Road to Rantoul: Migrant workers journey to central Illinois

Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Photo by Darrell Hoemann/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
The Nightingale Camp in Rantoul, Ill., is licensed by the state to house more than 400 migrant workers. The workers come north from places such as Mexico and Texas to detassel corn.

By Robert Holly / Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting -- Each summer, hundreds of seasonal workers leave their homes in Texas and Mexico and travel more than 1,000 miles north to work in the corn fields of central Illinois.

Many of those hundreds make their way to Rantoul, a village of about 13,000 people in Champaign County and the summer home of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign football team's training sessions. As the sessions get underway in mid-August, the hundreds of migrant workers wrap up the first wave of agriculture work in nearby corn fields.

In July and into the beginning of August, the migrant laborers work for Monsanto and other companies to detassel corn, a job known as "la espiga" in Spanish.

Migrant farmer life in Rantoul

Workers detassel corn by walking through corn rows and removing the top parts of some stalks where pollen is produced. Companies hire the migrant workers to detassel as a form of pollination control that allows the cross-breeding of two varieties of corn. By detasseling and cross-breeding, the seed companies can then harvest the seeds and sell them for farmers to grow.

"I don't think it's tough," said Eli Maldonado, one such seasonal worker. "I've been in dirtier jobs than this.

For about $150 dollars, Maldonado came to Rantoul alone on a bus from Mission, Texas, a border town of about 80,000 people.

While in Rantoul, he lives at Nightingale Camp, a state-licensed labor camp located in an empty hospital on the Chanute Air Force Base. The large base closed in 1993.

With an occupancy of 450 people, the camp in Rantoul is the largest of 21 licensed labor camps in Illinois, according to state records.

In total, the state labor camps can house up to nearly 1,970 people.

Other large camps include Camp Springfield in Springfield, Ill., which has space for 270 migrant workers, according to state records. The Young America — Beck's Hybrids camp in Normal, Ill., has occupancy for 225 migrant workers.

Photo by Darrell Hoemann/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

The Nightingale Camp in Rantoul, Ill., is located in an old hospital on the abandoned Chanute Air Force Base. The base was vacated in 1993.

Maldonado is a two-year Nightingale Camp veteran, first coming to the facility last year.

His air-conditioned room is on the first floor. Dimly lit by flickering florescent lights, it is the size of a large living room and is decorated with an assortment of old furniture. Eight beds are scattered throughout the room, though Maldonado said he only shares it with one other person at the moment.

There is no bathroom in the room, only a small area where Maldonado can wash his hands and brush his teeth. In the same room, wet socks hang on an unused curtain track and dirty skillets rest on a wooden desk.

"I don't have no problems living like this," he said. "I know there's worse places than this."

Maldonado said this year the detasseling work was particularly tough because of wet conditions that made it difficult.

"The only bad thing about this year is that it rained a lot," he said. "So, we had to go in the mud. Some people fell a lot of times."

Maldonado lacked the proper clothing — including boots — for the wet conditions. He said he kept his feet dry while working by wearing plastic bags over his socks and under his shoes. He then wore another layer of plastic bags tied over his shoes.

"It rained real bad," he said.

Maldonado said he plans on returning south with about $1,000 to $1,500 from his work.

Walter Perez, another seasonal laborer who found work detasseling, said income can range depending on the agreement that migrants reach with their companies, however. This year was Perez's fourth working as a corn detasseler.

"There's by hours and there's by contract," Perez said. "By hours, you get paid a little bit less than by contract because you go into the field and you can take your time."

After the first wave of migrant workers leaves when the detasseling season concludes, a new group will replace them to help with harvest, which many projections tout to be one of the highest-yielding on record.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service estimated that farmers planted a record-high 84.8 million acres of soybeans in 2014.

The agency estimated that farmers planted 91.6 million acres of corn.

Look and listen: a migrant worker describes his temporary housing

Eli Maldonado came north to Rantoul from Mission, Texas. He now works as a migrant worker detassling corn, a process where workers remove the top pollen-producing part from certain corn stalks. For housing, Maldonado stays at the Nightingale Camp, a state-licensed facility authorized to house up to 450 migrant workers. The facility is a converted hospital located on the long-abandoned Chanute Air Force Base. Here, he describes his room's conditions. | Slideshow by Krizia Vance/for Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Community center provides food for transient workers

Before the migrant workers make the journey north to Rantoul, central Illinois locals prepare for the new arrivals in a variety of ways.

Staff at the Mi Pueblo Mexican Store establish store-credit accounts for the workers, as they come with little money.

Boost Mobile, a local mobile phone store, has bilingual staff on hand to help with the translations of legal contracts, as well as wire transfers or other money issues.

Boost Mobile's storeowner, Mike Patterson, said with the migrant workers coming in to town, translation was a huge necessity.

The large influx of Spanish-speaking migrant workers creates new opportunities for local businesses. Boost Mobile, a mobile phone store, has bilingual staff on hand to help with the translations of legal contracts, as well as wire transfers or other money issues.

He said he hired only Spanish-speaking employees to bridge that communication gap and assist the migrant workers with paperwork.

Photo by Darrell Hoemann/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

The large influx of Spanish-speaking migrant workers creates new opportunities for local businesses. Boost Mobile, a mobile phone store, has bilingual staff on hand to help with the translations of legal contracts, as well as wire transfers or other money issues.

"A big service that's needed is translation — help with legal documents and forms, stuff online," Patterson said. "People come in all the time with medical forms they don't understand."

Elise Lebron is the intake coordinator for the Community Service Center of Northern Champaign County. She said most of the workers depend on the community center's food pantry for food.

"When we start to get migrant workers into the area, we do sort of try to prepare in advance because we are hit pretty hard," Lebron said. "During the summer time, a large percentage of our clientele is made up of migrant workers or seasonal workers."

The food pantry, stocked by the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, provides one to two weeks' worth of food.

It is open to migrant workers once a month.

Lebron said that many migrant workers make the trip north with their entire families, including young children. At the Nightingale Camp, visitors can often witness boys and girls as young as five or six roaming the concrete halls of the former hospital.

"We have typically families traveling together, where one or two members of the family are working and then we have several children who are at home during the day," Lebron said. "We need resources to help get them food and make sure everyone is being taken care of."

Reporters Claire Everett and Acton Gorton contributed to this report.