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Poplar Agricultural Workers: What they know and what they need

By Cat Gowan, WSU Extension | June 2018

Agricultural workers play a critical role in AHB. They plant the poplar trees, maintain the demonstration sites, help conduct inventories, and aid in the harvest of the trees. They are also almost exclusively Latino and provided the inspiration for the very successful Latino outreach program on AHB and energy literacy.

Starting more than a year ago, Tatiana Giraldo and Patricia Townsend began organizing focus groups with the workers who had experience on the AHB poplar demonstration sites or the Boardman poplar tree farm. With a great deal of persistence, flexibility, and charm, we have now conducted four focus groups (talking to 35 workers total) and six interviews with contractors and supervisors. In the focus groups, and while planting the AHB demonstration sites, the workers wanted information about the AHB project.

On the left, Tatiana hands out surveys, and on the right, Patricia poses for a group photo with the workers.
Figure 1. Tatiana Giraldo and Patricia Townsend visiting the field site and meeting workers

During the conversations, we learned about the wealth of knowledge the workers had about the poplar trees, how they interacted with each other and their supervisors, what they knew about the work AHB is doing, and what they valued about the trees.

You work in the open air, you take advantage of the wind, of the shade that the trees give you when it is hot. –Farm Worker

And some of them, they’ve been around long enough to they can pick [the clone] out and say, “That’s not this clone.” It’s very impressive to me. And that’s when a tree is not actively growing. –Field Supervisor

We started [planting poles] on a high production mass basis in the Spring of 2009, by the time we got to 2014, even adjusting for inflation, wage increases, etc., the cost per tree, the cost per pole, the cost per position, however you want to describe that was reduced between 40 and 50% in cost, from the first year to the last year. –Field Supervisor

While it was clear that the workers valued the trees and became increasingly skilled at their jobs, they often did not know the purpose of the trees, even if they were aware of the experimental nature of the farms.

We were working and we asked ourselves… what do they want these trees for? And what do you use them for? Because these areas are no longer going to find more of this type of tree, so they must use them for something specific that we did not know. –Farm Worker

I had heard a rumors that they were trying to make oil. I didn’t know what kind and they didn’t tell us directly… Now, listening today [in the focus group] affirmed the rumors. –Farm Worker

We also made sure to ask how they got information and what kind of training or support they needed to do their work.

We are more grateful that a Latina woman like you is here with us to teach us about these important issues.

I think the most important thing is to work together, because I had to work with people who never helped me. Now…if there is one that is slow, we encourage and we help to be at the same level as everyone.

Agricultural work can be difficult and dangerous; it is important to support the workers in ways that they identify as useful. We are in the process of coding and analyzing the data. We hope to use all of the information we’ve gathered and more importantly, the relationships we’ve built, to guide potential training programs for Latino agricultural workers and the companies that employ them.

Patricia and Tatiana will be giving a webinar about their research and the Latino outreach program on June 21 at 10:30 AM Pacific time.