Farm Workers, Again

Our country’s immigration laws need to be reformed.  They’re harsh, unfair and counterproductive.  I’ve been encouraged to see churches across the political spectrum unite in agreement on that.

But I’m not so encouraged to see industrial agriculture also pushing hard for relaxed enforcement of immigration laws and an end to the current deportation craze. They’re not taking that stand out of compassion for the immigrants or to protect human dignity.

The American Farm Bureau Federation just released a report projecting significant reductions in produce, fruit and livestock production, and significant increases in the price of food, if Congress permits the emphasis on enforcement to continue.   Bob Stallman, President of the Federation and a loud critic of the immigration enforcement policies, is also citing a report claiming that over 80% of raisin and berry growers in California and over 70% of tree fruit growers are unable to find enough workers now to harvest their crops.

There are over 1 million hired agriculture workers in this country.  The government estimates that half of them are here illegally. The Farm Bureau Federation puts that number at 60-70%.

I completely agree that folks who come here to pick fruit and vegetables as a means of supporting their families should have the right to do so and I detest policies that result in their arrest and deportation.  We need more industrious people in this country, not fewer.

But we ought to be asking ourselves why, in a country with well over 10 million people unemployed, it’s supposedly not possible to harvest our crops unless undocumented immigrants do it.

It calls to mind a blog post I wrote in January, 2009.  It seems relevant to the current debate, so here it is again:

There are over one million hired farm workers in this country.  These farm workers were paid over $28 billion last year.

I was once a hired farm worker myself.  I started out making 35 cents per hour when I was 7 or 8 years old.  By the time I was 15, I was making $2.00/hour.  It was very hard work, but from a very early age I was able to make enough money in the summer to pay for my own school clothes and books.  And it certainly instilled a work ethic.

But today, with unemployment skyrocketing in this country, 72% of the hired farm workers are from Mexico.

No doubt these Mexicans are glad to have these jobs, and their families benefit from them.  Of course many of these men would prefer to be with their families on their family farms in Mexico, but American agricultural policies ruined their local economies and farms, and drove them across the border as hired hands.  But that subject is for another day.

In my community, all the large farmers hire Mexican labor.  The Mexicans are great workers and they don’t complain.  But the truth is that these farmers couldn’t meet their needs with local labor, even if they wanted to.  Millions of Americans would simply rather be unemployed than do farm labor.  And that’s a shame.

For some, they just don’t want to have to work that hard.  But for millions, working for hire on a farm has demeaning connotations.  I remember cringing many years ago when I first heard the Run-DMC lyric, “I ain’t baling no hay.”  What the heck is wrong with baling hay?, I thought.

I’m tempted to paste yet another Wendell Berry quote here.  Certainly he has written forcefully and beautifully on the subject of farm labor.  But instead I’ll close with Carolyn Chute’s dedication to her novel Merry Men.

“Let me honor here all the farmers who still work the land themselves, who are not agribusinessmen or agribusinesswomen, but farmers, who know family and community interdependence…America’s last vestiges of freedom.   And honor to all those millions who were born to be farmers, as they have been for thousands of years, but because of modern “education”, Big Business and Mechanization, they cannot be and will never know their true gift, but are instead herded into welfare lines, prisons, or the slavery of Big Business…may they find it–the gift–in another life, another world.”