Migrant farmworkers are at the forefront of many discussions on agriculture and immigration. In ag-heavy states like Florida, the presence of farmworkers is common, as they are there nearly year-round to pick such crops as citrus and strawberries. However, NPR contributor, Dan Charles, realized that while many who are in agriculture understand that a large portion of US food is picked by hand by migrant workers, urban and suburbanites likely have little understanding of the process. He went on an assignment that’s lasted about a year, exploring the lives of farmworkers around the country, and took away the five key lessons below.

  1. It’s a hard life that many farmworkers enjoy.

Farmworkers get up early, work long hours outdoors and work physically hard bending, stretching, carrying heavy objects and so on. They endure low pay and uncertain work, but many enjoy the freedom of the outdoors.

  1. The biggest issue isn’t low pay, but uncertain work.

While it’s true that most harvest work pays little, though some crops pay decently under the right conditions—like blueberries and apples—the biggest problem is uncertain work. Down time where there are no crops to harvest or the weather isn’t cooperating means zero pay. Farmworkers maintained steady work would mean a lot more than higher pay.

  1. A shortage of farmworkers is affecting the ag industry.

Due to a slowdown in immigration from Mexico, there aren’t as many farmworkers to go around, according to those in the ag industry. The ag industry has a number of options for dealing with this issue.

  1. Legal status is a big issue.

According to Charles, “It’s pretty obvious, once you start spending time in the fields, that much of the American food system rests on a tacit agreement to disregard the law. Workers present Social Security cards that are not their own. Employers accept those cards while assuming that some of those documents are not valid.” It’s a complex subject with no simple solution.

  1. There are fewer families “on the move.”

The percentage of farmworker families who are “settled” in a community has risen by 42 percent from 1998 to 2012, according to data Charles cited from the U.S. Department of Labor. Essentially, farmworkers are settling and joining communities.

Read Dan Charles’ full report on NPR here.