May 21, 2015
Refugee program gets to the ROOT of the labor problem

A new pilot project conceived by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County is addressing the growing need for farm employees by local New York vegetable and dairy farms by recruiting and training qualified refugees residing in Buffalo to fill the positions.

Called Refugee Onsite Occupational Training (ROOT), the program joins farmers in Erie County in need of a reliable work force and refugees with legal paperwork and agricultural experience.

“By facilitating the recruitment, training and transportation activities, this pilot project will set a firm foundation for filling the gap between Erie County farmers’ work force needs and refugees’ willingness, interest and ability to work in the agriculture sector,” said Megan Burley, an Erie County Extension educator. “As a result, ROOT will directly support both local agriculture and refugee residents of Erie County, as well as set the stage for future programs to do the same; a single solution for two urgent needs.”

Farmers from all over the state have expressed interest in this project, because of their great need for labor.


In 2014, President Barack Obama authorized the admission of 70,000 refugees into the United States, meaning they are considered legal residents, and after one year they have the ability to become permanent residents by obtaining a Green Card. After five years, a refugee living in the United States may obtain citizenship.

Roughly 20,000 refugees currently live in Buffalo, New York, and the average annual resettlement rate for refugees entering Buffalo is approximately 1,500 people per year.

“I have been working with refugees on an urban farm the last two years, and realized that many of the refugees I have been working with have a significant amount of agricultural experience,” Burley said. “Many are not employed, and have interest in working on farms but lack the opportunity because they have been resettled in a city (due to transportation reasons).”

Burley discussed the problem with some farmers in the Erie County community, and mentioned it as a possible opportunity for employment if there was need. A few months later, Dan Henry, owner of W.D. Henry and Sons, contacted Burley because he needed a crew to run his packing line – due to an expansion and the fact they no longer had enough employees to keep everything picked and packed.

“We got a crew together and they worked in the packing area last summer. After year one, we saw there was a need for more training before working on the farms,” Burley said.


Wyoming County Cornell Cooperative Extension has a similar program, working with refugees from the Rochester area and training them to work on dairy farms. The ROOT program follows that training model.

Henry said the preliminary job training will teach the refugees about the business and day-to-day farming practices.

“Given current labor shortages in agriculture and the difficulties that refugees face in finding jobs in our area, we feel that this program is a win-win,” he said. “If all goes well with the ROOT program, we plan to hire 10 to 15 people to work in our packinghouse, inspecting, sorting and packing vegetables.”

The training takes place over one week for both vegetable and dairy farm requirements. Burley is in charge of the vegetable training portion.

Day one provides an overview of the vegetable farm and equipment and a meet-the-farmer session, followed by a tour of the farm. Day two is all about food safety and work protocols. The next two days are a lesson in sorting vegetables by size, shape and appearance, as well as tutelage on assembling a box and an English as a second language component. The final day of training involves an overview of the program, and actual packing on the line at the vegetable farm.

“The main thing they must learn depends on the cultural background as well,” Burley said. “Some may have been farmers in their home country, but they might not know anything about a cucumber or other vegetables. Working with the sorting equipment is also new to the refugees, because they are not used to this type of mechanization.”

The Cornell Vegetable Program will provide specialists for pieces of the vegetable training.

Last year, the Henry farm employed refugees from Somalia, Arabia, Nepal and the Congo. Many of the Nepali refugees lacked experience in vegetable production, because the farms they worked on or owned were often livestock. This year, Burley expects to be working with mostly Burmese.

“The Burmese and African populations often have more experience with vegetable production,” she said. “Many of the refugees owned farms in their home country, and once placed in a refugee camp, if given the opportunity, farmed/gardened for some of their food.”

Erie County Extension is collaborating on this project with Journey’s End Refugee Services, Community Action Organization and Cornell Cooperative Extension Northwest New York Dairy Team.

Currently, three farmers in Erie County are taking part in the ROOT program, and 31 refugees.

“I think that this project works best for those who are expanding production who need an additional labor force, not replacing the workers that are already employed on the farm,” Burley said.

Burley would like to see the program expand to different regions, each focused on different trainings, and eventually include refugee training for the fruit industry.

Keith Loria

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