By Ann Donahue
For Hernan Hernandez, everything begins and ends with family. As the Executive Director of the California Farmworker Foundation, he understands that family comes in two forms: the one you’re born into, and the one you choose.
“I grew up in a town called Richgrove, California, population 3,000,” he said. “I grew up to farmworker parents, immigrants, who came to this country seeking a better future, who worked in the table grape industry throughout their lifetime. Me, all of my siblings, we all worked for the same company. We grew up in the fields. Whenever there was time, in the summers, in the winters, in the evenings or on the weekends, we were in the fields where our parents were working.”
Hernandez said his parents wanted their children to witness their labor, not just to see how they were able to support the family, but so they understood what it meant to be self-sufficient. “The perfect example of how you evaluate the importance of education was by working in the fields—so you can see a better future,” he said. “That was their philosophy.”
Hernandez took the lessons to heart. He received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the California State University, Bakersfield, then worked in politics for several years, managing campaigns and advocating for ballot measures. It was during this time, working at what he thought would be his dream job, that he had a realization.
“You know, the Salinas Valley is nice—it reminded me a lot of home,” he said. “But it wasn’t home.”
He returned to the Central Valley, and then in 2016 he got a call that would change his life. He was asked to join what would become the non-profit California Farmworker Foundation, an organization that was founded to give back to farmworkers and to empower them to have a voice so they can be advocates for themselves. “I didn’t think twice,” Hernandez said about taking the job.
The CFF works to provide what Hernandez called the five pillars of support to farmworkers: education, workforce development, health & wellness, immigration services and community engagement. After starting operations in the Coachella Valley, the organization has grown to include service centers in Fresno, Delano, and, in 2022, an expansion into Santa Maria with a total of more than 35 staffers. In 10 years, he hopes the CFF will have services available statewide.
The CFF has partnered with numerous Western Growers members, including Grimmway Farms and Mountain View Fruit Sales, with Hernandez stating the engagement with growers and shippers is vital to the non-profit organization’s success. Driven by data and surveys conducted in the field, CFF has an Ambassador Program, which allows agriculture companies to learn from key, respected decision-making farmworkers as to what programs, services and professional development can best serve to improve the quality of life of their skilled workforce. “We said: ‘We want to be held accountable, we want to hold you accountable—how can we work together?’” Hernandez said.
There is no doubt that the work being done by CFF is vital. In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, Hernandez and CFF Outreach Specialist Arnaldo Gonzalez spoke about their work dispelling social media-fueled COVID vaccination misinformation among farmworkers in the Central Valley. Using the organization’s existing rock-solid relationships with farmworkers, they initiated a program where farmworkers were paired with farmworkers’ children who are recent college graduates to go out into the fields, answer questions, refute TikTok conspiracy theories and discuss their first-person experiences with receiving the vaccine.
That kind of outreach is being done by CFF on top of the ongoing COVID testing—up to 1,000 farmworkers a day—as well as support and rent relief for those in quarantine and unable to work; vaccination clinics and pop-ups the organization sponsors which have reached more than 50,000 farmworkers; and the more than 720,000 kits of personal protective equipment it distributed to farmworkers and their families after receiving donations from the public and private sectors.
“It has been a pleasure to work with California Farmworker Foundation,” said Alex Sanchez, Ranch Unit Director for Grimmway Farms. “Hernan and his team have offered Grimmway and our family of employees a great deal of support. COVID-19 presented so many challenges and CFF came alongside our ongoing efforts with an additional grassroots approach to outreach, assisting us in sharing accurate information with employees and administering onsite vaccine clinics. We are incredibly grateful for our relationship with CFF.”
As a result of the deep links CFF’s Ambassadors had in the farmworker community, the organization was able to deploy quickly and thoroughly as the scope of the pandemic became apparent, Hernandez said. “When you look at education, when you look at vaccinations, when you look at testing, we’re leading the way in all those fields—and it all comes down to the infrastructure that we developed years ago,” he said.
Beyond its exemplary record during the COVID crisis, CFF aids farmworkers during time not spent at work by providing school materials for their children, and outreach in times of crisis, including for victims of domestic violence. The New Generation program, created in partnership with California State Sen. Melissa Hurtado, gave $1,000 scholarships to more than 80 children of farmworkers, most of whom were first-generation college students and children of immigrant parents. In 2020, CFF was named the California Non-profit of the year by the California Association of Nonprofits; 87 percent of the funds raised by the organization go back into programs and services for farmworkers.
As the response to COVID evolves from emergency footing, Hernandez is looking ahead to developing projects related to the company’s other pillars. One, in particular, seems urgent: workforce development. “Technology is evolving, agriculture is evolving,” he said. “I want to make sure that farmworkers have the appropriate skill sets in the future to continue working. We want to make sure they not only have a job, but they have a job with upward mobility.”
In the non-profit space, funding, of course, is key. But Hernandez believes there is more to philanthropy than financial support. Starting in 2022, the CFF is looking for additional members to add to its Board of Directors, members who can help with the organization’s expansion into more of California.
“Checks are okay,” Hernandez laughed, “But I do think that the key to our success is really a partnership with growers believing in us, helping us accomplish our work plan, so it’s not just us doing it alone. We really, really appreciate the growers that when we talk to them and we engage them, they get it. Western Growers can be of significant help to the California Farmworker Foundation by opening up new doors with different growers in the areas in which we’re already residing, or that we’re entering.”
In the end, for those who support the CFF and those who receive the organization’s offerings, it’s all about creating the community, the extended family that Hernandez has worked with—and for—his entire life. “I always had a passion for working for my community but, more than anything, I had a passion for working with farmworkers because I was a farmworker,” he said. “It’s your typical Central Valley story.”
*pictured above: Hernan Hernandez (right) with Mike Thurlow of Mountain View Fruit Sales