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June 5, 2009 - 7:58am

Tom Rivers entertains Elba Historical Society with talk on farm labor series

posted by Howard B. Owens in Tom Rivers, immigration.

tom rivers elba talk.jpg

Daily News reporter Tom Rivers spoke to the Elba Historical Society yesterday evening about his award-winning series on farm labor.

Rivers gave an energetic, anecdote-laden, hour-long talk on the series in which he explained that he set out to really understand what it's like to work in the fields, doing the work that migrant workers do, and whether an average American could handle the task.

His conclusion: Not only can't the average American not handle the jobs (and they rarely apply, and when  they do, they usually wash out after two hours of work), most world class athletes couldn't handle what immigrant workers do every day.

"After being out in the fields with these guys for eight hours a day, professional sports seems pretty lame," Rivers said.

He's used his experience picking cucumbers and tossing cabbage to help him get through running a marathon, which he said wasn't nearly as difficult compared to his work among the migrants.

The work ethic of the migrants astonished him, Rivers said. He explained that in picking berries, it's important to get the ones at the right stage of ripeness, otherwise the suburban housewife will be unhappy if she arrives home with bitter berries.  At the berry farm where Rivers worked one day, the owners had tried hiring teen-age workers once, but they just didn't take enough care about which berries they threw into baskets.

"The Mexican workers impressed me with their quality control," Rivers said. "Among themselves there is a lot of pride, you could even say perfection."

Such praise for the migrant workers didn't always win Rivers fans, he said. He said people actually called the paper to complain about his stories.

"Some people have a problem with showing the humanity of farm workers," Rivers said.

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