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.”

11 comments on “Farm Workers, Again

  1. DM says:

    I get an endomorphene (sp?) rush when I bale hay. The physical release, the tactile satisfaction, stacking them tightly and efficiently, and the sense of satisfaction of knowing it is set aside for the winter months, like money in the bank.


    • Bill says:

      I enjoy it too. But I didn’t when I was a kid. The bales were heavy for a skinny little boy like me and we were expected to do the same jobs grown ups did. Like throwing a bale of hay up to the guy stacking them on the trailer. I didn’t like getting my arms all scratched up either. I had this crazy fear of snakes and someone had once told me they saw a snake baled into the hay once and I always was afraid that I was going to pick up a bale with a snake head sticking out of it!
      I came to appreciate baling hay over the last few years. My daughter would drive the truck, my son would stack the hay and I’d throw it onto the trailer. Like me, they started those jobs when they were young (but not as young as I had been) and it felt good to work together as a family, usually till after dark, to get it done. Now that they’re gone my wife and I will do it. She driving the truck and me doing everything else. Good memories.


  2. Jeff says:

    “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.”

    Yup. And another “yup” to your point about Americans not wanting to do farm labor. Perhaps you should refresh our memories with the percentage of income Americans spend on food compared to other countries. Cheap food = poor nutrition, ethnic conflict resulting in internal migration to escape that conflict and the resulting loss of community from that migration and massive profits for industrial agriculture. Until people start drawing connections between these phenomena, we’re stuck in the same old same old.


    • Bill says:

      We Americans spend less than 10% of our income on food,the lowest amount of any civilization in history. In the mid-90’s that amount was 17%. In 1950 it was nearly 30%. Europeans, by comparison, spend about 25% of their income on food.
      For food eaten at home (as opposed to in restaurants or our cars) Americans spend a mere 5.7% of their income on food.

      I find our current anti-immigrant sentiment disgusting and I’ve blogged about it several times. But last night I was reading through an industrial ag magazine and came across these pleas from the industry to contact your representative and urge them to enact reforms, including the reference to the supposed labor shortage and then this projected increase in food prices. There was not a peep about the injustice of the laws, or any reference to why industrial ag relies so heavily on vulnerable workers, subject at any time to deportation. And I realized that appealing to people’s sense of decency and respect for our fellow humans probably won’t change the immigration laws. But telling them that they’ll have to pay more for food probably will.


  3. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, sadly our country has gone from a generation (My Dad and Grandparents) of hard workers to a generation of being lazy. In my personal opinion, the government in it’s attempt to make an easier transition from one job to the next has produced workers that don’t want a job that requires effort. Why would they when they can just stay unemployed and receive government benefits that pay more than minimum wage. Understand now that my opinions are greatly slanted. My work ethic started on the farm at birth. By the time I toddled off to college, my work ethic was work hard, have fun doing it, go to bed tired and no life wasn’t fair. It’s been a dominate force all the days of my life. Throwing hay bales produced some of the best memories that still bring a smile to my face. It was great working in community with my uncle’s neighbors to bale, haul, and some times stack them inside the haymow of the barn. I didn’t know what a soft job was until I started my career in technology. I totally loved my career job in the budding field of technology which brings up another whole issue with people that work a job they hate. I can’t imagine anything more life draining then doing something I’d hate for eight or more hours a day.

    Illegal immigration is certainly a mixed bag. Twice before legalization of the illegals has been done. I believe the last time was during the Reagan years. As we can see that certainly fixed everything. I believe it’s too easy to live without working in this country. Dependency on government handouts has definitely gotten out of control. It’s gone so far I’m not sure if we can get back the work ethic that built this country and made it strong. Don’t get me wrong I do know many hard workers, I just think the trend is in the wrong direction.

    Have a great working hard day.


    • Bill says:

      Growing up on a farm assures a good work ethic, because (it seems to me) work is something learned as a child not as an adult. No doubt there are plenty of suburban kids with great work ethics, but I’m sure it’s more difficult to develop under those circumstances.

      If there are 500,000 to 700,000 undocumented workers picking our fruit and vegetables, along with hundreds of thousands of others cleaning our hotel rooms, working in our slaughterhouses and fast-food restaurants, doing our road work and every other undesirable job in this country, it’s just crazy (and I would argue immoral) to insist that they should all be deported. It’s physically and financially impossible to do that, so instead we get arbitrary and capricious enforcement. Who decides whether to go bust half the workers in one lettuce field but not another? Which chickenhouse gets shut down? And suppose there was some magical way to make all those millions of people just vanish and reappear in Mexico, or wherever it is that people would prefer them to be. It’s not as if there are lines of people waiting to do those jobs. Large segments of the economy would just shut down. Those who are pushing this deportation mania have not thought through how much they depend in their own lives on the labor of these human beings.

      It’s a pity that farm work is now considered unsuitable for anyone other than people who have to work with the constant threat of deportation hanging over their heads. As you know, done right it’s good, honest, fulfilling, meaningful work. It’s a sad situation.


      • nebraskadave says:

        Bill, of course, you are correct. We didn’t get this way in one day and the solution won’t come in one day either. I’m really not hard core for deportation and I’m for some kind of reform to allow work permits. I’ve been all through Central America and we are foolish to believe that we are the only country that has this problem. The Nicaraguans complain about the Guatemalans sneaking across the border and taking all their jobs. The Costa Ricans complain about the Nicaraguans sneaking across their borders and stealing their jobs. People will gravitate to work to survive where ever it might be. I am against just waving the wand and making them all legal citizens because that seems to only be a temporary solution.

        Have a great Virginia pre Spring day.


  4. EllaDee says:

    “[America’s] last vestiges of freedom…” insert whichever country, and it, jobs, lifestyles are being stolen not by the illegal immigrants, boat people, refugees etc who make front page headlines but by the policies and powerbrokers that drive them. And if there is any mention of that in the media it’s in small print and the ‘boring’ sections that no-one really reads.
    More and more countries and cultures are being subsumed into global corporatization because ‘global’ is mass marketed as being good, the future, and in its name ‘local’ has been manipulated to suck out the best and leave the carcasses picked over and barely alive.
    The awful irony is the wars that were fought on the principles of what was called freedom-way-of-life but which was in actuality simply politics, created profits and powerbases for those that are now threatening real freedom.


    • Bill says:

      Yep. Meanwhile we want our floors mopped and our lettuce picked (then sold to us cheap). Who asks why people would leave their homes and families to come pick our crops? Why is that preferable to staying home and tending their own farms?
      Why is it that it is the laborers who are attacked, rather than the corporations that profit from them and the consumers who demand their products?


      • Jeff says:

        Spin doctors and gullible people.


      • EllaDee says:

        A form of bullying?
        From Wiki…
        Bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively impose domination over others. The behavior is often repeated and habitual. One essential prerequisite is the perception, by the bully or by others, of an imbalance of social or physical power. Behaviors used to assert such domination can include verbal harassment or threat, physical assault or coercion, and such acts may be directed repeatedly towards particular targets. Justifications and rationalizations for such behavior sometimes include differences of class, race, religion, gender, sexuality, appearance, behavior, strength, size or ability…

        Bullying ranges from simple one-on-one bullying to more complex bullying in which the bully may have one or more “lieutenants” who may seem to be willing to assist the primary bully in his or her bullying activities…

        A bullying culture can develop in any context in which human beings interact with each other.”


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