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The Human Cost of Food

The Human Cost of Food
Farmworkers' Lives, Labor, and Advocacy

This book addresses the major factors that affect farmworkers’ lives while offering practical strategies for action on farmworker issues.

August 2002
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357 pages | 6 x 9 | 23 photos |

Finding fresh fruits and vegetables is as easy as going to the grocery store for most Americans—which makes it all too easy to forget that our food is cultivated, harvested, and packaged by farmworkers who labor for less pay, fewer benefits, and under more dangerous conditions than workers in almost any other sector of the U.S. economy. Seeking to end the public's ignorance and improve workers' living and working conditions, this book addresses the major factors that affect farmworkers' lives while offering practical strategies for action on farmworker issues.

The contributors to this book are all farmworker advocates—student and community activists and farmworkers themselves. Focusing on workers in the Southeast United States, a previously understudied region, they cover a range of issues, from labor organizing, to the rise of agribusiness, to current health, educational, and legal challenges faced by farmworkers. The authors blend coverage of each issue with practical suggestions for working with farmworkers and other advocates to achieve justice in our food system both regionally and nationally.

  • List of Abbreviations
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Lucas Benitez: Sowing Seeds for Change symposium address
  • Charles D. Thompson Jr.: Introduction
  • Wendy Daniels Ibarra: The Virgin of Guadalupe, interview of Carmen Tomás
  • Alejandra Okie Holt and Sister Evelyn Mattern: Chapter 1. Making Home: Culture, Ethnicity, and Religion among Farmworkers in the Southeastern United States
  • Lucas Benitez: Sowing Seeds for Change symposium address
  • Charles D. Thompson Jr.: Chapter 2. Layers of Loss: Migrants, Small Farmers, and Agribusiness
  • Rachel LaCour: Life on Easy Street
  • Cindy Hahanovitch: Chapter 3. Standing Idly By: "Organized" Farmworkers in South Florida during the Depression and World War II
  • Joe Bayby: Rifaré mi suerte/I'll Raffle My Luck, interview of Humberto Zapata Alvizo
  • Garry C. Geffert: Chapter 4. H-2A Guestworker Program: A Legacy of Importing Agricultural Labor
  • Roman Rodriguez: Testimony at Hearing before the Commission on Agricultural Workers
  • Greg Schell: Chapter 5. Farmworker Exceptionalism under the Law: How the Legal System Contributes to Farmworker Poverty and Powerlessness
  • Rachel Avery: Wells Farms
  • Kris Adams: The Conditions at the Camp Are Not Great, interview of Vanessa
  • Christopher Holden: Chapter 6. Bitter Harvest: Housing Conditions of Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers
  • Anonymous: The History We Wrote This Summer
  • Colin Austin: Chapter 7. The Struggle for Health in Times of Plenty
  • Marcella Hurtado Gomez: That Summer
  • Gloria Velasquez: Bella Juventud/Wonderful Youth
  • Ramiro Arceo, Joy Kusserow, and Al Wright: Chapter 8. Understanding the Challenges and Potential of Migrant Students
  • Melinda Steele: I Don't Think People Give Up, interview of Sheila Payne
  • Paul Ortiz: Chapter 9. From Slavery to Cesar Chavez and Beyond: Farmworker Organizing in the United States
  • Lucas Benitez: Sowing Seeds for Change symposium address
  • Melinda F. Wiggins: Conclusion. An Invocation to Act
  • Appendix I. Developing a Syllabus on Farmworker Advocacy
  • Appendix II. Farmworker-Related Organizations and Agencies
  • Appendix III. Recommended Readings
  • Works Cited
  • Contributors
  • Index

Charles D. Thompson, Jr., is Director of Curriculum and Education at the Center for Documentary Studies, as well as an adjunct assistant professor in the Departments of Cultural Anthropology and Religion, at Duke University. Melinda F. Wiggins is Executive Director of Student Action with Farmworkers in Durham, North Carolina.


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This book is about students, consumers, and advocates joining farmworkers in their struggle for justice. It introduces a variety of issues and challenges that farmworkers face in health care, housing, education, and other areas, including legal and political hurdles. And it provides guidance on what farmworker advocates can do about these challenges.

We have concentrated on the Southeastern United States—the region that includes Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia—because this is where we live and work and a region that has receivecl too little attention in farmworker literature, even though more than 40 percent of U.S. farmworkers labor in the region today. By some estimates, farmworkers in the Southeast may number nearly one and one-half million.

By targeting farmworkers in the Southeast, we locate them in a long history of mostly landless and underpaid people who have provided farm labor for centuries. The South, as the one-time bastion of slaveholding and later the Jim Crow laws of segregation, has long been known for its agricultural and labor inequities. This region, which once measured these differences in terms of black and white people, has become multiethnic as Latinos have moved into the Southeast in greater numbers.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Latino population nearly doubled in the region during the 1990s alone. The Latino population of Georgia and North Carolina more than doubled from 1990 to 1998. No Southeastern state is left unaffected by this Latino influx. Even West Virginia, with its relatively small agricultural economy, saw a 21 percent increase in its Latino population during the 1990s. Nationwide, the proportion of foreign-born farmworkers, most of them Mexican men under thirty-five years of age, rose from 10 percent in 1989 to 81 percent in 1998 (Mehta et al. 2000). Quite simply, inequities confronting agricultural workers, while centuries old, have new and often changing faces.

Along with explaining farmworker demographics and the particular challenges of various facets of farm work, we have endeavored to concentrate on farmworker lives. Challenging the notion that farmworkers are victims, we discuss farmworkers as human beings with rich cultural and religious lives well beyond their labor in the fields. Above all, we combine this information about farmworker lives and labor with a call to action among readers who want to do something to right the injustices farmworkers endure.

In this spirit, we invited contributors to this volume who are experts in their respective areas and who are advocates for farmworkers. Regardless of background or vocation, the authors share a common commitment to making a difference in the lives and working conditions of the people who provide the nation's food and to ending farmworker exploitation and injustices that persist today.

These injustices are not inherent to agriculture. Rather, they have become ingrained in its very structure because of discrimination and greed, due in large part to the control of agricultural power structures increasingly centered in large corporations. Injustices in farming in the United States continue because agribusiness resists changes to farm labor practices and labor laws that threaten its power. Yet this book came about because we know change is possible. We have witnessed reforms, although change historically has occurred incrementally and with a struggle.

Who Are Farmworkers?

Though definitions may vary somewhat, farmworkers are laborers who cultivate, harvest, and prepare a variety of seasonal crops for market or storage, including fruits and nuts (33 percent of workers), vegetables (28 percent), horticulture (14 percent), and field crops (16 percent) The remaining 9 percent of workers may work in several categories in a single year. There are three main groups of farmworkers, though we must be aware that any of these categories may shift and change for individual workers during a single season: migrant farmworkers, seasonal farmworkers, and guestworkers. Food animal workers, such as those who work in poultry and hog processing, often share similar migration histories and labor inequities and can be called farmworkers as well. Though obtaining exact numbers is next to impossible, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates between two million and three million fieldworkers alone in the United States today.

Migrant farmworkers are individuals whose primary employment is seasonal agriculture, who live in temporary housing, and who travel more than seventy-five miles to obtain a job in U. S. agriculture. Fifty-six percent of all farmworkers must travel to secure employment. Nearly 40 percent of migrants are "shuttle migrants" who journey between two primary locations, such as Mexico and the Carolinas. Seventeen percent are "follow the crop" migrants who move year-round with crops. Migrant farmworkers in agriculture today number at least 900,000 adults along with 400,000 children (Mehta et al. 2000).

Seasonal farmworkers are those whose principal employment is agricultural labor but who reside permanently in a single community. Forty-four percent of farmworkers are seasonal workers, and most are U.S.born (Mehta et al. 2000). These seasonal workers are often poor due to underemployment stemming from the seasonal nature of farm work.

Similar to the Bracero program created in the 1940s to replace the population drawn away from farms by World War II, the H-2 guestworker program, which came into widespread use by 1964, was created to allow foreign workers to enter the United States temporarily to perform agricultural labor. Though it represents a small percentage of the national farmworker population, the H-2A agricultural guestworker program is significant because it signals a trend in the agricultural industry toward importing immigrant labor instead of increasing wages and benefits for domestic workers. The H-2A program is noteworthy also because the numbers of H-2A workers have increased significantly since the late 1980s; more than ten thousand Mexican H-2A workers came to North Carolina alone in 2001, mostly to work the tobacco crop. Almost every year since the mid-199Os, the agricultural industry has lobbied Congress to ease the restrictions on bringing in more foreign workers. Guestworkers are isolated from other workers, have few means to settle into a community, and stay for too short a time to fight for any changes in the program or the agricultural system as a whole.

Flow of Migrant Farmworkers

Migrant farmworkers travel many streams through the United States, generally starting in California, Texas, and Florida in the early spring and heading northward as crops ripen in each succeeding area. In the Southeast, migrant workers who pick perishable food crops begin with citrus in the winter in Florida and move north to harvest strawberries, tomatoes, beans, peppers, and other crops as they ripen in the Carolinas and spread out to other states in and outside the region. Travel patterns vary significantly. Some farmworkers remain in Florida for longer periods for melon and blueberry harvests, for example, while others begin their treks northward. Some workers end their northward movement in Maine or Michigan with early-fall blueberry harvests. After this northward trek, many return to Florida to begin the cycle again or head to other countries, often to Mexico, to continue the harvest season.

There are many diversions along their routes. Thousands of workers leave the stream to plant, prune, harvest, and pack Christmas trees in the North Carolina mountains for the entire year, for instance. Thousands more stop to work in tobacco and apples in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. In some areas, such as the apple- and peach-producing areas of Virginia, farmworkers have become semipermanent residents of particular areas, staying near the farms to do the pruning, spraying, planting, and packaging of crops in the off-season.

Because of the multiple routes and means by which farmworkers travel, it is best to avoid imagining single streams flowing south to north but rather more accurate to picture a series of small rivulets that diverge from several tributaries flowing in different directions, some of which never converge. We can picture part of the flow coming to a stop in particular places and other branches that deviate and reconnect at various points. Thus, farmworkers follow more than a few channels, with many streams running at once, overlapping, and even overflowing into nonfarm work at times. Guestworkers form a separate stream as they are bused from their native countries directly to the states where they work for the duration of the season and are bused back at the end of their contracts.

Many farmworkers have been able to form mobile communities and remain in groups from the same town, sharing important information as they travel. However, even in small communities, it is common to find individuals who have come from many different places and who have arrived by different routes. Further divergences result when large extended families or groups that originate from a single community in Mexico or Central America split up for some of the year due to children's school schedules or special work arrangements such as temporary jobs in chicken plants. Often, unforeseen occurrences such as car troubles, investigations by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, illness, and death determine the paths of farmworkers on the move.

The flow of people within the network of agricultural labor streams is often transnational, with workers living part of the year outside the United States. In other cases, particularly among U.S. citizens, people may live during the winter in the U.S. community where they were born and enter a migrant stream for only the summer months. Sometimes a family may live in Mexico an entire year and travel as migrants for two years following. In short, idiosyncrasies occur in individual lives that complicate ascertaining the numbers and mapped routes of farmworkers.

In 1998 the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) revealed that 77 percent of all farmworkers were Mexican-born, up from 66 percent in 1995. Among the other groups, 9 percent in 1998 were U.S.-born Latino citizens, 1 percent were African American citizens, 7 percent were U.S.-born non-Latino whites, 1 percent were foreign-born Asian, and the remaining 5 percent were U.S.-born or non-U.S. citizens from the Caribbean and Latin American countries other than Mexico {Mehta et al. 2000).

Federal estimates show that at present approximately 22 percent of farmworkers are U.S. citizens, 24 percent are legal permanent residents who have "green cards," and 52 percent are undocumented. Though the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 gave legal status to two and one-half million Mexican immigrants, including 33 percent of all estimated undocumented farmworkers, many of these farmworkers left farm work for other occupations. Thus, new immigrants from Mexico have replaced those who gained legal permanent residency status through IRCA.

Undocumented workers earn as little as half the wages earned by legal residents (Mehta et al. 2000. More than three-fifths of farmworkers are poor, and this number is increasing each year. Seventy-five percent of all farmworkers earn less than $10,000 annually. The purchasing power of farmworker wages has dropped more than 10 percent since 1989. The average wage of farmworkers in 1998 was $5.94 per hour, with 10 percent of farmworkers earning below minimum wage.

An estimated 84 percent of all farmworkers speak Spanish as their first language, while 12 percent are native English-speakers, and 4 percent speak other languages including indigenous languages from Latin America. The median highest schooling completed by farmworkers is sixth grade; 20 percent complete only three years, and 15 percent complete high school (Mehta et al. 2000).

Neat statistics, while extremely important, rarely tell the whole story. Some people, for example, shift from one category of worker to another in a single year, such as migrant workers who harvest crops in Florida but who then "settle out" to work in tobacco, Christmas trees, and meat processing because work is available for longer periods of time during the calendar year. Some agencies, such as the Migrant Education Program, count these semipermanent residents of rural communities as farmworkers. Counting animal processing workers along with fieldworkers is sometimes important for purposes related to housing, education, and other issues of advocacy, particularly when overall numbers of farmworkers are important.

Though definitions are crucial for federal and state services, ethically speaking there is little reason to differentiate between these groups of agricultural workers when thinking of U.S. society's obligations to them. In this regard, there is often little difference between a worker who lives year-round on a single dairy farm and one who works on a variety of vegetable farms in several states. Both types of workers often are underpaid, have no long-term job security, health care, or retirement plan, and subsist in the margins of society where services do not reach them. Indeed, some workers do more than one type of agricultural job in a single year and thus live in multiple worlds of farm labor, such as an individual who may pick tomatoes during the summer and process poultry during the winter. Therefore, some people are classified as migrant workers during the cropping season and meat packers during the rest of the year. These kinds of job changes are survival strategies that farmworkers employ, making any statistic on farmworkers a less than perfect gauge.

This much appears certain: the numbers of farmworkers in the Southeast will remain large and perhaps even grow in the future. While some agricultural representatives complain, usually falsely, of a shortage of laborers, some growers and producers increase their farm labor forces and allow their costly harvesting equipment to remain idle. This is because it is actually cheaper for some farmers to pay farmworker wages than to operate these machines. In other cases, though domestic farmworkers could be available for slightly higher wages, growers instead hire guestworkers.

Because of the diverse work patterns of agricultural workers, the multifarious flow of migrant workers toward a plethora of destinations, and the different means people use to put together livelihoods, we can only speak in generalities about farm labor demographics. Imprecision in counting farmworkers is a major problem of farmworker advocacy (Martin and Martin 1994, 7). Even so, farmworkers and advocates within particular communities can gather and share information with other advocates about the workers in their local areas and the patterns these workers follow in their routes to such locations. Farmworkers can provide essential knowledge to advocates about their peers.

Invisible Agriculture

Food corporations and grocery chains would rather not advertise how food is brought to consumers, thereby obscuring the presence of farmworkers in their communities and in the food system as a whole. In effect, farmworkers are invisible to many people. They remain a hidden underpinning of the system that brings us the food we enjoy without ever appearing on food labels.

Farmworker invisibility is not unlike the way U.S. consumers are sheltered from reminders of how animals are slaughtered and brought to market in packages or how pesticides are applied to the foods we eat. Labor injustices, as well as other types of unfairness within the food system, are disguised in such misleading slogans as "farm fresh" and "fresh picked" that say nothing about the real and often tragic stories of food production. Even organic foods can be harvested under abusive conditions for workers. "Natural" does not mean just, particularly as large food corporations enter the organic industry seeking their share of a lucrative market. Hence, the hands that feed us are often invisible hands, hands of people who work in the shadows of a multibillion-dollar industry without enjoying its rewards. Farmworkers receive too little pay and remain poor even as the U.S. food system outpaces in productivity and output every other system on the planet and as U.S. farms "feed the world."

Farmworker Treadmill

Farmworkers are the peasants in the modern U. S. agricultural system. They are unlike the stereotypical "hired hands" of agriculture who sometimes appear on television or in movies treated practically as family members or those who once commonly served as apprentices, "gaining skills and experience in hopes of one day becoming farmers themselves" (Schwartz 1945, quoted in Griffith and Kissam 1995,13). Rather, they remain "unskilled" workers who rarely if ever graduate to landownership or to a position of respect in the agricultural community. Though farmworkers have farm knowledge and real skills that are invaluable on farms, skills learned from generations of ancestors in Mexico and elsewhere, these skills do not help them advance in the field of agriculture. Thus, farm work as it is organized today is a treadmill of labor that benefits agribusiness and entraps workers in cycles of travel and poverty.

Flight Rather than Fight

It comes as no surprise that many farmworkers simply leave agricultural jobs whenever possible. This flight of farmworkers from fields creates what Phillip Martin and David Martin call the "endless quest" for workers, along with a seemingly endless search for reforms in farmworker policy (Martin and Martin 1994). Leaving farm work is often the only recourse for diminishing individual suffering, but it does nothing for the system as a whole. When a farmworker leaves the field permanently, another must replace him or her. As long as the labor supply seems endless, there is little incentive to change the agricultural system.

Philosophical Orientation

At its very foundation, the agricultural system in its present state depends on farmworkers. While the arrangement is not a holdover from the days of slavery, comparisons of present-day farm work to slavery are warranted. Contrary to myths regarding the lack of human involvement in a mechanized food system, farmworkers continue to work alongside machines. Though agriculture has experienced monumental changes over the past century—including the near-demise of the family farm—fruit, vegetable, tobacco, and nursery production, among other agricultural endeavors, have remained dependent upon farmworkers. Modern agriculture, even large-scale organic agriculture, could not function without migrant and seasonal laborers.

The presence of farmworkers in the United States is not just about "Mexicans" trying to get a piece of the American pie, as some might assume. Rather, while individuals from Latin America and elsewhere attempt to maximize their incomes by taking jobs as farmworkers in the United States, they also are pushed northward by failing local economies due in part to U.S. trade policies, such as structural adjustments and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In addition, farmworkers are pulled by forces of corporate agriculture that has, in turn, eliminated small-farming opportunities across the globe while maintaining large numbers of low-paying, seasonal, and often dangerous jobs in the United States or on U.S.-controlled farms in Mexico. Most of these jobs are exempt from labor standards common to other U.S. industries. People also come to the United States seeking opportunities for their children, to reunite with family already in the United States, and in search of the "American Dream." And labor recruiters hire young men in Mexico who fall prey to the dream's lure.

Because of poor conditions in farm work along with availability of job opportunities elsewhere for most U.S. citizens, few U. S. workers are now willing to do farm work. Though farmworkers may take pride in their work, as well they should, no one enjoys working for too little money and under inhumane conditions. Farmworkers want to work, that much is certain. But it is unfair to say that farmworkers are satisfied with what they make or with living in substandard housing while doing this work. Contrary to some popular myths, no ethnic groups are better suited to field work and poor living conditions than the rest of humanity. Rather, some people just have few, if any, other options.

Farm work could be valued and justly paid, but instead it is denigrated to standards unacceptable in any other U. S. economic sector. It comes as no surprise, then, that many people leave farm work as quickly as other opportunities arise and that many shifts in farmworker demographics have occurred over the past quarter-century. Most arresting is the fact that while 81 percent of full-time farm laborers in agriculture today were born outside the United States, more than one-fifth of them at any given time are in their first year of work (Mehta et al. 2000). New workers, most of them young men traveling without their families, continually enter agricultural fields and in many cases stay for as little time as they can while looking for other work. In addition, guestworkers have been brought into the country on a seasonal basis to fill ostensible labor gaps and thereby increase pressures on full-time farmworkers to accept poor conditions or be replaced.

Without question, the U.S. agricultural industry can afford to pay farmworkers a fair wage, provide them with benefits, and give them safer working conditions. Taking these steps could assure some permanency in the agricultural workforce while increasing food prices only minimally. Unfortunately, this is not the type of system that large-scale agribusiness wants because such improvements would certainly affect its profit margins.

Corporate profits notwithstanding, farmworkers should be entitled to fair labor practices and policies that will protect and reward them for their difficult work. This is true especially because farmworkers provide food for the richest consumers in the world, but also, of course, because they are human beings. At the very least, they are entitled to a living wage, adequate nutrition and health care, decent housing, education for their children, and the physical and ideological space for nurturing their cultural and religious identities.

As farmworkers and their advocates have long realized, turning ethical stances such as these into tangible realities is no easy task. The obstacles to justice in farm labor not only consist of the bureaucratic hurdles that make delivering services to people on the move difficult, though this is often the case. Farmworkers seldom receive any orientation to their rights in U.S. society and rarely receive even the basic services to which they are entitled. This lack of information stems from the fact that too many of the power-holders in agriculture and commerce— including agribusiness owners, their lobbyists, special interest groups such as the Farm Bureau, and the politicians who respond to them— actively oppose even the most basic improvements to labor practices. Because of knee-jerk reactions to farm labor improvements, even the provision of bathrooms and drinking water in the fields is still a fighting matter. Even though farmworkers are indispensable to U.S. farming, they often are deemed as parasites or victims within U.S. society rather than as contributors to its well-being. Many in the United States resent the presence of farmworkers in their communities, even as they depend directly upon farmworkers' labor for the very food they eat.

How can we allow these working and living conditions to continue even as the U.S. gross national product has expanded many times over and the stock prices of food companies have soared over the past quartercentury? Though hardly an excuse, too few consumers have learned what human misery and struggle their food represents, and sadly, consumer ignorance is bliss for food corporations. Therefore, while food is plentiful for consumers and profits for food corporations are high, farmworkers go without proper nutrition themselves. U.S. consumers on average spend less than 15 percent of their income for food and can applaud the freedom this gives them to spend more of their money otherwise.

Meanwhile, farmworkers have the lowest annual family incomes of any U.S. wage and salary workers, and 61 percent of them live in poverty. This is an increase from 1990, when 50 percent of farmworkers lived below the poverty line (Mehta et al. 2000). Despite their poverty and myths about farmworkers on welfare, few farmworkers actually use social services. Only 1 percent of farmworker households received Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), public housing, or general assistance in 1998, and only 10 percent of farmworkers received food stamps or Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) food vouchers. More than half of farmworkers are excluded altogether from participation in food stamp, Medicaid, and WIC programs due to federal legislation barring undocumented workers from receiving them (Mehta et al. 2000).

Problems of the Southeast

The Southeastern region of the United States has long been a land of inequalities and contradictions. It was the region that in the nineteenth century depended most on slavery and that went to war to defend it. African American slaves made the Southern plantation system successful, and slaveholders did not want to give them up to freedom.

Even after slavery was abolished, gaping disparities continued in the way African Americans and whites lived there. For more than a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, many former slaves and their descendants worked under egregious systems of debt-peonage and sharecropping supported by Jim Crow laws.

While plantation agriculture dominated the coastal plains and deltas of the Southeast, the Piedmont and other mountainous areas of the region were dotted with small farms. Many of these farms were subsistence homesteads owned by poor whites and later, especially with the coming of the U.S. Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, by African Americans. Even into the 1980s, the Southeast had more small farms than any other region of the United States (U.S. Department of Commerce 1996). As farming profits dwindled for these small farmers, many went to work in textile plants that relocated to the region in search of non-union and hardworking people.

Today, many small farms in the Southeast are rented to large-scale operations, and others have ceased to exist as farms. A combination of low commodities prices and a lack of access to credit and lucrative markets pushed most farmers of one hundred acres or less out of agriculture beginning immediately after World War II in 1945 and continuing to the present (Flowers 1990). Most small-scale farmers hire few farmworkers.

Meanwhile, plantation-style agriculture—large-scale farms owned by corporations or landed families—continues. Plantations in the region have shifted in nature to an industrial model of agriculture known as agribusiness, where factory-like conditions are commonplace. Often these agribusiness interests refer to themselves as growers, farm cooperatives, or farmers, thereby masking their resemblance to factory owners rather than to yeoman farmers. These growers often form associations that lobby for laws that favor them and often make it difficult for farmworkers to improve their livelihoods. It is important to differentiate between agribusiness interests and small-scale farmers and to recognize that small farmers are often victims of the same vertically integrated system that abuses farmworkers.

Large-scale agriculture hires the majority of farmworkers today. Indeed, according to agricultural activist Al Krebs, "a mere 139,560 of the nation's 1.925 million farms have 77 percent of the total U. S. agricultural labor expenses." As in earlier eras, the Southeast has many agribusiness operations. Most of the large-scale poultry and hog operations, for example, have their strongest holds in the Southeast. Fruit and vegetable production in the eastern United States is carried out mostly on huge farms from Florida to southern Virginia. Overseers of slave days have been replaced by labor contractors on these agribusiness operations, but the relations between workers and crew bosses retain traces of those heavy-handed arrangements of old.

The trend toward concentration of land ownership and loss of farms is an international problem that plagues Latin American and Caribbean countries as well as the United States. Because of international farm losses today, many destitute rural people and urban exiles one generation removed from farms in Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti, or elsewhere come to the United States hoping to find more opportunities. They often turn to agricultural labor in the United States because this is the type of work they know and because low-paying jobs by U.S. standards have been relatively easy to come by, even when workers do not possess documents that allow them to hold jobs officially in the United States.

Thus, the region of the former slave states continues its tradition of exploiting farmworkers. Of course, other regions are equally at fault when it comes to farm labor rights, but the Southeast has a particular legacy to live down. Even as African Americans gain access to limited power in the region, Latino farmworkers feel the bite of an agribusiness system reluctant to change its patterns of hiring and paying workers. Too little has changed, and much remains to be done in this land where freedom was relative and where too many still live with inequities from the past.

Consumer Responsibility

In the United States in particular, we live in a time when few people know where their food originates and how it reaches their tables. Most people know less than ever about this most basic link between the economy and the natural world even in an era of unprecedented access to information. Ours is a selective information age at best.

Farmworker abuses are not just a matter of ignorance, however. Mere education alone will not correct them. As agriculture is organized at present, low pay is part of the profit-bearing equation in the food system. Some attempts at reform through re-education meet with real and knowledgeable counter-education or resistance from powerful agricultural corporations. We know from experience that merely learning about and pointing out injustices imbedded in the food system is not enough to cause the system to change. Clearly some people want farmworkers to remain powerless in order to maximize profits. Resistance to change from the powerful in agriculture therefore requires working not just through education but also through policy changes and activism to attack the root causes of farmworker abuse. Improving farmworker conditions entails ideological and legal battles of advocacy and organizing.

"Don't bite the hand that feeds you," a common proverb, is an admonition so basic and self-preserving that even most animals understand it: survival requires that we refrain from harming those who provide our food. Yet while it is hard to disagree with this message, its salience can be lost in the complexity and enormity of the transnational food and agricultural system that provides our daily sustenance.

Since most U.S. citizens know almost no one whose hands directly touch their food in the field, the admonition that we refrain from biting the hands that feed us is lost in abstraction. Fewer U.S. citizens in each succeeding generation know someone who makes a living at farming or one who gets his or her hands dirty in the fields. Therefore many seem to think hands have little to do with their provisions. We just go to the grocery store to find our food. Even fresh fruits and vegetables are commonly wrapped in cellophane, giving the illusion that these are untouched by humans. As we buy and consume food, we fill our carts, pay the bill, and go home in good conscience, our exchange within the system being limited to aisles and checkout lines.

Even as consumers around the nation have become sensitized to manufacturing conditions and to unethical transnational business practices in poor nations, farmworkers have not benefited from this consumer awakening (see White 1998). It seems U.S. society is more sensitized to the ethics of international athletic shoe manufacturing than to domestic food production. However, given that more than four-fifths of farmworkers are now foreign-born and have few rewards for their labor, it is no stretch of the imagination to claim that the United States has its own sweatshop system in its fields and food production.

To change these conditions, consumers and advocates must first educate themselves about these realities. This book is designed as a primer for such education about farmworker issues. After becoming aware of farmworker conditions, we must sow the seeds and reap the harvest of change as well.

What Future for Farmworkers?

As farms consolidate and managers control more production, we may see the numbers of workers in Southeastern agriculture increase over the coming decades. This is particularly true as economic desperation increases for farmers everywhere and an international shortage of work for the poor—particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean—outpaces the willingness or ability of individual farm owners to invest in technology. Already this phenomenon is common in numerous agricultural industries. Because many agricultural producers seek to maximize their profits, it appears that menial jobs in the agricultural industries could rise in number even as those industries boast of their modern methods of production and as farms increase in size. Most family-owned farms are strapped financially, even while the food industry enjoys healthy profits.

Farm owners consider technology a good investment and an improvement to the economic bottom line only when they are forced to pay their employees more than it costs to buy and maintain the new equipment in question. To date, wages are so low for farmworkers that many companies avoid the extra costs of upgrading their equipment by hiring more workers who work for less than the cost of the investment. Thus, the persistence of an agricultural underclass—a seemingly inexhaustible international supply of workers who accept low wages—perpetuates U.S. agriculture's reliance on migrant and seasonal workers.

Of course, increased technology in agriculture probably will not improve the farm labor situation because new technologies often have meant increased mechanization and the related consolidation of farm ownership, worsening environmental pollution, and forcing farmworkers to work alongside dangerous machinery. Yet, perpetuating poverty by maintaining the present system is not the answer either.

Another option is, quite simply, to pay agricultural workers a just wage, ensure safer working conditions, and respect their occupation. This would require that agribusiness companies make less profit on the food dollar and/or that consumers pay slightly more for food in grocery stores. Already too much of the food dollar goes to chemicals, research and development, advertising, and packaging, while labor is a small percentage of what U. S. consumers pay in grocery bills. Yet, even if increasing wages and improving farmworker living conditions are reasonable requests, such changes will not come without a fight.

Organization of This Book

We focus on the following major areas of farmworker lives, labor, and advocacy: culture and identity, farm history in the Southeast, housing, health, education, organizing, legal issues, immigration, and guestworker programs. Accompanying each chapter are contributions from SAF interns and other advocates as well as from farmworkers themselves. Most photos in this book were taken by SAF interns.

In chapter 1, "Making Home: Culture, Ethnicity, and Religion among Farmworkers in the Southeastern United States," Alejandra Okie Holt and Sister Evelyn Mattern describe the diversity of cultures and religions represented by U.S. farmworkers today. They demonstrate that farmworkers are far from a singular group and are diverse and active in shaping their own identities. An excerpt from Carmen Tomas's oral history interview titled "The Virgin of Guadalupe" precedes this chapter.

Chapter 2, "Layers of Loss: Migrants, Small Farmers, and Agribusiness" by Charles D. Thompson Jr., links various layers of agricultural history in the South with that of Mexico. Part of Lucas Benitez's Sowing Seeds for Change symposium address precedes this chapter.

Chapter 3, "Standing Idly By: 'Organized' Farmworkers in South Florida during the Depression and World War II" by Cindy Hahamovitch, looks at agribusiness's reliance upon African American migrant workers in Florida in the first half of the twentieth century, providing an important link to the present situation with farm work. Preceding chapter 3 is the recollection "Life on Easy Street" by Rachel LaCour.

Chapter 4, "H-2A Guestworker Program: A Legacy of Importing Agricultural Labor" by Garry Geffert, unpacks the legal and ethical ramifications of guestworkers in the United States and shows why we should pay attention to this trend in agricultural work. Joe Bagby's transcript of Humberto Zapata Alvizo's song "Rifaré mi suerte/I'll Raffle My Luck" precedes this chapter.

Chapter 5, Greg Schell's "Farmworker Exceptionalism under the Law: How the Legal System Contributes to Farmworker Poverty and Powerlessness," details the specific U.S. legislation that has made farmworker abuse so prevalent. He makes the case that farmworkers should be given the same rights as other U.S. workers. This chapter follows an excerpt of Roman Rodriguez's testimony at the Commission on Agricultural Workers hearing.

Chapter 6, "Bitter Harvest: Housing Conditions of Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers" by Christopher Holden, describes the particular conditions farmworkers on the East Coast endure on a daily basis and describes what advocates can do to secure better housing conditions. Preceding the chapter, "Wells Farms" by Rachel Avery and "The Conditions at the Camp Are Not Great" by Kris Adams show us further truths about housing and living conditions of migrant workers.

Chapter 7, "The Struggle for Health in Times of Plenty" by Colin Austin, describes the special challenges of health care, in terms of its availability and use by farmworkers. The anonymous poem "The History We Wrote This Summer" precedes this chapter.

Chapter 8, "Understanding the Challenges and Potential of Migrant Students" by Ramiro Arceo, Joy Kusserow, and Al Wright, addresses the barriers that migrant students face in schools as well as examples of programs addressing these problems. This chapter is accompanied by an excerpt from the short story "That Summer" written by Marcella Hurtado Gomez and the poem "Wonderful Youth/Bella Juventud" by Gloria Velasquez.

Chapter 9, "Farmworker Organizing in the United States: From Slavery to Cesar Chavez and Beyond" by Paul Ortiz, is a study of the history of labor organizing among farmworkers, particularly since World War II. An excerpt from Melinda Steele's interview with Sheila Payne, "I Don't Think People Give Up," accompanies this chapter.

The conclusion, "An Invocation to Act" by Melinda F. Wiggins, tells the story of farmworker advocates with whom she has worked and her own story of how she connects with farmworkers. She also recommends actions for advocates to take to support farmworkers. A short excerpt from Lucas Benitez's symposium address precedes this final chapter.

Appendix I, "Developing a Syllabus on Farmworker Advocacy," is a guide to course development. Appendix II lists resources helpful for further reading and study. Appendix III is a list of organizations and agencies that work with farmworkers. These appendixes, and indeed the entire work, are intended as tools of advocacy, though none of this information is to be considered exhaustive. Local agencies and organizations can add many resources to those listed and discussed here, especially information about their own geographical areas and fields of interest. Above all, we encourage readers to join us in seeking to change farmworker lives and labor conditions.


“This is an excellent book, well-written, thoughtful, and scholarly, in a field which has very few overviews accessible to non-specialists. It is definitely a contribution to the literature and will fill a large gap in existing materials, especially in its emphasis on farmworker issues in the Southeast United States.”
Cynthia A. Wood, Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, Appalachian State University


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