A ripening green apple hangs low on a tree in Milton-Freewater, Ore. Between 10,000 to 12,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers come to the Columbia River Gorge each year to harvest fruit, traveling north from Mexico through California in one of the country’s major migration routes. This year, Covid-19 presented unique challenges to the workers.. (AP Photo/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Matthew B. Zimmerman)

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Spanning both states of Oregon and Washington, the Columbia River Gorge is a place of striking natural beauty. Annually, the Gorge produces over 225,000 tons of apples, pears, and cherries. 

Between 10,000 to 12,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers come to the Gorge each year to harvest fruit, traveling north from Mexico through California in one of the country’s major migration routes. This year, Covid-19 presented unique challenges to the workers.

Long before the annual fruit harvest began this year, local public health officials and community leaders were discussing how to support farmworkers and their families during the quarantine. While most conversations focused on housing and personal protective equipment, it quickly became clear that the internet would be critical for two reasons: accessing non-emergency Telemedicine services and providing education for children of farmworkers unable to attend their usual in-person summer classes.

In April, Ashley Thompson, Fruit Horticulturalist at Oregon State University Extension Service in Wasco County, administered a survey to local orchardists to gauge interest in wifi hot spots.

“Some orchards have had wifi for a long time,” said Ashley. “Some don’t know about it, or can’t afford it, or they’re just in a topographical zone that doesn’t lend itself well to the carrier that they typically use.”

In response to orchardists’ interest in wifi, Dave Anderson, City of The Dalles Public Works Director, asked community businesses for help. Google, which operates a large data center in The Dalles and makes grants that provide internet access to underserved communities, responded with $12,600. This funding helped purchase 21 hot spots and six Chromebooks for farmworkers to use throughout orchards in Wasco County. 

RadComp, a local IT Company, installed the hot spots for free. To accommodate areas without cell service, which the hot spots require, another local company tried to provide wifi signal though their system of tower-based internet services, but the topography proved too unforgiving.

Community leaders are now looking into satellite internet services. But with only a couple more weeks left in the cherry harvest season, they are now assessing the level of need among the orchardists.

Meanwhile, the hot spots in orchards with cell service are working.

As wifi hot spots get distributed and installed, community organizations are making sure orchardists and farmworkers stay informed about Covid-19. Gladys Rivera, Preventative Health Manager at One Community Health, distributes detailed instructions on how to make Telemedicine appointments and provides updated health and safety education.

“In 19 days we’ve educated 500 people,” said Gladys. “For every organization we work with, it’s been farmworkers and staff.”

Generally, children of farmworkers attend an in-person summer school program, which is not available this year due to Covid-19. Yet, the Oregon migrant summer education program requires a measurement of progress in reading and math, which isn’t possible without internet. This year, instructors are providing education to students in their camps, and wifi is a necessity.

In an effort similar to Dave Anderson’s, the Columbia Gorge Education Service District sought funding through the Covid-19 Gorge Community Response Fund, a partnership between the United Way of the Columbia Gorge and the Healthy Gorge Initiative. The Fund awarded $10,000 to directly support summer education for children of farmworkers through 10 wifi hot spots and satellite phones for instructors in areas without cell service. 

“Students haven’t had class for three to four months,” said Jonathan Fost, Migrant Education Program Director. “And now it’s such a bonus and such a bright spot in their day. It’s saying, ‘somebody cares, they’re caring about me and providing academics to me in a safe place, and in an open-air classroom.’”

According to Jonathan, students also access wifi for STEM-based activities that get them moving, exploring nature, and playing games.

While Telemedicine and education are arguably the most important wifi applications, farmworkers are also using the internet for other purposes. Thus far, news, science, and technology are the most frequently searched items.

Wifi interest among farmworkers was instantaneous, according to Hailey Elliott, owner of Tenneson Orchards. When she announced that wifi was available, workers immediately began requesting the password.

“It’s a really nice amenity to allow farmworkers to do things like online bill pay, sending emails to companies, and doing general business,” said Ashley Thompson.

While Covid-related challenges remain, expanding wifi access in orchards has alleviated some of the strain of the pandemic in the Columbia Gorge. The commitment by community organizations and local businesses to this effort also sends the message to farmworkers that they are valuable members of the community, and that their health and safety matter.

Judy Bankman is an Oregon-based consultant and freelance writer focusing on issues of public health, health equity, and sustainable food systems. She received her Master of Public Health from New York University’s School of Global Public Health in 2014.