Monday, August 1, 2011

Farmers fight back against Tea Party on immigrant labor

I'm not gonna do this for a living. Will other Americans?
A Tea Party Texan wants to take U.S.-grown fresh fruit and vegetables off your table.

There's no other way to describe the bill proposed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex). The bill would turn farmers into immigration enforcement agents, requiring them to check every itinerant fruit picker's ID against a federal database run by the Department of Homeland Security.

This would hit the wine industry less hard than other farmers. Higher-end wineries already use almost exclusively legal workers. Even for low-cost operations, wine grapes are a higher value-added crop than almost any other. If there's a scramble for legal fruit pickers, vineyard owners will get most of them. We might see low-end wine prices go up a dollar, but I'm not going to cry about that. It might be worth paying $6 instead of $5 for a 5-liter jug of generic California wine to rid the country of illegal immigrants -- if that were the only cost.

What will happen, if this bill passes, is that peaches and nectarines and asparagus and cauliflower and everything else that's good for you will become much more expensive to pick, and thus to deliver to markets.

Honestly, that's not a reason to cry either: Americans pay too little for our food as it is because of longterm shortsighted policies that subsidize junk food-friendly crops like corn and beef. People shouldn't use the McDonald's dollar menu as a price comparison for dinner; we should economize on  cellphone features and spend that money on food. Which is truly necessary for survival? And which is actually pleasurable? (If you answer cellphone features, you're not eating well enough.)

Here is the reason to cry: most Americans are such cheapskates about food that they'll buy tiny underripe blueberries from Chile rather than spend more for organically grown ones from their neighbors. Wine blog readers are generally the exception: if you care enough about wine to read stuff like this,  it stands to reason you care about flavor and the source of your meals. But head out to a Walmart superstore in middle America and try to get folks to spend double for varietal strawberries.

In fact, those farmers' market goodies you and I love won't be much affected by the bill. I buy bok choy from legal immigrant Laotians who have the whole family working their small fields, and organic rainbow chard and strawberries from a bunch of hippies near Santa Cruz. They're back-to-the-landers; I'm sure their parents, who probably disapprove, delivered and raised their children north of the Rio Grande.

No, it's the prices of Safeway and Kroger's strawberries that will skyrocket, if they appear in stores at all. Farmers here simply cannot compete with Mexican and South American fruit price-wise without exploiting immigrant fruit pickers by paying sub-minimum wage.

There are so many wrong things about that sentence, but it is the reality.

Tea Party knuckleheads are best at ignoring reality; don't get me started on the debt limit. But I'm going to agree with them about something I would have thought crazy just two years ago.

If Tea Party folks believe the Americans they are keeping out of work with their fiscal policies in the House will try to feed their families by flocking to the fields as in "The Grapes of Wrath," well, maybe they're right. I recommend everyone see that flick, because it seems to be the Tea Party ideal for our future.

Let's say the Tea Party succeeds, and lower-middle-class families that used to live relatively stable urban and suburban lives reorganize themselves to follow the fruit and vegetable harvests, like in the Middle Ages.

It's still going to raise the price of fruit. Maybe Americans WILL get desperate enough to pick fruit. But if we do, we're going to demand minimum wage. We'll cut ourselves on the job, and instead of wrapping it with a corn husk and not telling anyone because we don't want to draw attention, we'll drop to the ground like Jurgen Klinsmann in his prime, writhing in agony. We'll demand medical treatment, and then we'll sue. Some of us will win; farmers' insurance costs will go up. There will be class-action lawsuits, and you'll see better working conditions on farms.

None of this is a bad thing. I'm starting to like this Tea Party vision of America!

There's just one catch: the price of American strawberries might double, while the price of Mexican strawberries might go down, since there will be an influx of experienced workers vying for jobs.

Are Americans going to pay double for U.S.-grown strawberries? Been to Walmart lately?

The one great thing about the New York Times story is that it posits a break in the decades-long relationship between the country's farmers and the Republican Party. As a group, farmers by nature may be personally generous yet tend to be socially conservative. But they're smart enough and have enough at stake to watch out for the very future of U.S. farming.

Ideally, hope the Tea Party can't raise enough votes to pass this farm immigration bill but keeps shouting about it for the next 14 months. I have done a fair amount of election-day volunteering, and if this bill remains anywhere on the agenda, I want to do that in November 2012 in a farming area. I'll wear non-red eyeglasses, keep my haircut simple, and drink coffee with the men and women who put peaches on my table. I have always been grateful to them for that, and now we finally are politically on the same side of the fence. Politics makes strange bedfellows, but for me this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


Anonymous said...

I've been saying similar things since this topic gained political attention. Basically, "do you know how much a salad is going to cost if this really happens?"

Good post.

What's with the red glasses?

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of the story except the sub-minimum wage crack. I am a farmer who runs crews of up to 50 people, mostly illegal, in my fields doing the work you are talking about. We don't pay anybody less that legal minimum wage and never have. I don't know of any of my neighbors or other farmers up and down the Central Valley in California who would do that. We have large business built up over generations and we would never take the risk of losing what we have by paying people in any non-legal fashion. The people that work the fields are for the most part hard working honest people trying to feed their families. The main point of the story is true though. If we are required to do the federal governments job of policing illegal immigrants the price of domestic fruits and vegetables will rise. Do you know what they spray on the crops in China and Mexico? Neither do I. What I apply to my fields is very tightly regulated and is public information. Any one who thinks we should send all of the illegal workers back to Mexico has no understanding of the food system (or hotels and retuarants)that feeds them.

Anonymous said...

Andy here....

there are a variety of issues at play here. First, as Americans we eat way too much and do not pay the real costs of food. This is bad on so many levels (obesity, medical costs, farm subsidies, etc) and needs to change--radically. Second, we have an interesting model for who does the "dirty" jobs...e.g. agricultural work among others. While this is a generalization -- we "import" ilegal labor (they pay limited taxes on their income but still use taxpayer funded services) and also have a social welfare system that chronically pays citizens who do not work (to prevent poverty, theoretically). Regardless of your political affiliation, its hard to imagine how this can sustainable (its not of course -- we all agree on this even if we do not agree on the solution). I suggest welfare time limitations (once the benefits run out, farm labor may not seem like such a bad thing after all), availability of free and ubiquitous birth control (so people affected by welfare cuts do not have children they cannot afford) and greater access to legal immigration -- this will create competition for the "dirty jobs" which will prevent a dramatic escalation of salaries but still provide basic benefits and proper taxation

Anonymous said...

I am an american citizen who picks grapes and works in fields doing other farm labor when harvest is not happening. Do I exist if americans wont do these jobs? If I do exist are wellfare and unemployment recipients a better class than me? Is it because all the people that wont work in the sun white? Ship out the illegals, I will still eat, and I will get paid more. Screw you whitey, you've been skrewing my family long enough.

CalGal said...

We pay our hard working men and women through a labor contractor and they give 100%.

No lolling about with these crews.

I have yet to see one white person show up on a crew.

Only white people you are going to see working out in your vineyards will be the owner, be it a man or a woman and we all work hard.

That is the nature of farming, be it a vineyard or any other enterprise.

We need to implement a worker's Green Card because California growers could not bring in their crops without workers from Mexico.

These are very hard working and good people who add a lot to our economy.

Anonymous said...

What's your position on the issue of imigration Reform?

Anonymous said...

I have been saying this exact thing to anyone who will give me the chance to say it and actually listen. However, while I agree with basically everything that you're saying in this blog post you have one GLARING omission. You stated that if Americans are doing the work that was formerly done by undocumented workers; the price of produce will double and that Americans will demand minimum wage. I disagree and that is because these worker would never get paid minimum wage because they would unionize faster than you can say apple! In this instance (which is ever more startling than the scenario that you have described) the cost of fruit and vegetables would SKYROCKET!! I haven't seen it yet but I wonder if that is there somewhere with the book or movie The Hunger Games? By the way, I want to thank you so much for posting this blog and for bringing it to the attention of those who need to hear it. I just hope that people will realize it in time!