Life for farm workers in Ventura County isn’t getting any easier and something has to be done about it — soon. Low wages, abominable living conditions, poor health care and lack of freedom for agricultural workers were just a few of the challenges discussed when the Workforce Investment Board of Ventura County presented an overview of the county’s ag industry.

That overview, which took place in Oxnard Jan. 26, included the unveiling of a new study, “The Future of Ventura County Agriculture: Issues and Opportunities for Workers and Growers,” authored by Bill Watkins, executive director of the University of California Santa Barbara’s Economic Forecast Project, Charles Maxey, dean and professor of California Lutheran University’s School of Business, and John S. Fernlund, also of Cal Lutheran.

The study provides information — in as accurate detail as possible, according to Watkins and Maxey — about the profiles and perspectives of farm workers, as well as worker and grower issues and the need for advanced worker training to meet the changing needs of agriculture.

The event also included a panel discussion composed of participants within the ag industry — including growers, advocates for farm workers and officials. Rick Nahmias, a photographer, writer and filmmaker, spoke of his experience in dealing with and studying the conditions in which farm workers live and work. He shared several photos he took while documenting their lives.

Nahmias said his project began with his desire to document the human “cost” of the foods we eat.

“The conclusions I have come to here are echoed best in the report …” Nahmias said. “People want agriculture to be the heart of Ventura County, but they are largely unaware of challenges faced by farm workers.”

While Nahmias’s show delves into the realms of working and housing conditions, specific subgroups of the farm worker community — such as gay and lesbian and HIV- positive members, as well as tribal people’s from distant parts of Mexico who speak virtually untranslatable dialects — are also part of his project. “There is exploitation within the community,” he said.

Nahmias said he was continually surprised and touched by the attitudes of farm workers who appeared to be proud of playing their parts to bring crops to harvest. “They’re happy to do the work,” he said. “They just want their fair share … I saw people who had an almost religious connection — people who felt they were delivering God’s bounty to the earth.”

Nowhere is that more apparent, Nahmais said, than in the strawberry harvests. Each strawberry in each basket on store shelves is placed there by the hands of a farm worker and remains unmoved until it is eaten by the buyer. “They aren’t just the lifeblood of Ventura County,” he said of strawberries. “They’re the identity of Ventura County and they’re laid in there just the way they’re picked by farm workers.”

Watkins said that, despite their contributions, farm workers are practically invisible. He and Maxey also said the state — and the nation — has a largely schizophrenic relationship with farm workers. “We’ll pretend we don’t know you’re there, but, if you screw up, we’ll throw you out.”

Watkins said that several interviews with growers conducted as part of the study revealed that growers are largely unsatisfied with the quality of workers that harvest crops — but further investigation revealed that, calculated in line with the rising costs of living, workers are making less than they did in 1983. Workers made an average of $20,503 in 1983, compared to $17,055 in 2003, Watkins said.

“You have to wonder how anybody with that salary can support the standard of living in Ventura County today,” Watkins said. “As a community, we say we want to see agriculture here and the result is we’re increasing the numbers of very, very poor people living in our midst.”

Though farm workers aren’t paid much, they spend a lion’s share of their earnings within county limits, which means they are contributing members of the local economy who receive few rewards. Watkins described several different possible scenarios for both the future of agriculture in the county, as well as the futures of farm workers. A new, guest-worker policy, he said, is one option for workers who want to travel freely back and forth across the border. “We heard stories about villages [in Mexico] with no men of working age because they’re all here and can’t go home to visit,” Watkins said. “Someone here is not going to be as productive if they can’t go home.”

Maxey said 99 percent of farm workers are from outside the United States and 91 percent are from Mexico. Ninety-five percent are Hispanic and 20 percent are indigenous peoples. Most remain in the United States for an average of 11 years. Ninety percent have less than a high-school education and, on average, 6th-grade is the highest level of education completed.

Maxey said growers interviewed for the study expressed a need for greater literacy among workers, as well as greater education among workers about hygiene and sanitation, as well as better math skills, farm equipment-related skills and leadership training.

Workers, on the other hand, expressed a need for more information about work-related laws and policies — in English and Spanish and in the places they frequent — as well as information about job skills and opportunities, better childcare and a better general awareness of farm-worker issues in the community at large.

“Childcare is a large issue for farm workers, increasingly so, because regulations are preventing mothers from taking young children into fields or in cars near fields,” Maxey said.