The Climate Lede: Sneak peek

Farmworkers in Texas feel the heat

There's a place in Texas where people are as concerned about climate change as those in liberal New York or Washington, D.C.: the fields of South Texas. Rising temperatures are making it even harder on farm workers who already toil under extreme heat. Climatewire science and politics reporter Scott Waldman traveled there to talk to farmworkers and someone who tries to keep them hydrated. In this podcast, he talks about his trip and the story that resulted from it.

Production by Chris Farmer. Editing by Camille von Kaenel.


Evan Lehmann: We sent a reporter to the Rio Grande Valley to talk to farmworkers about climate change and how it affects their lives. I'm Evan Lehmann, editor of Climatewire.

Robin Bravender: I'm Robin Bravender, deputy editor of Climatewire.

Lehmann: You're listening to The Climate Lede.

Scott Waldman went to South Texas a couple weeks ago to do a story about a very conservative area that is an outlier in the sense that there are a lot of people there who believe in climate change. Tell us about that place.

Scott Waldman: So it's outside of McAllen, Texas, and it's called Mercedes, which is sort of like suburbs into farm area, and this is where — I didn't even realize it's a very fertile region of the country because of the Rio Grande. It's like a floodplain of the Rio Grande, so the soil is great for growing cilantro, celery, watermelon. There's orange groves, there's also cotton, so there are hundreds of thousands of farmworkers who live there to pick it.

Bravender: Why'd you decide to go there?

Waldman: I just saw on a Yale climate opinion map months ago that one of the regions where people are most worried about climate change in the whole country is this area. Three-quarters of the people in these counties along the border from McAllen to Laredo and down to Brownsville worry about climate change. That's the level you see in like New York City and Washington, D.C., just for blue liberal areas, and there's really nowhere else like it in the country where it's like such a concern.

And in going and reporting it, I really shifted — I didn't even think that I'd focus on farmworkers so much, but I just realized it's a really important story to tell, and they're one of the most vulnerable populations to climate change by far in the country, and it's just sort of like one more pressure point on them in addition to these other challenges.

You know, a lot of them are undocumented, and they can get exploited by farm bosses who don't want to pay them. They have no recourse to go and try to get their wages, and we heard stories like that. So I think it's a threat multiplier, I've heard climate change described as in other situations, and it certainly is here.

Lehmann: So why is belief in climate change high there?

Waldman: I think it's just a part of people's everyday life in a way that it's not elsewhere. The temperatures in southern Texas are increasing, the heat waves are increasing as a result of climate change, it's only going to get worse in the future.

Heat waves are more intense, they last longer, and also it doesn't cool down at night as much as it used to, which is, if you're a farmworker living in a fairly modest home, some of these homes are sort of slapped together with parts as people can afford to buy them, and there might be multiple families living in there, so there's no air conditioning. It's probably a pretty hot and miserable place come July when the cotton needs to be picked, and that's like a big, intensive harvesting season down there.

Bravender: Tell us about one of the most interesting people you met.

Waldman: Gosh, I met a lot of characters. There's this couple, Linda and Jesse Martinez, and they were farmworkers, and now they run this type of business you don't even know exists. They are the people that basically get the farmworkers and bring them to the fields when a drought hits and it quickly kills a whole crop of onions. I think they were telling me a local field of 50 acres had just sort of been ruined and it was going to have to be plowed under. It happens pretty quickly. Here's how the Martinezes described it to me when I was standing with them in a field as they were preparing to bring in their crew to harvest it.

Linda Martinez: It hurts us, but the farmer was — they have insurance, right. They claim the insurance, so they don't lose very much, but we do. They depend on this to put food on their table. And there used to be a lot more people before that used to clip onions than there is now. All the younger generations just don't want to work in the fields anymore.

Lehmann: Scott also spoke with Sylvia Murphy of MET, which trains farmworkers on staying hydrated. Hi, Sylvia.

Waldman: Tell me how much of a risk is heat stress for the folks who are there harvesting the vegetables in the fields.

Sylvia Murphy: It is a high risk. It is one of your more dangerous areas aside from the pesticide exposure. You're sweating and you're losing whatever liquid it is in your body.

Waldman: And what do you try to impart to folks that are in the fields when you're doing training sessions with them? What is some of the most important lessons that you want them to take away?

Murphy: First and foremost is I always recommend that they try and drink a 16-ounce bottle of water every 30 minutes, because technically it's maybe 8 ounces or what have you or a little bit less every 15 minutes, but the first thing that a lot of the workers tell me is that's taking too much time out of the work. So I strongly recommend that at least a bottle of — 16 ounces of water every 30 minutes.

Waldman: And just for a second, I wanted to sort of get into your personal background. I think you said — were you a fifth-generation Mexican-American? Is that right?

Murphy: Yes. We're very proud Texans, Mexican-Americans. And the majority of them, at one time or another, our family members all worked out in the fields. As a matter of fact, my dad is still working out in the fields. He went back again to his roots, so to speak. And so now he works as a service technician for the boll weevil eradication program here in Texas, and he's 77 years old. I make sure that he's got his little ice chest full of water.

Waldman: OK, take care.

Murphy: OK, thank you.

Lehmann: Are their voices heard — is their voice heard on climate change? You know, these are nonvoting people, probably, if they're not U.S. citizens.

Waldman: That's a great question. I think that probably it's not, and I think that we'll see in the election coming up. Sylvia Murphy, she said this is the blue tip of Texas. This is the part that's combining to make it a purple state instead of a fully red state. She was pretty convinced that Beto O'Rourke can beat Ted Cruz because of the enthusiasm among the Hispanic population of the state that is able to vote.

Bravender: Check out Scott's story and more at eenews.net.

Lehmann: Thanks for listening.