Photo: Guest worker from Mexico picking Yakima cherries. (2019 photo no face masks used)

Emily McCarty’s June 29 article in Crosscut represents false and biased reporting that exacerbates the urban-rural divide that Knute Berger revealed in his January 9, 2018 article and several since then.

Calling highly valued farm workers “sacrificial lambs” is deeply offensive. Farmers have gotten accustomed to such outrageous accusations from Rosalinda Guillen who openly claims her goals are to end colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism. But to have such ugly accusations highlighted in what some consider to be a responsible publication is troubling.

Farmers are deeply concerned about the health and safety of their employees as has been demonstrated over and over. This was made clear in statements made by a major farmer in the state lawsuit filed by the labor unions. In addition to complying with government regulations, industry groups often require even more strict protections.

Why did the Crosscut headline not read: “Farmers and State Efforts to Protect Farmworkers Upended by Activists’ Lawsuit”? That would be a far more accurate way of presenting this story. Instead, Mike Gempler’s comments were buried near the end of the story after Guillen and company are given free rein to spew their false accusations and vitriol.

Guillen, Franks and Torres have a vested interest in demonizing farmers. In the early days of the pandemic they called for a ban on the 22,000 guest workers coming into the state which would have destroyed the livelihoods of their families in Mexico and left five billion apples to rot. Then they sued the state to eliminate half the beds workers coming from across the nation needed. This housing is all government inspected and approved.

Arriving workers would be forced into cars, under bridges and into overcrowded homes without the best housing available to them. This, to protect workers? The state allowed use of the government housing with severe restrictions and imposed likely the strictest farm worker protections in the nation.

The tragedy unfolding in Yakima is indeed sad and troubling. Crosscut amplifies the dishonest claims of the union activists and places blame on farmers contrary to what the health officials state as reported by the Seattle Times on June 22:

“Still, the novel coronavirus has continued to rage through the ranks of Yakima’s agricultural workers and the broader county population in a pandemic that health district officials believe to be increasingly driven by what happens outside of the workplace, where masks are often not worn in stores and elsewhere, and holiday weekends result in case counts spiking.”

Reporter McCarty missed some very important facts including that as of June 25 there were 833 cases of Covid in farmworkers in Yakima out of a total of 6,736 cases. In Yakima, 14% of the population works in agriculture but 12.4% of the Covid cases are farm workers––Latino and other. These data support the position of the health experts that Yakima’s infection rate is a community issue and activists (and reporters) who blame farmers are ill-informed or dishonest.

The claims about farms refusing to provide needed masks is doubtful at best. Farmers struggled to secure needed supplies in the early stages of the pandemic as did hospitals. Some farms requested testing of all their employees so they could isolate those testing positive, and Yakima County has the highest level of testing in the state. One reason to doubt the accusations is that Guillen, Franks and Torres have a history of making outrageously false statements even in the face of clear and indisputable evidence. Guillen and Ramon Torres claimed Torres was fired by a farm for protest activities when the record shows he was given a five year restraining order against his wife by a judge after a domestic violence incident in the farm housing––a violation of farm policy. Their continued claims that a blueberry farm caused the death of a farm worker has been disputed by the Medical Examiner and an in-depth investigation by the state. Those inconveniences do not stop their lies, and activist-reporter McCarty appears to have little concern over whether accusations she highlights have any relationship to the truth.