Letter from the Editor - Summer 2023
By Elizabeth Gabriel
After a first look at the hazy skies before heading out on the farm today, I excitedly thought some rain might disrupt this drought. It turns out the sky has an orange haze from the wildfires in Canada (wildfires around the globe are increasing because of climate change), which are causing air quality issues across half of the United States, with the most unhealthy areas being here in the Northeast. Not long after I started animal chores, my throat started to itch, and a cough developed. I chose to tend to the animals, do the bare minimum farmwork outdoors and spend the rest of the day doing administrative work on the computer. On the cusp of this issue going to print, I am more than ever keenly aware of the privilege of this choice - as a farm owner and a part-time farmer. Fortunately, here on our small diversified farm with just two part-time employees in addition to my partner and myself, nobody had to work today, but this is not the typical farm and farmworker situation in the U.S.
Across the country, farmworkers provide the labor, skill, and care that make most farms possible - from small, diversified organic vegetable farms to large-scale animal confinement operations. Agriculture is a labor-intensive industry; farm owners depend on a workforce for the success of their businesses - not to mention the health of animals, plants, soil, and more. Farm owners perennially struggle to find and keep employees from season to season. Meanwhile, farmworkers struggle to find work that is safe, humane, and pays a fair wage - and it’s even harder for those seeking a long-term career in the industry.
These owner/worker challenges are complex and have deep roots. As was published recently in a toolkit for farmers called Farming into the Future by Centering Farmworkers, these challenges are “deeply intertwined with the history of agriculture and the value of labor in this country. Our agricultural legacy is one of dispossession and enslavement, of white heteronormative land ownership, and of what many recognize as 'a stunning erasure' that obscures the contributions of farmworkers. Over centuries, agriculture has profited [and continues to profit] immensely from the exploitation and oppression of farmworkers, and one of the most impactful means of achieving this has been through federal legislation."
With more than 80% of hired U.S. farmworkers being migrants, the “exploitation and oppression of farmworkers” is inextricably linked to the continued horrific treatment of immigrants in this country. We’re seeing this right now in how the “migrant crisis” is being handled as border policy Title 42 expires and more than 65,000 asylum-seekers arrive in New York City. Because of federal policy (not to mention fight for political power and general squabbles), it is illegal for these people to work and numerous (Republican) counties throughout the state are declaring a State of Emergency, basically making it illegal for residents in these counties to help these asylum-seekers with housing, shelter, jobs or other basic provisions.
There was hope for improvements in the working conditions as farmworker exploitation gained media attention at the height of the pandemic when supply chains collapsed, grocery stores were empty and the general public realized migrant labor is the backbone of our economy and the food we eat. While farmworkers gained the stature as “essential” workers, this classification didn’t come with the protection of their health, safety, dignity, fair pay, and dozens of other humane provisions that it should have.
It seems like it should be simple and comes down to basic human rights - there is potential value and goodness in every human being and we each should be treated as such. Yet capitalism is more potent than human rights. Despite air quality hazards, essential farmworkers don't get to choose to take an administrative day.
We can do better. No matter what we produce, the size of our farm, if we hire migrant workers through the H2A program, a small crew of American-born beginning farmers, or oversee an apprenticeship program - we must do better. I hope you’ll keep reading through this issue to learn more about the history of agricultural working programs and present day experience of farmworkers - anybody who farms on somebody’s else’s land - in this country. Our NOFA vision of “interconnected healthy communities living in ecological balance” can’t happen without care for the people - that especially means for the farmers and farmworkers who grow the food.
Read personal stories from people farming on somebody else’s land: Not Our Farm blog and Toolkit, notourfarm.org
Challenge yourself to do more: Get Agricultural Justice Project certified.
Learn what farmworkers really value, Farming into the Future by Centering Farmworkers, notourfarm.org/resources/
Watch “Farmworkers: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”
Read about examples of resistance: Milk With Dignity campaign and Coalition of Immokalee Workers to name only two