Q&A with Joe Martinez Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer at CIERTOGlobal

Written by:

Elizabeth Melton

4 minutes

In another installment of our Q&A series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Martinez, CEO of CIERTOGlobal.

Joe founded CIERTO in 2014 with the aim of recruiting, training, and placing experienced farm workers from Mexico and enabling them to grow in their careers. Since then, Joe and his team have processed thousands of H-2A visas and sponsored hundreds of professional training programs to help farm workers feel more secure and proud of their work.

Today, CIERTOGlobal is the only organization to be recognized by the United Nations for best practice recruitment in the Americas and has been hand-picked by the USAID as the partner of choice in sourcing farm workers from Mexico, Guatemala, to the United States and Canada. Below, he talks about how he got involved with the farm worker community, how he’s reinstilling trust in farm workers and growers, and how technology will continue to play a role in the agricultural sector.

Q: You’ve dedicated the past ten years (or more!) to improving farm workers’ lives. How did you initially get interested in the farm worker community?

Growing up in a migrant family had a huge impact on my childhood. Learning about the ins and outs of emigrating to the United States from Mexico piqued my interest, and the more input I got from my parents, friends, and community, the more driven I was to become an immigration attorney. So in college, I studied political science and comparative history of ideas, laying the foundation for my law school application.

But as luck would have it, I received an unexpected email right as I was preparing to head to law school. It was a friend who shared that the United Farmworkers were hiring. They were looking to hire a UFW advocate to explore various models of farmworker representation in farming communities across the world. As a twenty-something eager to make a difference in the world, this opportunity was too good to pass up. I dropped out of law school and began my long-standing career in farm worker advocacy.

Q: When you were talking to farm workers across the world, what was one thing that really stood out to you?

In my role at UFW, I had the privilege of sitting down with farm workers from Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and more. Although the environments were different, there was one refrain I kept hearing over and over: farm workers were not proud of their job. In fact, they told me they wouldn’t want any of their family or friends to do what they do.

This was striking to me. People who were crucial in sustaining the worlds’ food supply chains saw themselves as undesirable and unskilled. Their employers didn’t view them as professionals, and that carried over into their self-esteem and sense of purpose as well. When I explained that the entire world’s hunger was riding on their work, some actually broke down and cried. They had no idea that their job was so important.

For me, this indicated that the psychology and infrastructure around farm work had to change. These people needed to feel dignified in their job. They needed to feel confident in their experience and know-how. And they needed a way to showcase their skills to gain more stable work.

Q: From your research, why is it so important to build trust among farm worker communities? And how did that inform how you set up CIERTOGlobal?

As part of my research at UFW, I conducted a survey with 600 farm workers in Mexico. One of the biggest trends was that they were paying astronomical fees to come work in the US. As I explored this further, I found that the true cost of recruitment is subsidized by the farmworkers, not the US government. And the Mexican Department of Labor wasn’t doing them any favors either. They were fed up with the visa process, but didn’t trust governmental organizations to help them.

That made me wonder一who do the farm workers trust? My hypothesis was that farm workers would trust those closest to them, like beloved community actors or church pastoral groups. So I piloted a program to help farm workers navigate the H2A program in which community actors and church pastoral groups explained the process. Having this extra layer of trust boosted the number of farm workers we placed that year. When everything was laid out clearly by someone a farm worker knew and trusted, they were much more likely to make it to the finish line.

This led me to believe there was a need for a recruitment process that farm workers would want to participate in and would upskill them over time. And that’s how CIERTOGlobal was born.

Q: What are the benefits of facilitating the farm worker recruitment process一from farm worker, grower, and retailer perspectives?

There are many benefits for all three parties, which is why CIERTOGlobal has been so effective. Creating a win-win-win situation makes it easier to get the funding and support we need across the board.

For farm workers, following a defined, step-by-step recruitment process means they know what they are getting into. When they have a rough idea of what they’ll be doing, for how long, and what the expected outcomes are, they’re more likely to engage with the work at hand. In addition, CIERTO exposes farm workers to training programs to enrich their soft skills. This enables farm workers to communicate and develop deeper relationships with their employers, who might invite them back for more work in future seasons. Most of all, infusing professionalism into the process helps farm workers feel like they are pursuing a respectable career.

Employers gain access to a professionalized workforce. Farm workers that have gone through CIERTO understand what’s expected of them and how what they produce is handled down the line. This workforce has a better grasp on the supply chain, techniques for selecting the highest quality produce, and how to improve farm worker operations.

And lastly, retailers benefit from maintaining their brand integrity. When farm workers are respected for putting their knowledge, skills, and experience to use, they are more likely to generate the best products. Plus, CIERTO ensures a steady stream of talent, meaning that retailers no longer have to worry about issues within the farms they receive produce. 

Q: Why do you think technology is the next step in ameliorating the farm worker experience? How do you think what Entidad is doing is making a difference?

In the not-so-distant future, farm workers will need higher-level skills. At the pace agriculture tech is changing, they’ll need to know how to operate robotic harvesters, drones, and other sophisticated irrigation systems. At CIERTOGlobal, we’re planning to offer certifications to get farm workers up to speed. The trouble is, they don’t traditionally use CVs or resumes. Not only does this make it hard to prove farm workers have certain skills, it also reinforces the idea that they are an unskilled workforce.

That’s where Entidad comes into play. With apps locked behind self-sovereign identity, farm workers will eventually be able to view, add to, and share verified credentials with potential employers with the click of a button. Eventually, they might even get suggestions for new jobs based on their accredited skills. And they could also receive push notifications about new trainings that might interest them and get information about where to take them.

Q: How is CIERTOGlobal planning to leverage Entidad to expand its offerings and reach more farm workers?

Right now, we are working with Entidad to develop a CIERTO-specific platform and database. The reason we feel confident in Entidad is that they are a farm worker-centric organization. They are starting to build out their product suite with other major, trusted players in the farm worker space and care about getting it right.

We continue to work with Entidad on this project for three major reasons. For one, we want to give farm workers more leverage and authority over their work history and training completions. Entidad’s apps are built on the blockchain, meaning that no one can interfere with farm workers’ credentials. We are also using Entidad to streamline our work as we expand our services and global reach. And lastly, Entidad is helping us measure and publicize our impact on farm workers, our clients, retailers, and the overall supply chain.

Q: Anything else to add?

I’ve come to realize that we need to incorporate tech into agriculture. Whether we like it or not, I can sense that it’s the next evolutionary step. And if we don’t do something now to ensure technology is deployed to better the farm worker experience, we’ll be at a huge deficit.

The good news is that farm workers are sitting atop a goldmine of data. Their insights and skills haven’t been harvested yet, and that’s something they can continue to protect or even enrich with technology. As we expand into more and more countries, we’re proud to be putting technology and data at the forefront of our strategy in a way that empowers and emboldens farm workers.

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Julette Martinez

CEO, Farm Worker Organization