Agricultural Automation, Farm Clinics, and Health Needs of Farmworkers

Despite the improvements to the agricultural industry over the years, health is still a concern for many agricultural workers. Combining physical labor, long hours, and the recent heat waves and wildfires, the work is truly demanding. 

While the technological improvements in the industry are often pointed to as a sign of the future, many workers are concerned that they may be replaced by automation in the coming years.  

In an interview with OPB, Ira Cuello Martinez, a member of the Oregon Latinx farmworkers union PCUN, said, “We heard public testimonies from the ag industry around, if we’re forced to pay overtime then I’m going to look into mechanization or automation of my equipment.” Martinez later continued that many specialty skills cannot be replaced, meaning that this fear of automation may be unfounded. 

Other members of the agricultural community in Oregon pointed to air-conditioned cabs that replaced the former need for handpicking in the sun as a sign that things were improving, yet that’s not the whole story.  

Dr. Gabriel Ledger started the Farm Outreach Clinic (FOC) in Benton County as a response to the oft-ignored medical needs of those in the agricultural community. Ledger told OPB that many farmworkers are either underinsured or uninsured, resulting in many medical issues going ignored. 

For those with allergies, asthma, and other upper-respiratory issues, farmwork can take a major toll. In fact, the FOC website states that “many of the new patients to the Farm Clinic have not received professional medical care for decades.” Joint and musculoskeletal problems are common, and adding in the smoke from recent fires, many end up with all the more miserable days working the fields.  

While Ledger and the FOC aim to be opening new clinics in Albany and Philomath soon, that’s just not enough. Concrete changes need to be made to ensure that farmworkers are properly insured through OHP or employer insurance, as the work they do is essential to the community. 

One such step was introduced in Oregon earlier this year in August, putting protections for workers in place during heat waves. But ensuring access to basics like shade, water, and adequate breaks simply isn’t enough — proper healthcare and automation of certain processes will ensure farmwork isn’t a death sentence.  

By Ethan Hauck