, adding that it’s becoming harder and harder to find seasonal workers these days. Mike Muffett removed his orchard last year after 26 years, partially because of all the new regulations regarding workers’ immigration status as well as the dwindling numbers of the workforce.

Working at a marijuana farm could also prove to be a double whammy for immigrants, considering the administration’s stance on cannabis, as exemplified by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who once famously joked that the Ku Klux Klan “was okay until I found out they smoked pot.”

Outside the Sticky Budz farm in Eastern Washington.

FUTURE-FOCUSED

The concern at Sticky Budz goes beyond just its harvest. For many in the area and several at the farm, there is a deep connection to the Hispanic community, with many of the workers having family or friends about whom they are concerned.

Sales Manager Mario Gallegos, for example, grew up in Zillah, the small town in which the farm is located and returned to the area to work at Sticky Budz. He says the Hispanic workforce is a major part of the community. According to the most recent census in 2010, more than 40% of the town’s population is Hispanic, up from 26% in 2000.

“That’s because of the farmwork,” he says.

Gallegos worries that people may leave the states and not return because of the climate of fear. On top of that, he worries about the area’s economy and the number of help wanted signs that dot the landscape today.

“I’ve never seen signs out here,” he says.

Not all of the Hispanic workers at Sticky Budz have the same levels of concern. Some simply shrug off the potential threats and get on with their work. In the farm’s processing room, for example, Ernie Lara, Jr., who grew up on a farm watching workers change with the seasons, says it is in the back of his head that “they can come any time.” But he and a worker with whom he spoke in Spanish said they do not see a lot of immigration enforcement in the area and they worry more that the administration’s stance on marijuana could hurt them more than the immigration concerns.

For Christine and Nancy, however, their concerns are less about the work and more about safety. They say bigots seem more willing to lob insults at them and their friends. The women tell a story about recently walking past a gas station and having a group of people shout racial slurs at them.

“We just kept walking,” Christine says.

Nancy, who is legal to live and work in the U.S. for now, says she has started saving additional money in case she is forced to move to Mexico, a country she has never called home. She has been dating her boyfriend, a citizen, for two years and while the couple is interested in getting married, they are now looking at it through the timeframe of Nancy’s work visa. And though they are in love and have been together for some time, Nancy says she is still concerned about having to prove that to immigration agents and scared that a loophole may send her south instead.

For now, she is trying to go about her life, living, working and keeping her head down while keeping an eye on the Trump administration’s plans.

“I wake up and go to work,” she says. “I don’t think about it much, but there are times I think about it.”

For their part, the folks at Sticky Budz are trying to get more active, working with local organizations to oppose administration efforts and actions aimed at immigrants. They are also working with their employees to make sure they and their families are legal and safe. It’s the least they can do for the people that make their business possible.

“As much as they’re here for us, we want to be there for them,” Gallegos says.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the women who spoke.

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