Farm Work and Flowcharts

Access to water. Dehydration. Water consumption habits and behavior. Barriers. Facilitators. These are the topics my capstone project is meant to address and elucidate. As I studied the literature and did my best to become an expert of sorts prior to starting field work, I began to see farm worker hydration and the factors that impact it as a flow chart:

  1. Pay structure influences the likelihood that a worker will take breaks
  2. Workers who do not take breaks will drink less water
  3. People who drink less water are more likely to reach a dehydrated state
  4. Dehydration leads to acute and chronic illnesses
  5. Solution: Fix the pay structure, avoid illness, receive gold star

Of course, I was cautious of unknown complexities, but I began to construct explanations, unconsciously or consciously, under the assumption that I would need to make only minor adjustments.

It really is not that hard. I can fix this.

Then I started talking to people. I had lined up a few Sunday morning interviews at an office in the Central Valley. Coffee in one hand, digital recorder in the other, I began by thanking the participant for taking time out of her weekly day off of work to speak with me. The interview progressed and I was feeling great. She was hitting all the buzzwords and throwing out all of the important phrases. Then something happened. Her eyes became moist; her voice cracked. Tears still streaming down her cheeks, she continued. I paraphrase here:

I realize now that the American dream, for which I crossed borders and left my family, friends and culture, is not real.

I am not prepared. I have no tissues.

It turns out that many components of the flow charts I had mapped out, either on paper or in my mind, were pretty accurate. Pay structure does appear to be a real influencing factor in many people’s ability to stay well hydrated. The complexity of that issue, though, was not captured when I was attempting to look through my “science project” lens. I realized that I did not truly know farm workers. I could not predict or always understand the history, goals or values of this population, and addressing the most pressing issues rarely, if ever, involved a simple cause-and-effect relationship.

This was the first, but certainly not the last, conversation that resulted in a tearful expression of sadness, anxiety, pride or resolve. As I reflected and asked myself why I was caught off guard by these responses, I concluded that the answer lay, at least in part, in my ability to treat another’s pain and hardship as a science project. Indeed, I have the luxury of looking at farm worker health through the lens of a scientist, as a series of flowcharts, without getting distracted by the reality of the influencing complexities like figuring out how to support a family, raise a child and get ahead in life—in Spanish, “salir adelante.” I accepted this project because I felt passionately that no one’s job—the way they make a living—should kill them. This conviction remains, but my view has shifted: from interest to responsibility, from flowcharts to families, from science to lived experience.