The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2011 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
By Tony Schick
The mobile homes behind the John Deere dealer in Kennett, Mo., couldn’t move anymore if they needed to. Many of the homes, nearly all of which belong to migrant workers in the area, have settled in to the earthen plots as permanent fixtures. The John Deere, or "JD" Community, as locals know it, teems with signs of life: freshly polished children’s bikes, mud-covered spigots and dozens of wandering dogs.
But not a person is in sight.
"They’re probably all working the gins," said Luz Bravo, a case manager at United Migrant Outreach Services, a local migrant services agency.
Cotton ginning started weeks ago across the Missouri Bootheel, meaning migrant laborers, up to 20 at each gin, will work shifts from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or vice versa.
In the Bootheel, migrants come for the peaches, stay for the cotton and pick melons in between. All in all, a farmhand can find an average of nine to 10 solid months of work here. Over the past half decade, that nearly year-round stream of work drew migrants — mostly Hispanic — to the region and caused many to settle permanently.
JD resident Esmer Ortiz used to be a seasonal, traveling worker. She’d work three months in Texas, two in New Mexico, and in 2001 began spending two or three months in the Bootheel. In 2004, she moved here permanently.
"I hoe cotton fields in the summer and work the gins in the winter," she said. "At the most, it’s three months out of the year looking for work."
This year, a big cotton harvest has farmers needing more gin workers than ever. Before the harvest, farmers needed more manual laborers, too. Chemical weed killers are faltering and migrant labor has once again become the most effective way to clean a cotton field.
Farmer Charles Parker of Senath, Mo., has $4 million worth of farm equipment under one barn. His irrigation system — an additional $2 million — is automated, and his cotton pickers can drive themselves with GPS technology. Yet he now relies on manual labor — migrant workers, usually — to control weeds.
In the mid-1990s, seed companies developed crops genetically modified to resist the chemical glyphosate. The herbicide and the genetically modified crops, including cotton, were first marketed by Monsanto Co. as Roundup. Spraying glyphosate, called Roundup by Monsanto, on Roundup-ready cotton would kill every weed in a field but leave the crop untouched. It was fail-safe for nearly 15 years, said Jason Weirich, a weed scientist at the University of Missouri Delta Center in Portageville, Mo.
That is, until pigweed — which thrives on cotton farms — developed resistance.
"This is the first time I can remember that a technology was so widely adopted and then failed," said Gene Stevens, an extension professor at the Delta Center.
Farmers’ widespread use of the chemical led to the resistance, Weirich said.
Many farmers now have few options but to turn to migrant labor because today’s farms are bigger with fewer salaried workers, Stevens said.
Manual labor has been more effective in controlling weeds this year, Weirich said. Good conditions, clean fields and high demand have led to what scientists and local farmers expect to be the largest and most lucrative cotton harvest on record.
As a result, the area’s migrant population is near the level it was in the early 1990s, before the glyphosate-based biotechnologies reduced the need for migrants on cotton farms.
The migrant population in the Bootheel has been rising for years. Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, the Hispanic population in Dunklin County increased 110 percent — 30 percent faster than the rest of the state. The elementary school in Senath is now 43 percent Hispanic.
"Before, it was very scarce you'd see a Mexican person in Wal-Mart or around town," Ortiz said, recalling her first years in Kennett. "You'd stop them, say ‘Hey! How are you? How long have you been here?’ Before, you'd spot one or two. Now, they’re everywhere."
But Dunklin County doesn’t have the infrastructure to support the increase in migrant population, whether they pass through or settle permanently, said Stephen Borders, director of farmworker services in Missouri for United Migrant Outreach Services, in Kansas City.
No new construction for low-income, multi-family housing has occurred in the past decade in Kennett or the surrounding areas, Borders said.
Driving through Kennett, Bravo and colleague Sandy Self pointed out motel after motel — the 84 West Motel, the KenMotel, the Days Inn — that serve as migrant housing.
In a down economy, the number of local people needing affordable housing has increased, Self said. When the demand for low-income housing is high, migrants lose.
Some landlords take advantage of Hispanic migrant laborers, said Ludy Lopez, outreach advocate for Migrant Whole Health Outreach, which provides social services, in Kennett. Instead of offering fixed rent, some landlords charge as much as $50 per week per person, including children who don’t work.
"I’ve seen some situations where they cram six or seven men into a two-bedroom," Ortiz said. "That’s not right.’"
Housing rented to migrants often lacks electricity, fresh water or a sewage system.
"People have nowhere else to go," Lopez said. "They face a lot of discrimination."
Landlords would prefer not rent to migrants, so they ask for documents they normally wouldn’t, like birth certificates, she said. Migrants have little choice but to comply.
"Because the need is so great, the workers are ready to do whatever they’re asked to do," Lopez said.
Conditions are steadily improving in some situations. Homes in the JD Community do not have running water, heat or sewage; residents must dispose of their own waste. But a series of grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has helped the community clean up junk heaps and improve waste disposal, and the community is still trying to form a sewer district.
"It’s still in limbo, but we’re hoping," Ortiz said.
The JD Community has transitioned from migrant housing to neighborhood, she said.
About 85 percent of the community’s residents are now permanent, which has helped them make progress, Ortiz said.
The trailers behind John Deere are becoming more of a community every day. Some came for the peaches, some stayed for the cotton. And they aren’t going anywhere.