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Local Food? What About Local Farm Working Conditions?

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Liberals love local food. But for the most part, they really don’t want to know what’s going on at the farm. They are fine with pictures of community members going out to the co-op farm and picking tomatoes or whatnot. But working conditions simply do not matter to most consumers. That’s almost as true for the liberals going to the farmers market as the everyday person shopping at Walmart. What is happening on those farms? Don’t we have to know this to know if we are creating a sustainable food system? Can sustainability exist in the face of exploitative working conditions? These are the questions Margaret Gray explores in this excellent Jacobin piece.

But my research, dating back to 2000, reveals that working conditions on local farms in New York’s Hudson Valley are not very different from those on the factory farms that dominate the headlines.

Of the farm hands I met, 99 percent were foreign born. The vast majority, 71 percent, were non-citizen Latinos; 20 percent were on H-2A guest-worker visas and hailed from Jamaica or Latin America. Most of the Latinos spoke little English, had low literacy in their native languages, and, on average, received a sixth-grade formal education.

The lack of English skills actually benefits their employers, who see learning the language as a stepping-stone to becoming American. The problem with American workers, farmers told me, is that they don’t have a work ethic.

Hudson Valley farmworkers were not primarily migrant workers: they lived in New York year-round, even if their farm jobs were seasonal. About one-third of those I met also lived with their families. This family reunification counters the workers’ loneliness, but it also undermines their financial goals.

Manuel expounded on this point:

I currently have nothing. You make dollars, but here you spend dollars, not like at home where the money goes further. The situation would be different if I made money here and sent it back to my country, but my family is here. You honestly cannot save money here.

The workers reported even worse economic exploitation in their home countries: age discrimination in factory work, bosses who paid in food, and subsistence living.

One comment raised both environmental issues and the retraction of irrigation programs and farm subsidies in Mexico post-NAFTA: “I used to have my own potato farm, but there is no water. Nothing happens with land that is dead.”

Those I spoke to also described their fear of losing their jobs or being deported. They also did not know their rights.

These factors, coupled with their desire to return home, created a vulnerable workforce willing to make tremendous sacrifices. To protect vital income for their families, they kept their heads down, set aside concerns about their own well-being, and complied with employer demands.

Many acutely analyzed their positions — they were utterly dependent on farm wages, lonely, and alienated.

A twenty-two-year-old Guatemalan woman broke into tears when she described how much she missed her home. She spoke to her mother often over the phone, but said she never related her sadness or complained about the work. Like others I interviewed who downplayed their hardships, her goal was to optimize her income even as she was painfully aware of her meager earning potential.

The work they perform is difficult, dirty, and strenuous; it requires repeated bending or crouching, sometimes with sharp implements, and sometimes in extreme weather for long hours. “You are dead by the end of the day; your arms and your feet ache because of standing all day,” one worker said.

A field hand told me he thought dogs were treated better than he was. But then he got worried that he was telling me too much. Many workers were reluctant to share stories about their working conditions, using phrases like “I better not say” and expressing fear of reprisals.

There are stories of wage theft, human trafficking, sexual harassment, illegal firings, and intimidation. But even if employers were prosecuted for such violations of existing law, the job would still exploit workers.

In New York — as in most other states — farmworkers do not have a right to a day of rest, they do not have a right to overtime pay, and they do not have a right to collective bargaining.

This means that some work eighty to ninety hours a week, for minimum wage, sometimes over seven days. Farmworkers argue that the law sets them up for exploitation since it fails to recognize them as equal to other workers. Heriberto, a farmworker who has given public talks, tells New Yorkers that they should be embarrassed by these laws.

This is not agribusiness. This is the local farm out in the countryside, growing such tasty veggies sold at roadside stands and farmers’ markets. There is massive exploitation on these farms. Yet none of this is really on the radar for most food consumers, even those who describe themselves as having a food consciousness, who buy organic and local. For food writers like Michael Pollan, these issues are even less important. And he should know better. But he’s never really paid much attention to work, preferring a romanticized past of mom laboring in the kitchen for hours each day without pay, ignoring the reality of modern life. Simply put, a food movement that allows for labor exploitation has no right to call itself sustainable. And yet the food movement has never cared about workers. As I discussed in the food chapter of Out of Sight, the fear of vegetables laden with pesticides led to a real consumer movement. But the companies completely defanged it by changing the pesticides to a new style that hits hard and fast and then dissipates. That protects the consumer but makes the lives of workers far more dangerous and poisonous. Consumers were fine with that. Once again, Margaret Gray:

If we are sincere in our solidarity with farmworkers, we must pay equal attention to labor conditions at smaller farms. Organic produce is thriving because consumers said they wanted it; animals are treated better because consumers said they cared.

While supporting farmworker efforts against corporate giants is commendable, we also need look in our own backyards and confront our local farmers — which should be one of the benefits of intimacy.

And that’s only the start. Those concerned with the politics of food need to think more clearly than Kingsolver, Pollan, and the other avatars of the “locavore” movement about the range of problems contemporary farms, industrial and “pastoral” alike, face — and to be more sanguine about the limits of consumer activism.

The plight of hyper-exploited workers on small farms will remain hidden if activists continue to portray factory farming as a unique evil facilitated by some kind of spiritual disconnect from the land, rather than one particularly telling example of capitalism’s inhumanity.

There is much to admire about small, local farms. But any serious effort to address the food supply chain must be big and international.

Until there is a food movement that takes place on those terms, produce cultivated under fair labor conditions will stand for little more than “organic” and “cage-free” do now: the costly mark of good conscience available only to the small few who can afford it.

Indeed.

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  • ThrottleJockey

    What does “sustainable” mean in this instance? In the environmental sense it means producing food without killing the very environment in which the food is being produced. But what about worker exploitation makes it inherently unsustainable? Isn’t part of the socialist critique of capitalism is that its all too sustainable?

    I think you can make an effective case that low level workers are treated every bit as badly by small farmers as by agri-business, and that that’s wrong and lamentable. But I don’t see a case for arguing that its unsustainable.

    • Brett

      I thought the critique of capitalism was that it’s inherently unstable, forever driven towards crisis which in turn creates exploitation that drives further crisis, until it all collapses/gets violently overthrown.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Yeah, but that was the original critique of capitalism…I think with 150 years of hindsight, and with the emergence of books like Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century documenting the increasing power of the capital class the modern critique is less optimistic capitalism’s coming cataclysm. (how’s that for alliteration?)

  • delazeur

    For food writers like Michael Pollan, these issues are even less important. And he should know better. But he’s never really paid much attention to work, preferring a romanticized past of mom laboring in the kitchen for hours each day without pay, ignoring the reality of modern life.

    I hate this guy. By the time I got to the last section of Omnivore’s Dilemma I realized that everything interesting in the book was already widely written about, and everything that originated from him was inane. At one point in Botany of Desire he even says something like “I am not good at investigative journalism.”

    Some things I thought were especially dumb in Dilemma included going to a steakhouse to read a vegetarian manifesto (the contradiction was so illuminating!) and meditating on his experience going hunting, because of course it was totally relevant to our food infrastructure. Also, the central thesis of Desire was that domesticated plants changed us just as much as we changed them through breeding, but as far as I could tell nothing in the text actually supported that thesis.

    • His gender politics are really terrible as well.

    • No Longer Middle Aged Man

      I think what you’re looking for in your critique of Pollan is Shaw’s words to an author “The part that is good is not new, and the part that is new is not good.” I had the unfortunate opportunity to learn this witticism in a reviewer’s comments on one of my own pieces of work.

      • delazeur

        Yep, that’s a great line!

    • Origami Isopod

      I hate this guy.

      So do I.

  • Well, yes, but obviously better pay and conditions for farm workers means more expensive food, which hurts other low income consumers. You can’t just squeeze the balloon in one place, it will bulge out in another. The issue is inequality in general. If you want to make food more expensive then in turn, you have to make workers who are just above the farm workers on the pay scale better off, and so on till you get to the people who can afford to pay more. Same thing with garment workers in China and Bangladesh — WalMart shoppers are barely making it already. This isn’t about one group of exploited workers at a time, it’s about the entire economic system.

    (BTW I think we had a similar discussion about child labor in poor countries. You can’t just say let’s ban it, you need to do something about the loss of income to poor families. The kids are working because they have to.)

    • delazeur

      The U.S. government has been willing to subsidize nearly every single aspect of agriculture except the labor. I’m sure we could figure out a way to pay the workers decently without seeing astronomical increases in food prices.

    • Well, yes, but obviously better pay and conditions for farm workers means more expensive food, which hurts other low income consumers. You can’t just squeeze the balloon in one place, it will bulge out in another.

      To say the least, this is not an acceptable excuse for terrible labor conditions. I refuse to accept a world where exploitation is a given.

      (BTW I think we had a similar discussion about child labor in poor countries. You can’t just say let’s ban it, you need to do something about the loss of income to poor families. The kids are working because they have to.)

      This is the actual argument of the National Association of Manufacturers and textile industry for why child labor needed to continue in the U.S. in the early 20th century. Meanwhile, if you actually listen to the Bangladeshi labor movement, or the U.S. labor movement of that era, they have actual answers around these questions.

      • I didn’t say it’s an excuse or accept it as a given. Did you even read what I wrote? Apparently not.

    • Brett

      Isn’t that essentially what would happen if you did raise food prices to cover higher wages? That in turn would pressure other workers to press for higher wagers, and so forth.

  • Murc

    The problem with American workers, farmers told me, is that they don’t have a work ethic.

    Every time you see someone saying this, what they really mean is “American workers refuse to be exploited” or, sometimes, “the culture here isn’t such that people are willing to exploit themselves.”

    I’ve been reading up a bit lately on the Japanese bubble economy about a quarter-century ago. (For those who don’t know what that is, there was a brief period where everyone in the US was worried that Japan was going to surpass us as the worlds biggest economy and then buy all our stuff. Turned out that that was based on a asset bubble, but.) This was the period when you had idiots like Michael Crichton writing dreck like “Rising Sun.”

    And during the interminable discussions about “why are these asian bastards kicking the shit out of us” what often came up was “well, they have a much better work ethic than we do.” But by “work ethic” what they meant was “Japanese workers are willing to put in 12 to 14 hour days and anesthetize themselves with alcohol and hookers. They’re willing to die in their cubicles. And they do that without any obvious edifice of repression in place! Salarymen who are well-paid by any definition refuse to slow down and regard those who try to do so as weak losers! Man, what a racket. If only we had that here!” But they couldn’t phrase it like that, because people would recoil… so instead it became “work ethic.”

    That’s different from the farmhand situation, of course. What you get there is “American workers don’t have work ethic” as code for “they’re not desperate enough.” Most of these farm owners would not, themselves, be willing to do the work they want done at the wages they are offering.

    • Nobdy

      Having spent the last 4 miserable years in the “work hard not smart” culture of Biglaw I am very dubious that Japan’s success had a lot to do with the Salary men working themselves to exhaustion and death. It is very hard to be productive working those kinds of grueling hours, especially in intellectual work. Also a lot of the Japanese “work ethic” is about face and hierarchy more than getting anything done. This is part of why Japan has slipped recently.

      Farm work is a little different because the body fatigues differently from the mond, but still I doubt working your workforce past exhaustion is particularly efficient. I think a lot of it has to do with dehumanization. You wouldn’t rest a tractor, would you, so why would you rest amother machine just because it is named Hector and happens to be a homo sapien brand machine instead of Caterpillar?

      Also for some reason a lot of bosses hate when their workers seem happy or fulfilled. Maybe they see those as status goods that are somehow reduced in value if someone else has them too?

      • Murc

        Having spent the last 4 miserable years in the “work hard not smart” culture of Biglaw I am very dubious that Japan’s success had a lot to do with the Salary men working themselves to exhaustion and death

        Indeed, as am I.

      • Brett

        Farm work is a little different because the body fatigues differently from the mond, but still I doubt working your workforce past exhaustion is particularly efficient.

        It’s definitely not – there’s been research showing that going beyond 6-8 hours of work daily gets you rapidly diminishing returns in the quality and quantity of work on average. Japan’s proof of that as well, since I’ve read that they don’t actually get 12-14 solid hours of work out of their salarymen. They get 8 hours’ work of stuff done, and several hours of time-wasting crap that persists because of social office norms.

        But that would require managers to actually figure out a different metric to placate their insecurity about whether they’re getting an “honest day’s work” out of their employees, and we can’t have that. So instead we need to empower workers to push back against it, and pass laws to enforce it.

    • Brett

      I don’t doubt it, although the joke was on them – the Salarymen may have been putting in 12-14 hour days, but they were only getting about 8 hours’ worth of work done. A lot of it was just killing time because you can’t leave until the boss does, etc, etc. Same thing in South Korea IIRC.

  • TroubleMaker13

    And yet the food movement has never cared about workers.

    I don’t think that’s quite true in the literal sense. Many of the hardcore “I only eat organic!” people that I know will list “not exposing farm workers to toxic chemicals” as a leading rationale.

    Not much apparent concern for other aspects of working conditions though because I suspect the myth of the local organic farm as pastoral paradise runs strong as you say.

    • That’s fair, but it’s worth noting how abstracted the workers are in that equation.

  • Nobdy

    I think this is a major example of how racism drives inequality for everyone. If there was no racism then the workers on these farms would be on a more even footing with others and more accepted in their communities, so they could demand more in terms of compensation or legal protections, maybe even organize. Instead even though they live in the area year round the rest of the community sees them as other (the bosses even consciously seek to maintain thus through the language barrier) and does not support them, so they can’t rely on legal or social support in the struggle.

    Meanwhile this supply of weak, othered, labor drives down wages and opportunities for everyone else in the community who resent the othered subcommunity even more for “taking our jerbs.” They wouldn’t want the jerbs in their current conditions and pay but fantasize that if the others were gone the bosses would pay decent wages for decent conditions, but never think that they could force the bosses to do this anyway through legal intervention.

    In this way racism creates a wedge through which the bosses get what they want and everyone else is miserable.

    This is why you cannot separate race and class in the struggle. They are interwoven. Equality can’t be achieved without the destruction of racism.

    /end possibly obvious rant.

    • aidian

      I’d suggest you overstate the racial factor in this.
      The exploitation is because there’s a continuous supply of desperate workers without a lot of other options. It matters little what their color is — the capitalist classes are perfectly willing to exploit members of their own ethnic group.
      You want to force the landowners to pay a decent wage? Cut off the supply of H2A visas and illegal immigrant labor.

  • Judas Peckerwood

    I do my best to support local organic farmers, and to actually get to know them and the people who work for them. I’ve found that most farmers who are really doing the right thing welcome inquiries regarding their farming and labor practices, and will often allow interested customers to visit their farms for a firsthand look.

    I know that this kind of access isn’t practical/possible for most consumers, but if you do think that eating locally and ethically is important it’s worth the effort to try to get to know the people who are producing your food.

  • JustRuss

    In New York — as in most other states — farmworkers do not have a right to a day of rest, they do not have a right to overtime pay,…

    Christ, I didn’t believe this, but yes. California requires overtime after 10 hours in a day or 60 in a week, and it’s probably one of the more generous states in this regard. For some reason the overtime laws that apply to just about everybody don’t apply to farm workers.

    Wonder why that is?

    • Quaino

      I’d wager because we give disproportionate power in our government to the areas who benefit greatly from this type of exploitation. If a bill is trying to do something about overtime/worker’s hours/wages, etc. it very likely becomes easier to push through if you don’t have states that rely heavily on farming bitching about how not working people to death will destroy family farms, so I’m guessing it’s the first ‘compromise’.

      • JustRuss

        Yes, but we’re not talking about federal laws here, these are state laws. I’m sure the same dynamics apply, but California’s population is overwhelmingly urban, I’m curious how agriculture exerts so much leverage there.

        • Murc

          California’s population is overwhelmingly urban, I’m curious how agriculture exerts so much leverage there.

          Cash money.

        • Brett

          Agriculture is big business in California even if the actual number of people involved in it are few in number, and the urban thing actually works to their advantage – it means that most folks don’t care about farm politics as long as it doesn’t heavily impose on them.

    • Saskexpat

      My understanding of the history for treating ag employees differently for overtime is because the standard rule would make labor costs really high during peak work times, such as harvest. Ag workers have been subject horrible conditions in California, and the legislature has promulgated some new rules in the last few years to prevent some of the worst of it. But farm workers are still a very exploited and vulnerable group.

  • revrick

    In the church I served for 20+ years, I had two farm families. One grew fruits and veggies, the other was a dairy farmer. Neither of those families made much, if any, money off their farms. In the case of the fruit and veggie farmer, the whole family pitched in and everybody had a second job. The owners went through bankruptcy twice. In the case of the dairy farmer, his three grown sons, who worked full-time, took turns, helping out before and after work. The dairy farm finally started making money when they rented a portion to a cell phone company.

    • Origami Isopod

      I don’t understand the point of this anecdote. Are you arguing that the poor, hapless farm families have to exploit workers if they’re to break even?

    • Chaz

      I’m guessing the “if any” is an exaggeration. If you’re pouring your labor into a business for 20 years straight while making no net income then that’s not a business, it’s a hobby. If it was really a business then you would shut it down after 2 or 3 years and sell the land. It’s hard to change careers but plenty of non-farmers have had to change careers, that’s life.

      And if you can’t run a successful business without screwing workers, don’t run a business.

  • ItIsAllTurtles

    There are lots of people in the food movement who pay more for their produce and seek transparency from their producers in terms of the fairness of their business practices. Its an imperfect art. We have double SNAP payments in many places to help offset some of the issues for less financially secure customers. It is a bandaid.
    But I thought the original article and post both were weak in demonstrating the differences between industrial and alternative production (original article) and liberals not caring about fairness (original post). It would have been nice to see comparisons of industrial vs. local producers in some form that could be analyzed. Or liberals vs. others in terms of those who “don’t care” about the exploitation in one or both domains.
    Yes, wages in the agriculture sector are low. Yes, we should continue to push for better conditions for all ag workers. Yes, precarious workers have precarious lives. If that is of interest to anyone, I suggest you start by becoming involved in the community organizations in your community that are working these issues.
    If you think it is hard to influence a local farmer producing for local use, then try to influence a corporation in the industrial food system. Local is far from perfect, but it can be much more transparent if we keep pushing. I do not know how to push industrial producers to value those traits that mark a sustainable system.
    I recommend a quick read of Every Twelve Seconds to help remember what industrial food production looks like, and then make sure we are seeking to do better than that in our local context.

  • ZaftigAmazon

    When the minimum wage was instituted as part of the New Deal, agricultural and domestic workers were deliberately omitted. It was the only way that Southern Democrats would get on board with the legislation. And it allowed the South to continue exploiting the descendants of former slaves that lived in those states. So the rest of us got minimum wage on the backs of black people. And now it is on the backs of illegal immigrants. It is long past time to revisit this exception/loophole.

  • pseudalicious

    I’ve been doing my part by never eating fruit or vegetables.

    In New York — as in most other states — farmworkers do not have a right to a day of rest, they do not have a right to overtime pay

    Holy shit.

  • Jtsvc

    I am an attorney during the week but I work one shift per week at a tasting room as a side gig. My winery owns and/or manages the majority of it’s vineyards which amounts to thousands of acres of grapes. Wineries are a huge (and growing) part of local agriculture in many parts of the US (I’m in California as you might guess). Many consumers have been somewhat interested and concerned in our farming practices, and the concern was probably at a peak about 7 or 8 years ago.

    So back about 6 or 7 years ago, my winery decided to go for a sustainability certification I think based upon the inquiries we had been getting. It was NOT an organic certification, but rather an analysis of company practices that looked at agricultural processes; took into consideration the overall energy and water usage; and included worker conditions including pay minimums, breaks, time off, etc. I’m always skeptical of these types of programs, but I took it as a positive that they were even interested in doing this type of thing. They even hired a really energetic sustainability director. Even though I’m only there once a week and don’t often cross paths with the upper management, I have gotten the feeling for how things work there so I was not optimistic about their dedication to the process. I predicted they would kill our sustainability director’s spirit and she would be gone in a couple years. To my dismay, I was correct. She left over 2 years ago now and has not been replaced. All the brochures about our sustainability certification are gone. I don’t think we’re even doing it anymore. And management’s most recent actions indicate they are probably looking to sell this company in the next couple years, so the expensive sustainability practices are pretty much out the window. No idea how this has hashed out in the fields as we don’t have much (any) contact with the ag workers. At wineries (and other agricultural operations I would assume) there is also a layer of blue-collar workers operating heavy equipment and such who are similarly not treated well, though I’m sure they at least qualify for overtime pay.

    I just wanted to pass this along to let you know that there are groups who are trying to improve agricultural worker conditions in different ways. But, of course, the prevailing sentiment is correct in its assumption that the consumer interest in this has been weak. Also, don’t forget wineries are agricultural. And the ones that don’t manage their own vineyards are probably even worse than the winery I work for because they only have to deal with the cost of the grapes and they can conveniently disconnect themselves from what goes into growing and harvesting them.

    Also, although I am generally willing to pay higher prices for food, wine, and other agricultural products than many other people, it in no way guarantees that the extra money is actually invested in the people who are generally exploited to make it cheap. Big agribusiness is still worse because investors get rich off of the misery of others. Most small farmers are generally barely making ends meet and cannot compete with big agribusiness. The local farm can’t afford to contribute to better working conditions because agribusiness is often the sole beneficiary of farm subsidies and tax benefits, so the products would have to be so much more expensive that they could not compete at all.

    And is it better to pay some wage to workers or depend on volunteer labor to provide food for your Michelin starred $400 prix fixe restaurant? Check out where David Kinch gets his food from: https://thefarmerandthechefmovie.com/ I’ll bet former attorney Cynthia Sandberg still clears a profit even if her labor is entirely volunteers.

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