The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the number of farms in Kentucky has decreased by 16,000 over the past 20 years.
That means many people who once worked on those farms have to find other ways to make a living.
That’s the mission of the Kentucky Farmworker Programs - to help seasonal and migrant farmworkers find retraining and jobs.
At the Metalsa plant in Hopkinsville, Victor Radford is eager to get started on his day’s work helping to make frames for pickup trucks.
“I’m on the repair station today, weld repair station. So as the frames comes down the line, if there’s any weld gaps or porosity I’ll fix it for ‘em and keep on sending it.” “Weld gaps or what?” “Gaps or porosity, like little bubbles in the weld from the robots, I repair it and keep it going.”
Radford arrived at his new career at Metalsa six months ago through Kentucky Farmworker Programs. He’s one of about 900 farmworkers who have gotten training or new jobs in the past six years through the program funded by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Radford grew up on a farm in Trigg County, Kentucky.
“I always did everything from cuttin’ tobacco to haulin’ grain...”
He was in the Navy for six years, then worked for Tesla Motors traveling across the U.S. installing charging stations for electric cars.
When he returned to Trigg County, he found the Kentucky Farmworker Programs though the state career center in Hopkinsville. Radford says he likes the way he was able get on-the-job training at Metalsa and jump right into his new career.
“I had some really good instructors. As far as welding instructors. I do a lot of welding. They saw that I had a steady hand, I guess. They put me on a welding station, repair station. And they helped me out a whole lot.”
Rob Clarke is in charge of hiring for hourly production jobs at Metalsa.
“I like working with the Farmworker Programs. It is a great program. We like it because it pays us money and it also gives them incentives, as well.”
At the Kentucky Farmworker Programs office in Bowling Green, Executive Director Vickie Hutcheson says on-the-job training is an incentive for those looking for work and for the businesses that take them on.
“We can work with any employer and we place people. We can pay half their wages for anywhere from six weeks to five months, depending on how hard that job is to learn.”
Hutcheson says classroom training is available for some skills. She says some of the farmworkers who were retrained last year are examples of the most common choices for a new career.
“We had six welders, 28 lineman, one nurse’s aide and 51 truck drivers.”
One of the farmworkers who trained as a lineman is 22-year-old Cody Wedding. He works for electrical contractor Davis H. Elliot and on this day he’s at the Evansville office, where a crew is unloading copper wire and other material.
Wedding says he likes working outdoors, replacing poles and repairing electrical lines, even though, at times, the job can be unpredictable.
"We work in a lot of bad weather. On Hurricane Matthew, we went down there and did a lot of work in North Carolina and South Carolina. The hurricane took out a bunch of power and left everybody with no lights."
…and it can be dangerous…
"There’s no second chances with electric. If you get hit, you can get killed."
Wedding grew up working on his family’s 5,000-acre farm in Daviess County. He says he realized he wants a future that doesn’t depend completely on cattle, grain, beans and corn.
"There was a lot of line work and stuff going in on some of our farms and I decided it’d be a better paying job and somewhere I could have retirement and not have to work until I died, 'cause farming, you don’t have a good retirement and all that stuff, so..."
The state office for Kentucky Farmworker Programs has been in Bowling Green for 40 years. The program currently has more than 100 farmworkers in the pipeline, getting training and new jobs that will give them a more solid financial foundation and even deeper roots in their Kentucky communities.