Grant expands Cornell efforts to reach New York farmworkers

As COVID-19 bore down on New York state, the Cornell Farmworker Program used mobile phone technology to provide rapid guidance and clear health information in multiple languages to the state’s farmworkers. Now, new federal funding will expand the program and further integrate the initiative with Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE).

The funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) will help the program continue to reach more than 3,000 New York farmworkers with critical health and legal information. The three-year, $90,000 grant will help integrate Cornell research across colleges with on-the-ground training for farmworkers from the Cornell Farmworker Program and CCE.

“The success of New York state agriculture relies on effective communication between farm owners and farmworkers, many of whom are non-English speakers,” said Mary Jo Dudley, director of the Cornell Farmworker Program and senior extension associate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Global Development.

Cornell impacting New York State

“Rapid communication is essential to addressing health, safety and training challenges for New York’s farmworkers,” Dudley said, “in addition to fostering communities and improving the well-being of essential workers in the food chain.”

New York’s farm labor force includes many foreign-born workers with limited English skills. The Cornell Farmworker Program is seen as a trusted partner of these workers, many of whom, due to legal and other concerns, do not readily share cellphone numbers with government agencies.

The Cornell Farmworker Program swiftly mobilized in response to the pandemic and used that database of private numbers to share text messages and links in Spanish, Mam (an indigenous Mayan language) and other languages.

“From the very start of the pandemic, the Cornell Farmworker Program has been confronting issues of inequitable access to medical information faced by farmworker communities,” said Lori Leonard, chair and professor of global development. “This new grant and collaboration with CCE will catalyze efforts to reach these essential workers, whose role is central to strengthening the state’s farm and food systems.”

In response to the COVID-19 health crisis and misinformation spreading, Dudley and the team linked workers to a trusted Spanish-speaking physician for medical advice through numerous educational webinars and audio calls. Additionally, more than 500 farmworkers texted COVID-19-related questions as part of multiple video sessions with the doctor and Dudley.

The support wasn’t limited to medical advice. As a leader advocating for farmworkers in New York and beyond, Dudley and members of the Cornell Farmworker Program responded to numerous worker requests for masks, food while under quarantine, access to health care services, access to vaccines, employer training and legal support across the state during the pandemic. 

Dudley said the grant will solidify communication channels for workers and farmers, and support the development and field testing of informational materials appropriate for a low-literacy workforce. “This will be particularly important in light of changing state regulations with regard to farmworkers,” Dudley said.

In response to provisions of the Farm Labor Fair Labor Practices Act, the Cornell Farmworker Program produced animated videos as a model for communicating complex information in a format accessible to all literacy levels and which can be shared with farmworkers via text and WhatsApp.

“As the backbone of New York’s agriculture, the health of New York state’s farmworkers is critical to the sustainability of our fruit, vegetable, grape, dairy and field crop industries,” said Chris Watkins, director of CCE and professor of horticulture in the School of Integrative Plant Science. “For decades the Cornell Farmworker Program has been supporting this essential community, and we are thrilled to continue and strengthen our work with Mary Jo Dudley and her team.”

Read the full version of the story on the CALS website.

Matt Hayes is director for communications for Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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Lindsey Knewstub