On a summer evening as the sky turned pink and gold over the tobacco fields in Sampson County, farmworker José Luis Cipriano handed Juan Carabaña plastic bags filled with cucumbers and corn, a humble thank you to Carabaña’s ministry for helping workers stay hydrated in the fields.
Carabaña works for the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry, which is plans to deliver 1,200 to 1,400 specially designed water carriers to farmworkers in Sampson, Johnson and Harnett counties. The water carrier is a canvas pouch with a wool insert to keep a water bottle cool and loops on the back to hook through a strap or belt.
On this night, Carabaña delivered about 70 water carriers to farmworkers at various farms in Sampson County, the first round of deliveries. Cipriano, 48, and about 10 other farmworkers emerged from the white two-story house they share and greeted Carabaña like a friend.
“This campaign is to prevent people from dying in the fields, to provide access to water and information about how to take care of yourself,” Carabaña said.
The ministry launched a campaign, “Water in the Fields,” that aims to raise $25,000 through Indiegogo, a crowdfunding website, to produce 3,000 water carriers for local farmworkers. The ministry has raised $9,000, according to its Indiegogo page, and plans to deliver as many water carriers it can even if the 3,000 goal isn’t met.
In the summer months, farmworkers in North Carolina often work in 90-degree weather and humidity. To protect them from pesticides, tobacco farmworkers are required to wear long-sleeved shirts, which increases their body temperature. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, those who work under extreme heat should drink water every 15 minutes to avoid heat-related illness such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
Access to water varies from farm to farm in North Carolina, Carabaña said.
There are water stations at the ends of the fields, but workers are often reluctant to stop their work in the middle of a row, and it can take up to 1 1/2 hours to get to water. Some farmworkers carry frozen water bottles in their pant pockets, but the ice melts and soaks their pants as they work. Others choose not to drink too much water to avoid getting sick.
During tobacco season, Jorge Alberto Hernández drives a truck to move the tobacco or tends to curing the leaves and reminds workers in the fields to drink water – although not too much at once.
“We tell them, if they’re going to drink water, to not drink too much, but a quarter of a bottle at a time so it doesn’t harm them,” said Hernández, 38. “If they drink too much and they’re hunched over, their stomachs aren’t going to work well.”
The water pouches can help the workers spread out their water consumption and avoid getting sick, he said.
“If the rows are long, they can carry their water in the pouches and not have to wait until they get to one end or if they carry the water bottle in their pockets it won’t get warm by the transfer of their body heat,” Hernández said. “Drinking warm water can also cause you to vomit.”
Carabaña noticed this problem two years ago when his ministry asked farmworkers how it could improve their access to water.
In 2016, the ministry bought 450 canvas water carriers from the Wildland Fire Program, a former program of the General Services Administration, to get feedback from the workers on the design of the carriers. The GSA water carriers did not have a flap, so the water bottle often moved around and the liquid wouldn’t remain cold. The loops on the back of the carrier were too big, causing it to wobble on their waists.
The improved water carrier was designed by Lyf Co., a consumer brand created by Raleigh-based Designbox, with an assist from design students at N.C. State University. The improved design has a flap, a wool insert to keep the liquid cool, narrow loops to keep the carrier close to the waist and two position options.
As he handed out the carriers in Sampson County, Carabaña asked the farmworkers to give him feedback on the new design, so the ministry can make changes if necessary.
“I don’t want to give you guys something that won’t work for you all,” Carabaña said as he passed out the carriers.
Cipriano, the farmworker who gave the ministry cucumbers and corn, greeted Carabaña with the GSA carrier attached to his belt. He says he still uses it every day.
Camila Molina: 919-829-4538
How to help
To donate to “Water in the Fields” or learn about the campaign, visit the Indiegogo page at nando.com/waterinfields.