Farm Workers – A short Essay

Here is an adapted version of a recent college essay I had to write for my History of Agriculture class. It does not fit the format of my usual posts but I hope you enjoy it!

Agriculture has an interesting and at times shocking history. America has had her controversies surrounding agricultural development to include the British government imposing restrictions on American industry so that the colonies were reliant on England for British imports of farm tools and heavy equipment, the slave trade of agricultural laborers during the antebellum years, and in modern America there is the matter of illegal alien workers.

To summarize American agriculture from the colonial years, farmers of the 17th century relied on hand tools and imported plows from England or trading farm products with Native Americans to get by. Then during the American Revolution (war for independence from England), demand for rope, sacks, sailcloth, cordage, wheat, and meat increased and so the production and price of hemp rose. This rise in demand and the intensity of the production of hemp created a demand for slave labor in order to be able to meet demands. The use of slaves in the south also allowed the cheaper production of tobacco and other commodities but this movement was met with the British attempting to weaken the American agricultural economy by luring slaves to escape and join British armies and gain freedom. The slave laborers were treated as a commodity, property, and escaping their masters to fight for the British would have had its own dangers and pitfalls and their freedom for their escaping is questionable. Americans mirrored the British by offering slaves ‘freedom’ to join the Continental Army, or Navy so again the slave laborers were forced to choose between two evils, and this after all is not freedom or a choice.

Regardless of the incorrectness of slave labor, it did benefit agriculture as well as the revolution for farmers were able to keep producing food for Americans at home and establish infrastructure and farms as well as meet the increased need for certain crops for the war effort. If farmers had not have met these demands then perhaps America would not have succeeded in her independence from England when she did.

During the Antebellum period, cotton was a major cash crop and valuable source of fiber but again slaves were utilized to keep the production active and level with demand. What did this bare on the life for slaves? The people captured for the slave trade were treated like cattle, graded for price based on their ‘quality’ and ability. A man in his prime working age was described as “one hand’ and could fetch $1800 while a woman aged 18-25 were described as “half hand” and were usually not expected to be AS productive ad their male peers – not that it was a pleasant or easy way to live. The laborers were able to grow a garden for themselves in their own time and were provided basic shelter but they were usually at the mercy of the Overseer (like a foreman) for rations of bacon, cornmeal, and sometimes sweet potato and molasses. Not only did the Overseer control rations but they also were responsible for setting targets for production that were then enforced by a Driver (who often times was a high ranking slave who earned special privileges for keeping his subordinates in line and meeting quota).

The Civil War brought about some relaxation of the slave trade when there was much turmoil to do with the use of slaves. In short, the north mostly opposed and the south mostly approved and it was one of many factors fueling the Civil War. One thing that cannot be denied is the fact that slavery did allow agriculture in the south to expand rapidly, it developed a biracial society, and of course it brought profit to the southerners states for it meant southern could manage larger areas of land and thus produce more crops.

The subject of supply and demand and controversial labor sources did not end in history for even today America is largely reliant on laborers from other countries. The migrant worker, guest worker, or illegal alien. However we describe 90% of Americas farm laborers (10% or less being citizens) for the most part they have low wages and often live in poor rural communities. They are lured to America with the view of adventure and earning money for their families or escaping turmoil in their own country and then they end up working long hard days, migrating to work the harvests, and living in what in America is considered to be poor and squalor conditions.

In an attempt to control illegal immigration whilst also improving conditions for laborers the Immigration Reform and Control Act was instilled in 1986. Since then however, there was an influx of illegal migrant workers and their living conditions and workers rights declined. The argument being that Americans simply do not want to work the hard, long hours at the low wages payed that illegal workers are willing to do and that without the cheap labor, many farms would not manage to keep up with production.

A new bill is being evaluated that would close borders and reduce the flow of migrant workers to America whilst actions being applied to inspect and regulate farms and their employees. The great concern for farmers is that provisions will not be made to compensate the inability to use cheap illegal labor. Many big farmers want to remain legal and in doing so lose millions by doing so.

Whatever ones personal views on immigration and border control may be, it is hard to deny the reliance America has on cheap farm labor and the cultural reality that most Americans will not work the same hours of physical labor for the money that farmers are affording to pay. In brief, farmers generally make a small cut of what we pay a supermarket for an item and so they need cheap labor in order to keep the farm running. It is a cycle of government, stocks, and mega stores controlling the value of food and the amount that a farmer receives for it. By no means should we look bad on farmers for employing illegal aliens, they are doing what they have to do to bring in the crops and make money. It is neither good nor bad to use migrant workers, it just ‘is’.

The problem for many people with using migrant workers is that for the ethically concerned, the living and working conditions for the laborers are shocking to most of us who have never broke a sweat outside and who have a reliable home to return to. Migrant workers must follow the harvest and oftentimes their children miss school and so are bound to follow in their parents footsteps and be farm laborers also. I think the stem of the problem is that America has lost focus on what is important. We want cheap food but most of us do not question WHY the food is cheap. Most of us do not appreciate how little of our grocery receipt actually pays the farmer and then his laborer budget and how much goes to the government, investors, and big supermarkets. There needs to be a push for lower distributor profit in favor of higher farmer profit. This will lead to better working conditions and wages for laborers and may even lure American citizens to take up farm labor jobs. This would then keep money in America. Another concept a lot of us have lost touch with is the cost of food and the acceptance that food production is hard work and deserves more benefit than the hardest workers behind our food get. Too many of us are happy to pay $5 on a box of sugary corn cereal (sugar and corn are cheap and the end product is highly inflated) but yet we question the value to our health the cost of a $5 bag of organic, fair trade apples. The last couple of generations have been brainwashed into believing we need a diet heavy in cereal and corn crops, everything is laced with corn syrup and byproducts. We have lost touch with real food and its value. We happily drop money on music downloads and fast food but do not question why fast food is often cheaper on our pockets than good, healthful food. This plague of skewed thinking that is mostly by no means the fault of the average citizen need to change so that we value real food again, fight for farmers to be payed a higher percentage of the market value, and then and only then will conditions for farm laborers improve. The more that we vote with our dollar at farmers markets, the more farmers will sell directly to customers and this will trickle more cash into the system without growing the middle man that is really only the face of our food.

As a Permaculture and fair trade enthusiast and budding small permaculture farmer I am passionate on the subject of access to organic food for all and the ethics behind our food production. It is my hope that in my lifetime I see and be part of a change in how we as a nation think about and prioritize our food purchases in order to create  shift in the availability of whole food and the economics of agriculture. I realize that this process may be slow but I am hopeful. If we all chose one item that supports the ethical employment of laborers and the restoration and preservation of our lands then eventually we will be able to feed everyone in the nation as well as doing so in a sustainable and ethically just way.

 

 

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