When I spoke with Luis Cruz from the North Carolina State University Cooperative of Wayne County, a phrase that my mother would often utter came to mind.

“If you don’t know, now you know… And knowing is half the battle.”

Luis Cruz, Farmworkers Health and Safety Educator for the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension, conducting a training session.

As mentioned in this month’s cover story on page 12, Cruz heads up the worker safety training program for the university. He visits area farms and meets with workers to discuss the dangers of their job. One thing he mentioned stuck with me afterward. Cruz said that when he would conduct his training, he often found that the obstacle most workers faced was just not being aware of the information. This could be attributed to many factors such as language since a majority of workers are immigrants, travel due to lack of transportation or other unique elements. I observed a similar dynamic when I attended the Great Lakes Expo last December. A spirited session on manager-employee relations hosted by the Michigan State University Extension shared a common theme with the situation Cruz described: communication or the lack thereof.

During that session in Grand Rapids, Michigan, attendees argued that when an attempt was made to speak with their farmworkers via surveys and inquiries conducted by MSU, the conversations quickly turned into a complaint session about the way they were treated. Granted in this case and in North Carolina, the language barrier is the common thread, but deciding whether farmers should brush up on their Spanish or the workers should learn English is a debate for another time or column. In the case of this session, most of the workers surveyed complained of not being heard or ignored completely. The lingering sentiment from the attendees in the room – the farmers – was “How are we supposed to know?”

From their standpoint, knowing what’s going on is a big chunck of the process when it comes to understanding their workers’ needs and concerns. How are we supposed to run an efficient business if we fail to hear our employees out? Communication is key.

Learning about the efforts of Cruz and NCSU proved to be a great example of building that foundation of trust between local farmers and the hired help. Here, the subject was worker safety, but the topic could have easily been, “Do you feel you need a raise?” or “Is your boss respecting you?”

Regardless, communication is the bridge that it connecting everyone in Wayne County and a conversation has begun that would hopefully lead to a better, productive work environment. And because of that, everyone now knows and that battle is already won.