Thursday, May 18, 2017

An Agribusiness Perspective on Farm Labor & Immigration

Migrant workers harvest corn on Uesugi Farms in Gilroy, California (2013). U.S. Department of Agriculture 

At Food Politics, Marion Nestle shares an interview with Tom Nassif, the CEO of the Western Growers. “Nassif represents this trade association for industrial agricultural producers in the West and Southwest. He discusses how immigration issues affect farm labor from the perspective of producers.”

The entire interview is worth reading, but I want to highlight the following two questions and answers, commenting—by way of the work of Frank Bardacke—on the second one below: 

1. Some people say farmers just have to pay more for their labor.
“Anyone who is an enlightened observer of immigration reform and agriculture knows that’s not true. Wages have continually gone up. And the supply of labor keeps diminishing. … It’s not the wages, it’s the work. This is a difficult job. This is seasonal. This is migratory. This is not full time. This requires people to be away from their families. So that’s not very attractive work. And money alone isn’t going to do it, because farm workers aren’t raising their kids to be farm workers and certainly people here lawfully in the United States are not willing to do that kind of work when they have so many economic opportunities. As you know, Mexico is now importing farm workers [from other countries], because even in Mexico they are seeing better economic opportunities than being a farm worker.”

2. How in danger are produce growers of being put out of business by the current labor situation?
“I think several of the smaller to midsize operators are in danger of either having to cease farming or sell their operations to larger producers who have the wherewithal to withstand some of the things that are happening because they are able to invest in and develop more mechanical harvesting and other robotic operations. In many cases it will take the farmer a million dollars or more just to develop a harvesting machine for a particular commodity.”
*           *           *
As a prelude to the topic of increased mechanization of harvesting processes (and consequent devaluation of manual labor or Marx’s ‘cunning of the hand’), permit me to quote from Frank Bardacke’s “masterpiece,” Trampling Out the Vintage: César Chávez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (Verso, 2011):

“Not all farm jobs require equal skill. Different techniques are required for thinning, weeding, or harvesting, for working on the ground or climbing on ladders, for working by the hour or doing piece work, and each crop has its craft secrets and know-how. It is one thing to pick lettuce, another to girdle table grapes, another yet to pick lemons. Not all the physical skill of farmwork depends on the coordination of accomplished hands and sharp, experienced eyes. The work also requires physical endurance. Farm work is hard not only in the sense of being skilled but also in the sense of requiring toil, exertion, and extended physical effort. When arriving in the early morning to begin work, Pablo Camacho would often say, ‘Ya llegamos al campo de la batalla’ – ‘Now we arrive at the field of battle.’ Although intending to provoke a smile, Camacho was not being ironic. Most people who have worked in the fields say that it is the hardest work they have ever done. It is hard to put up with the inevitable pain and physical exhaustion, to last until the end of the row, the end of the day, the week, the season. ‘To last’ is not quite the right word. The right word is a Spanish one, aguantar: to endure, to bear, to put up with.

Pablo Camacho was proud of his ability to aguantar, even arrogant about it, often claiming that he never felt pain while he was working. That is a pose that a lot of farmworkers assume, even among themselves. At work, no one complains about pain. Camacho believed that the ability to put up with pain was part of the Mexican national character, especially evident in sports. Like many farmworkers, he was an avid boxing fan. He could name all the boxing champions in the lighter divisions from the 1930s to the 1970s, as well as recount the ways Mexican fighters had been denied championship opportunities. Mexicans were the best boxers in the world, he argued, especially in their ability to withstand punishment. They were also good marathon runners and long-distance bicycle racers, he said, sports in which endurance and patience are the essential virtues.

But Mexicans do not have an exclusive franchise on the ability to tolerate hard work. Endurance is a trait of slaves and the oppressed in general, and also characteristic of peasants and other agricultural people – whether free or unfree. Agriculture by its very nature requires patience. Farmworkers have to wait for nature to do her work. They must plant, water, and wait. Weed and wait. And, finally, after enduring the wait, they may harvest.

[….] Aristotle contended that ‘occupations are … the most servile in which there is greatest use of the body.’ The dynamic relationship between the brain and the hand was ripped asunder by early philosophers, leaving two separate activities: valued intellectual labor (suitable for free men) and devalued manual labor (suitable for women and slaves). This philosophical predisposition against the work of the body had its greatest worldly triumph in the development of capitalism and the factory system. As Marx so passionately chronicled, English factories destroyed English handicrafts. What he called ‘modern industry’ – machines built by other machines strung together in a continuous process of production, where laborers are ‘mere appendages’ to the machinery – replaced the earlier system of production that ‘owed its existence to personal strength and personal skill, and depended on the muscular development, the keenness of sight, and the cunning of the hand.’

The cunning of the hand, what farmworkers call maña, remains the basis of California farm work as surely as it is the basis of a major league pitcher’s job, or a skilled craftsman’s. Many farmworker jobs are not only hard to do but hard to learn, often requiring years to master, and skills typically are passed from one generation to the next. Farmworkers use hand tools: knives, hoes, clippers, pruners. They do not tend machines or have to keep up with an assembly line.”

In brief, “Behind every fruit and vegetable for sale in the supermarket lies an unknown world of toil and skill.” The rhetoric of “factory farming” and “industrial agriculture” is thus misleading to the extent that contemporary agriculture remains highly dependent on manual labor, although it is true that “planting and harvesting of so-called field crops—grains, sugar beets, and dry beans—have been successfully mechanized and deskilled. But field crops take up a rapidly diminishing percentage of California farm acreage….” Nassif appears to suggest (or his answer may be taken to at least imply) that the only obstacle to increased “mechanical harvesting and other robotic operations” is its comparatively high capital cost to all but the largest agricultural producers, but it remains the case that not all planting and harvesting is amenable to mechanization. Again, Bardacke:

“In the early sixties, when growers realized that the bracero program, thus their cheap labor supply, was coming to an end, they and their collaborators at the University of California began to build machines and remake seeds that they predicted would mechanize farmworkers out of existence. The project has been a colossal failure. Eighteen years of research and millions of dollars were thrown away on the lettuce machine alone. [….]

Each failed attempt has its own story. The strawberry machine bruised the berries. The asparagus machine couldn’t cut the shoots without destroying the ability of the bulb to generate more shoots for a later harvest. The celery machine couldn’t cut the stalks cleanly enough to be suitable for the fresh market. The lemon tree shaker produced three to seven times as much unmarketable fruit as did hand picking. Most other tree shakers do too much damage to the tree roots, although many nut trees can withstand the shaking. The one great mechanical success is the contraption that picks canning tomatoes, which, combined with a reengineered tomato, did replace thousands of workers. Otherwise, fresh tomatoes, like most other fruits and vegetables, are harvested by proficient workers making judgments and wielding tools. As the anthropologist Juan Vincent Palerm quipped about the growers’ dream of mechanization, ‘What we have witnessed over the past years is not the mechanization, but rather the ‘Mexicanization’ of California agriculture.” 

Further reading and research: 

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