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New nonprofit helps farmworker with idea for cherry picking harness

By Jasper Kenzo Sundeen, Yakima Herald-Republic
Published: June 3, 2024, 5:06am

YAKIMA — Luis Alejandro Barrera has spent most of the past six years working on orchards in Washington. He comes from Nayarit, on Mexico’s west coast, and works nine-month contracts at cherry and apple orchards.

He’s had plenty of experience picking cherries and apples and thinning trees, and now he’s using his knowledge and experience in a new way.

Barrera noticed issues with harnesses used for cherry picking, and he designed a new one to lessen stress and injuries. He is now working to patent his new harness though a new program at the nonprofit Semillero de Ideas.

“Each year, we pick cherries at the end of the month in May and the beginning of the month in June,” Barrera said in Spanish during an interview in Sunnyside. “It’s not just me; various coworkers adjust these harnesses to our liking because sometimes they hurt us. I added improvements because I wanted one that was better to make the work easier.”

Barrera and Josefina Luciano, a volunteer with Semillero de Ideas, said harnesses can press into workers’ shoulders, leaving them with bruises and hurt necks and shoulders. Ultimately, over an eight-hour day, Barrera said, that affects workers’ production.

Barrera has been using his new harness and it helps him mentally, he said.

“At the end of the day, I don’t have this pain,” he said. “This is better, there isn’t stress and this is the solution.”

Barrera said he never anticipated having an opportunity to pursue a patent. That’s where nonprofit Semillero de Ideas came in.

A new organization, Semillero de Ideas, or the Idea Nursery, is trying to help workers develop their ideas and innovations in the agricultural industry.

“I was really struck by the depth of knowledge workers had,” said Erik Nicholson, the organization’s interim executive director and a former labor advocate.

Semillero de Ideas works to give farmworkers support and connections to apply their solutions on a broader scale in the agricultural industry.

For Josefina Luciano, a farmworker and volunteer for Semillero de Ideas, it’s an important mission in the context of the larger agricultural industry. She said a lot of opportunities for innovation are inaccessible to farmworkers, who don’t have the support and capital to make changes and face language and financial barriers.

A lot of innovation focuses on mechanization, she said, which can displace workers and hurt small agricultural communities like those in the Lower Yakima Valley. Luciano said workers can bring their own ideas to the table to reduce costs or increase production.

There are a couple of different ways of going about that, Nicholson said, including encouraging employers and workers to make space and time for innovation, giving farmworkers access to technical knowledge and maker’s spaces, and assisting with the legal process for patents to help workers use and protect their ideas.

Nicholson said the program is trying to grow. It received funding from the state for the next two years, but, for now, Barrera is leading the way.

He is the program’s first member; he won a $1,000 prize in a contest in which dozens of workers submitted their plans to Semillero de Ideas to improve cherry picking in Eastern and Central Washington. The contest started in August 2023, and a winner was announced in November.

“To me, it was confirmation … of the depth of knowledge that workers have,” Nicholson said.

He added that ideas ranged from niche to systemic, with workers tackling individual problems from all angles.

For Barrera, the experience has been a little surreal. He is employed through the H-2A program, a federal program that allows employers to bring in foreign guest workers to supplement domestic labor.

He added that it’s been rewarding to learn more about the legal process in the United States and he’s grateful for the support he’s received as he pursues the patent.

He’s not sure what he’s going to do next, he said. Agricultural work has been slow this year and nine months in the United States is a sacrifice, a long time to be away from his young son. But he’s focused on the first orders of the new harness for now.

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“People have asked me if I want to sell it, if I want to work on it, and I’m not really sure. First, I want to make the orders we have and see my options for improving it,” Barrera said.

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen’s reporting for the Yakima Herald-Republic is possible with support from Report for America and community members through the Yakima Valley Community Fund. For information on republishing, email news@yakimaherald.com.

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