Marielena Vega Returns to her Roots to Protect the People Growing Food in Idaho

Idaho Organization of Resource Council’s member Marielena Vega. Photo by Jessica Plance

This story was originally published at Homegrown Stories.

In 2020, Marielena Vega met a farmworker with a disturbing story. While he was working in a field one day, he noticed a crop-duster flying close by. When he warned his foreman about it, he was told to just duck down and hold his breath. “When he questioned if that was safe, the foreman told him he didn’t want to hear anymore about it,” recalled Marielena. In late May 2019, farmworkers harvesting hops near Parma, Idaho, were suspected to have been sprayed with pesticide from a crop duster. Farmworkers recounted smelling the harsh chemicals that were dropped on top of them. The physical and mental ailments soon followed, sending many in the group to the nearest hospital in Treasure Valley for suspected pesticide exposure. Farmworkers detailed flu-like symptoms including excruciating headaches, stomach aches, vomiting, and even falling unconscious. The local fire chief who worked with these farmworkers stated that, “he was thankful that no one died– he believ[ed] it was a real possibility.” Those who attended to these farmworkers stated that they could smell the chemical that was coming off their clothes. In March 2020, Marielena attended a public hearing in the Idaho Senate to share her own story and testify against a bill that would limit the authority of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture to respond and regulate pesticide use and application.  This was the start of her becoming a leader in farmworker advocacy. 

Years later, Marielena Vega gently grabbed a vine between her fingers while she explained how hops are harvested. This hop farm is located in Wilder, Idaho, just minutes down the road from her parents’ house, adjacent to a field and processing plant where her uncle still works. Farmworkers help provide the majority of the food people in America consume, harvesting produce, maintaining dairies, and working in the meat industry.

The road to the field was scattered with onions, the lost passengers from delivery trucks on their way to grocery stores. As Marielena spoke, hop trucks rumbled past in an endless cycle between the fields and the processing facility. Wilder’s main crops are onions, potatoes, hops, sugar beets, mint and grains. Idaho is second in the nation for growing hops and 70% of those production acres are in the Wilder area. That level of demand requires fields to be operated throughout the summer even when temperatures reach over 100 degrees, which happened twenty times in 2022. 

“One day in the future I want to hear ‘I know you guys care, my community cares, Idaho cares about me, my legislature cares about me, the grocery stores with all the produce that I pick care about me, I feel valued,’ I want that to be a thing I hear from our farmworkers. ”

Marielena Vega

Marielena was raised in this work. Her parents both emigrated from Mexico and spoke limited English. Since they didn’t know anyone they could trust, they would place Marielena in an apple crate while they worked in the orchard. It wasn’t long before she joined in with her parents in that work. Marielena’s mother taught her all of it, right down to the proper socks to wear on the job to avoid thorns and other environmental hazards. “Everyone who worked out there was like family, but you still had to be safe and protect yourself,” said Marielena. Before she really understood why, her mother made sure Marielena had a companion in the fields and was never at work alone. A survey in California revealed that over 80% of Hispanic women working in agriculture experience sexual harassment while on the job site. More than 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers are estimated to harvest food in the United States. These workers face harassment, chemical exposure, and other unjust working conditions at unprecedented levels.

After she was hired on at age of 15, Marielena really began to see her parents in a new light. “I knew how tired I was after a day of working, and there were my parents who were still there for me even when they were tired and I learned a new respect for them,” said Marielena. During her summers while attending college, Marielena would return home and spend her summers working in the fields. “I did this work, and it is backbreaking,” explained Marielena. Growing up she saw how hard her parents worked for their money, how tired they were each night and how early they rose each morning to start another day of work. 

She began to become more in-tune with the other people working in the fields as well. Single mothers, young adults hoping to attend college one day, older people who had no other source of income and were struggling to pay the bills, and those who were working to send money to their families that weren’t able to immigrate to the states yet. These were all people who also supported Marielena and wanted to see her go to college and achieve her goals. “I have never felt more support from my community than I did there,” explained Marielena. 

In the world outside of Wilder, it was different. “In Wilder, everyone more or less has family working in the fields,” said Marielena, “but in many other places when you tell someone your parents are farmworkers, you get a much different reaction.” While attending college six hours away from home, she saw the difference in people’s reactions when she would explain what her parents did for a living versus other professions. “I have never been ashamed of farm-work for myself or my family,” said Marielena, “But outside of these communities, people don’t seem to care, don’t care that these workers are being exposed to pesticides, extreme temperatures and more.” That’s when Marielena was introduced to the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils (IORC). 

Yes! I want to support grassroots organizing in Idaho!

IORC’s organizer, Irene Ruiz, met with Marielena and asked her to testify at a hearing about an incident in 2019 of farmworkers being exposed to pesticides while working. Through her and others sharing their perspective on a bill that was proposed, IORC organizers and members were able to get revisions made on the bill. While they didn’t achieve the outcome they hoped for, it was a step in the right direction. “It was exhilarating to find that there’s people not only from my background, but from different backgrounds who were willing to kind of jump in and see what we can do to help and being able to do that for my community, it’s the greatest thing,” said Marielena. 

From there, Marielena dove into volunteering her time with IORC and is now a board member of the grassroots organization as well as a chair member of a chapter organization, Vision2C Resource Council (V2C). V2C focuses on “community-driven social justice that is multi-generational, multicultural, and is representative of the people of Canyon County.” Their mission is to build and advocate for resilient, equitable, and sustainable communities through grassroots leadership.

Marielena worked with her uncle and other family members who still work in agriculture to coordinate dropping off supplies like electrolyte beverages, water, sunscreen, PPE, and bandanas. The supplies were donated through the Idaho Immigrant Resource Alliance for heat and smoke relief during the heatwave in the summer of 2022. While she was distributing supplies, Marielena would introduce herself to the workers and began the path of building trust. “Thank you for not forgetting about us,” one worker said to her. 

“This is what motivates me to go back to the organizers and see what else can be done,” said Marielena as she recalled her experience dropping off supplies. The goal is to build trust and connections with farmworkers to assess what their needs are and what changes they would like to see, then organize campaigns around those topics. Building membership for V2C is challenging considering most farmworkers are working long days and lack access to the internet. Many fear speaking out because of various citizenship statuses which are often used as blackmail against farmworkers. Marielena is continuing to build trust and membership for future campaigns. “I hope that one day, we’ll get to the point where farmworkers are recognized for their hard work,”said Marielena, “That they’re not pushed aside or marginalized, and can be put at the forefront when it comes to safety.”