Cornell CALS - College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Lake Ontario’s New Generation of Hispanic Employees, Future Leaders, and Innovators

group photo of tour participants

A view of Hispanic participants at an orchard stop during the 5th annual CCE LOF Hispanic Summer Fruit Tour conducted in Orleans County in July 13, 2019.
Liz Tee / CCE Lake Ontario Fruit Program

It was a sunny and gorgeous Saturday afternoon on July 13 for the 5th annual CCE Lake Ontario Fruit Program’s Hispanic Summer Fruit Tour successfully conducted in partnership with the Cornell Small Farms Program.  The beautiful weather added to the high turnout, but in truth, Mario Miranda Sazo is the reason more than one hundred Hispanic employees enjoyed a group dinner at Orchard Dale Fruit Farm Inc., at the end of the 4-stop tour. Since 2011, Miranda Sazo has worked tirelessly to create technical and professional development programming geared toward Spanish-speaking orchard employees in the Lake Ontario Fruit region.  New to the tour this year, Miranda Sazo invited fellow Labor Ready Project team member, Nicole Waters, of the Cornell Small Farms Program. As always, the Spanish language tour made strategic stops to discuss the latest techniques in orchard management.  However, this year’s tour focused on a new, but equally important aspect, labor readiness: i.e. communication, leadership and managerial skills in preparation of the upcoming apple harvest and beyond.

Tour Stop One: Sandy Knoll Farms, Lyndonville

Mario Miranda Sazo and Master Class graduate Luis Garza stand in orchard talking

Mario Miranda Sazo and Master Class graduate Luis Garza, of Sandy Knoll Farms, discuss the importance of communication and professionalism in the context of orchard management and leadership.
Nicole Waters / Small Farms Program

Luis Garza, orchard manager at Sandy Knoll Farms, kicked off the tour as the host of stop number one.  As attendees gathered around the rows of Gala and Honeycrisp, Luis and Mario introduced last fall’s Master Class program within the context of orchard leadership and crew management.  Luis, a graduate of the Master Class, described his experience as, “muy provechosa” (very useful), recommending participation to anyone who would like to improve their leadership and English-language skills to ultimately become an orchard manager. This marked the first point during the tour that the overall confidence gained, as a result of participation in the Master Class became apparent. For many employees, work experience and attention to detail leads to technical skill, but for managers, technical skill alone is not sufficient. A true farm leader possess the ability to communicate and train other workers to become equally skillful. Luis was not the only Master Class student to speak up in support of the program; a fellow graduate, José Vallejo of Ledge Rock Farm, who stated, “I really would like to invite more of us (Hispanic employees) to attend the coming Master Class program, it was a great experience for me”.

Tour Stop Two: Perez Farms, Waterport

Mentoring was the highlight of stop number two. José Perez, owner of Perez Farms, introduced tour attendees to farm manager, Luis Enrique Morales. This year’s harvest will be the first with managerial responsibilities for Luis. Mario expertly guided the conversation around the importance of good communication skills for farm managers. During this discussion, five out of the six attending Master Class Students took the initiative to speak up and offer their recommendations for Luis. Participants discussed the difference between working on a set task, versus having the managerial responsibilities of preparing, planning and executing a successful apple harvest. Again, Master Class graduates stood out among the crowd as leaders, aware of the importance of taking initiative and communicating with clarity.

Tour Stop Three: Lamont Fruit Farms Inc., Waterport

Mario Miranda Sazo and José Iñiguez talk to group

Attendees of the 5th Annual Hispanic Summer Fruit Tour gather around as Mario Miranda Sazo and José Iñiguez discuss side grafting and pruning techniques.
Nicole Waters / Small Farms Program

Stop number three provided a picturesque backdrop surrounded by high-density apple trees, complete with harvest and spray equipment. José Iñiguez, successful production manager, co-owner and partner of Lamont Fruit Farms, delivered the important discussion focused on labor efficiency, with specific advice on how to prepare for apple harvest 2019.

The technical component of this stop did not disappoint.  Attendees gathered around Mario and José from all angles to listen in on the discussion and demonstration of side grafting and training of leaders with short pruning techniques conducted at the end of June.

Tour Stop Four: Orchard Dale Fruit Farm Inc.

Community building. Support for employees’ mastery of skill and overall wellbeing leads to a more enjoyable workplace, ultimately leading to a more productive workforce with less turnover.  From time-to-time workplace issues will inevitably arise, but this is precisely why it is important to have trained and skilled managers, who understand how to communicate and navigate with confidence and professionalism.

Finding the right people to support the day-to–day operations and overall development of your farm business is not easy.  Assembling the wrong horticultural team and staffing up prematurely can become costly and catastrophic.  A growing cohort of innovative NY fruit companies understand that it is much cheaper to develop a highly skilled and motivated Hispanic fruit team, than it is to go out and bring in new people year after year.  Empowered employees and orchard managers will perform at their best level, make independent decisions, and find ways to improve orchard operations – including planting, pruning, hand thinning, and harvest. The initiative and natural leadership demonstrated by the graduates of the Master Class program throughout the fifth annual Hispanic Summer Fruit Tour is a direct testament to the benefit of offering professional development opportunities to Spanish-speaking farm employees.

There is no doubt that a new generation of Hispanic employees, future industry innovators and leaders, is currently on the rise in the Lake Ontario Fruit Region. This demographic of farm employees have been largely overlooked in the movement of professional development for career advancement.  Opportunities for growth are long overdue.  Now more than ever, improving the working environment and maximizing workforce talent is of utmost importance.

Give Hispanic employees the opportunity to excel this season and beyond!

This article was co-written by Mario Miranda Sazo, CCE Lake Ontario Fruit Program, and Nicole Waters, Cornell Small Farms Program.

Nicole Waters

Nicole Waters

Nicole is the Beginning Farmer Project Coordinator for the Cornell Small Farms Program. Her work focuses on the human side of farming, with the day-to-day operations of the Labor Ready Project as her main priority. Trained in organizational communication, leadership, and English as a Second Language (ESL); Nicole’s work aims to foster healthy and positive working environments through professional development programs.

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