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Work and Food Writing

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So this is kind of an interesting story about a big hop farm in Idaho. I read it because I like beer. But I also read it to see how work is discussed. And of course, it is discussed only in the most passing way. See here:

At the height of the picking season, which starts in September, hundreds of workers tend to the hops. During this year’s harvest, the picking combines and the massive kilns used for drying will operate 24 hours a day. These are boom times and Elk Mountain is thriving.

The farm’s business hasn’t always been so good. Just a couple of years ago, Elk Mountain was in trouble. In the 2000s, a global hop surplus led to brewers such as Anheuser-Busch, which started the farm in 1987, stockpiling excess hop pellets. They simply didn’t need any more hops. In the spring of 2010, Elk Mountain’s farmers had to rip out all but 70 acres of their hops rather than maintain a crop that wouldn’t be used. For people who had spent their whole adult lives growing hops, times were hard. No one had seen this coming.

Hundreds of workers. Who are these workers? Are they hop workers full-time? What are the conditions of labor on this farm? None of this is known. We can assume, and almost certainly correctly, that these are migrant workers, probably undocumented.

Does it matter for a post about a hop farm? Yes and no. The point of the piece is to talk about a giant hop farm. Yet I think it rather unfortunate to talk about workers in food as strictly background characters, effectively machines that we don’t have to think about in the process of creating our beer. But we know almost nothing of the labor that goes into our beer, whether it be Miller or our favorite local microbrew. What that labor looks like, who gets paid what, what the working conditions are in those hop farms and breweries–these are really important questions that need to matter–especially to self-described foodies who hope for some level of sustainable production. For no food system is sustainable that does not treat workers with respect.

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