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Irrigation equipment sits in an open field in Emmett on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

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BOISE — As the percentage of women in farm labor grows nationwide, researchers in Idaho have gathered the stories of dozens of Latina farmworkers and studied the distinct challenges they face. 

The researchers, from Boise State University, found that women farmworkers are more likely than their male peers to be employed seasonally, rather than year-round. Latina farmworkers are also more likely to take on more emotional and physical labor involved in managing a household, the research found. 

Researchers gathered interviews and data from 70 Latina farmworkers in Southwest Idaho from October 2018 to June 2019. Of those, 22 participated in focus groups, 11 participated in structured interviews and 44 gave urine samples to test for pesticide exposure.

Other concerns noted in the study were low pay, lack of access to medical care and health insurance, dangerous work with pesticides and machinery, and anxiety when it comes to their immigration status.

Despite the risks of farm work, researcher Lisa Meierotto said one of her takeaways was the sense of community that Latina farmworkers have built with each other.

"So many women expressed, even in the face of all of these challenges, a love for each other and a love for nature and being able to contribute," Meierotto said.

'DIFFICULT, BEAUTIFUL' WORK

The percentage of women in farm labor is increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2018, women made up 25% of farmworkers nationwide, up from 19% in 2010.

Medical insurance, good schools for their children, stable employment and sufficient income were rated as "very important" by the Latina farmworkers who responded to the BSU surveys. 

The women told researchers they appreciated working outside and working with other women. 

"It is difficult work, but beautiful work," one worker told the researchers in Spanish.

The researchers found that single women had a difficult time paying rent and for groceries. 

With medical insurance being one of the top resources Latina farmworkers care about, the researchers concluded that the women appreciated health care services, such as the Terry Reilly Health Services clinics and the Saint Alphonsus Mobile Clinic that provide health care to women for low or no cost. 

The median household income of the Latinas in the study was approximately $20,000 per year, researcher Cynthia Curl said.

Curl said researchers did ask the study participants what type of health insurance they got through work, but she said they had not fully analyzed the responses yet.

The women also told researchers that they relied heavily on the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs in their areas for child care and education resources. 

PESTICIDE EXPOSURE

The 44 urine samples collected for the study were taken during "non-spray season" from Jan. 1 to April 15, 2019, and during "spray season" from April 15 to June 30, 2019. The samples were analyzed by the New York Department of Health. 

The analysis found that the highest concentrations of MDA, a metabolite common in insecticide, was found in the samples during spray season from the women who said their jobs were to apply pesticides. The women told researchers that they had not received any training on pesticide safety, a violation of federal regulations that require individuals who handle pesticides to receive the training needed.

Pesticides, used to kill insects, weeds and fungi, can cause skin irritation, affect the nervous and reproductive systems, and cause cancer, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The chemicals can enter the body through direct contact with skin and clothes; breathing pesticide-containing mist, dust, fumes or smoke; and ingestion by eating without washing hands first.

From the urine analysis, the BSU group concluded that women who are in charge of applying pesticides to a field may not be properly protected from exposure to the chemicals. 

The lack of protections for farmworkers who spray pesticides has been a focus for Curl, who said there has been more information suggesting women are not seen as the group of people who are in charge of spraying pesticides, "so they don't get the training and they don't get clothes in the right size, so that is an added challenge that they may face."

Researchers said their findings can be used to inform programs and policies that support Idaho farmworkers, women and families.

Rachel Spacek is the Latino Affairs and Canyon County reporter for the Idaho Press. You can reach her at rspacek@idahopress.com. Follow her on twitter @RachelSpacek.

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