Technology reduces need for seasonal field workers
The stream of migrant workers who come to the Red River Valley to work in the farm fields has slowed to a trickle compared to the numbers that once came.
By one estimate, as of 1980, perhaps 10,000 migrant workers came to work fields of sugar beets and potatoes in the valley.
Today, that number is perhaps a few thousand, including accompanying family members, a drastic reduction in demand for seasonal field workers that reflects advances in technology.
"It's a big drop," said Juan Mata, a paralegal who helps migrant workers in the valley. He estimates the number of seasonal field-workers today is perhaps 25 to 35 percent of what it once was.
Nick Sinner, executive director of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, said individual farmers are involved in hiring seasonal workers, making it difficult to estimate numbers.
His best guess: 200 or fewer workers would be typical today for the area. Not only are fewer workers required, but workers now are needed for much shorter periods, Sinner said.
Local employment agencies also have noticed the steep reduction in migrant workers, whose influx once posed challenges in providing adequate housing, schooling and health care for the workers and their families.
"It used to be hundreds and hundreds came up," said Marty Aas, area manager of Job Service North Dakota's Fargo office. In recent years, "the number has really dwindled."
He estimates his office placed 10 seasonal farm workers last year, a far cry from the 1970s, when school buses would transport local high school students to the fields in the summer to augment migrant workers.
Mata has lived through many of the changes.
From 1973 to 1986, beginning at the age of 13, he made the trip with his family from Crystal City, Texas, to the Red River Valley to work the fields.
"There was a lot of folks back then," he said. "I was right in the middle of it."
Advances in seed varieties and farm machinery slowly and steadily reduced the need for manual laborers to weed or thin fields by hoe.
The technological changes - and diminished demand for seasonal field workers - started to become especially pronounced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mata said.
For instance, workers typically are called in to thin crops once instead of twice per season.
"That put a big dent in the migrant stream," Mata said.
But migrant workers still come to the Red River Valley, he said. They come from Texas, Mexico, Washington and California.
So far this summer, they are finding little work, although peak demand usually occurs in the fall, Mata said.
"The folks that are here are at a halt," he said. "There is no work."