Farm worker struggles expose 'ethical eating' limits

Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic
By Margaret Gray
University of California Press, 2014

Over the past few decades there has been a rapid growth of interest in buying food that does not come from large-scale industrial farms. Concerns exist over their use of large amounts of commercial fertilisers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms, and inhumane treatment of farm animals.

People have also become aware of the poor working conditions — sometimes clearly inhumane — in large agribusiness ventures in vegetable fields, fruit orchards, and slaughterhouses.

In the United States, interest in alternatives to industrial agriculture is indicated by the incredible growth of purchases of organic food, the large rise in numbers of farmers' markets around the country, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms and direct sale from local farms to restaurants and, more recently, to schools.

This phenomenon, along with interest in where food we eat comes from and how it is grown — really the entire food system — is indicated by the proliferation of books and articles that have poured forth.

A few books, such as Alison Hope Alkon’s Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability, bring attention to the lack of social justice in the food system.

This ranges from outright mistreatment of farm and other agribusiness labour to the unavailability of nutritious food to the poor because of price or living in what has been called a “food desert”. This refers to when people live in a community that lacks nearby stores that carry fresh fruits and vegetables as well as other healthy alternatives to junk food.

An important contribution to the discussion of alternatives to the conventional food system is Margaret Gray’s Labor and the Locavore. It focuses specifically on the condition of labourers that work on the medium and small farms in the Hudson Valley of New York State, mainly growing fruits and vegetables.

Buying local, usually from small-to-medium size farms, has been encouraged as a way to ensure that food is fresh. Also, because of easy contact with the farmers growing the food, it is easy to find out whether the farm practices used are consistent with one’s desires.

Another driving force for the “buy local foods” movement is the disenchantment with how large-scale agriculture has captured much of the organic agriculture market. Organic production of food has been transformed from a more or less fringe hippie lifestyle into an important corporate profit centre.

By 2008, 71% of the value of organic products sold in the US came from the biggest 11% of farms, with each selling over half a million dollars of products a year. The concentration of organic production on large farms is almost certainly even more lopsided today than when the survey was carried out.

Thus supporting your local, or regional, small-to-medium size farm — hopefully practising organic or “sustainable” farming — has become the mantra of the “locavore” movement. One of the reasons this path is possible is that it is very difficult for very large farms to promote their products as “local” because they tend to be concentrated in certain parts of the country.

The “buy local” food movement has been especially successful in New England, Wisconsin, Montana and Oregon. A few states, including New York, are somewhere in the middle and a large group of states in the South, Midwest, and West are on the low end of locavore activity.

Gray points out that the interest in farming practices used to grow crops and raise animals — with most people especially concerned with use of synthetic pesticides and the treatment of farm animals — omits a very important part of the story: the condition of hired workers on local farms.

People mostly assume that while labour on large farms might not be treated well, the farming family itself carries out most of the work on small-to-medium size farms.

However, the reality is that although a very w small farms do not rely on outside labour, most of these farms do need to hire workers. This is especially the case for harvesting produce, but also for many other tasks such as planting, irrigating and weeding.

Based on extensive knowledge and background, Gray has interviewed both farm workers and farmers. She describes the changes in the composition of the farm labour force in New York over the last decades.

There has been a shift from mainly migrant African-American and Caribbean workers — with some local white workers, primarily youth — for most of the 20th century, to now being almost completely undocumented workers from Central America and Mexico.

These mostly seasonal workers generally live in substandard housing supplied by the farm and have a very isolated existence. The workers are afraid — with good reason — to travel off the farm and congregate with workers from other farms.

Because of their legal status and lack of English, these undocumented workers comprise a very docile workforce. With no legal status, they are not able to demand higher wages or better conditions that a citizen might feel free to make.

The contemporary Hispanic migrant labour force sees working on farms — as difficult as much of the labour is — as an opportunity to earn much higher income than in their home countries. Remittances — money sent home — account for about half of the wages of those workers Gray surveyed.

These funds allow workers to support families back home in important ways. On the other hand, they earn what are considered in the US to be poverty wages.

Going back to the 1930s, farm labour has been specifically omitted from important national and state laws and regulations that protect labour. Farm workers are not legally entitled to overtime pay or days off with pay, and have no legal protection when trying to form a union.

Farms with few workers — typical of small farms — are exempt from certain requirements in New York State. For example, if there are fewer than five hired workers, there is no need to have portable toilets in the field as long as transportation is available to get them to a toilet.

Gray discusses the special problems, long recognised, of organising farm workers. There have been some successes — with grape harvest in California, tomatoes harvest in Ohio and Florida — these have occurred when large numbers of migrants worked on particular farms.

On small farms with a dispersed population of workers, isolated by geography, legal status, and lack of transportation, there is a special challenge.

Another topic explored is the reality that a lot of the small and medium size farmers in the Hudson Valley and elsewhere operate with relatively low net incomes. Obtaining health insurance for their families and putting enough money away for their children’s education and their own retirement are challenging for these farmers, to say the least. Even those concerned about the conditions of their workers feel that they cannot pay their workers any more than they do.

The dilemma is inherent in the corporate agricultural system, in which large-scale industrial methods and farms produce a lot of relatively low-cost food. Small farms using ecologically sound and humane practices, while not directly in competition with industrial farms, are still limited by them in the prices that can be charged.

Gray discusses groups trying to bring the issue of social justice for farm workers front and centre, many of which have gathered significant support from the public.

The ultimate hope is that social justice for farm workers can be incorporated into the issues that concern and motivate locavores. But there is a long road ahead to bring humane working conditions with better treatment and better pay to workers on the farms so prized by those who promote and participate in the locavore movement.

A socially just and ecologically sound food system is ultimately impossible to achieve within an economy and society that is unjust and especially good at allowing businesses to pollute the environment.

[Fred Magdoff is professor emeritus of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont and a long-time commentator on political-economic topics. He is co-author, with John Bellamy Foster, of The Great Financial Crisis and What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, both published by Monthly Review Press.]

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