What we Waste When we Waste Food: Farm Labor
Today is a holiday you have probably never heard of: National Farm Workers Day. This holiday is designed to celebrate the American farmers who grow and harvest the food we eat every single day. But why have most of us never heard of it? Why do most of us so rarely consider the food on our plate and where it came from? An oft-quoted fact when talking about the state of US agriculture is that at the beginning of the 20th century, one third of Americans lived on farms, while today that number is at less than one percent of the population. On top of that, the mass urbanization of the last 50 years has led to fewer and fewer Americans living in rural areas, which means there are fewer and fewer Americans living near farms or having any sort of personal connection to farmers at all. Where one third of the country was once actively farming and living on the land that fed them, marking their days by the growing season, we now have the majority of the population never having met anyone who plants and grows crops. This removal from the experience, from personal relationships with farmers, heightens our disengagement from understanding or appreciating how the food we consume every single day comes to end up in front of us. It is difficult to value that which we don’t understand or don’t see, but we should all make a conscious effort to consider the work that goes into the food we see in grocery stores, at restaurants, or in our place of work.
There are many systems in place that undervalue and underappreciate farm labor; throwing away perfectly edible food or letting it go to waste is yet another way that we don’t honor the labor of those who grow our food. Two major ways that this undervaluing manifests is in the treatment of laborers and the low compensation they generally receive. The majority of farm workers in the United States are immigrant or migrant workers. The current shortage of farm labor that the agricultural industry is experiencing is emblematic of this fact. In 2011, the passage of Georgia House Bill 87 placed tight strictures on immigration to the state, with the particular target of undocumented workers and their employers, the goal being to deter these immigrants from coming to Georgia. Within that year, “the state reportedly lost 11,000 crop workers”. Immigration from Mexico as a whole has been steadily declining since 2000, after about three decades of a consistent influx. In California, 9 in 10 farm workers are foreign born, with over half of those workers estimated as not authorized to work in the United States at all.
The reason it is important to consider who makes up the bulk of the farm labor supply is the reality of the conditions farmers work under and treatment they endure - coupled with the reality of the minimal recourse available to immigrants or migrants in the US. The Young Farmers Coalition, a national advocacy network that works on behalf of the younger generations of farmers to ensure them a fruitful, profitable, and safe agricultural future, published a report earlier this year that outlines their primary concerns with the state of US agriculture. One of the most important takeaways from this report is their conclusion that “farming must be made an economically viable and respected career”. In order to reach this goal, the Young Farmers Coalition goes on to argue that a radical alteration of the agricultural employment sector is needed in order to eliminate loopholes and faulty reasons used as rationalizations for poor work conditions and low wages. Part of the changes the Coalition favors include massive immigration reforms intended to create an avenue for agricultural workers to be able to advocate for themselves and their families without the fear of deportation or abuse hanging over their heads. Some of the issues the Coalition would like farmers to be able to fight against include rampant sexual harassment, low wages and the frequent pressure or compellation to work through injuries sustained on the job.
We spoke to a cherry and walnut farmer from the Central Valley (who asked that he remain anonymous) about his life and work as a farmer. He says that he places as high a value as he can afford on his employees and their labor. He insists that “nobody who looks like me ever came out looking for a job”(he is Caucasian). In other words, his employees are and have always been immigrants or migrants from Latin American countries. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy - the more farm labor is performed by immigrants and assumed to be unskilled, the less American-born citizens want anything to do with it. As our friend Reilly Brock from Imperfect Produce told us about his time meeting and working with farmers, “knowing when to pick and how to harvest a fruit or veggie is incredibly skilled work”. As consumers, we need to be more aware and respectful of the diligence and thought required to grow and harvest the food that we eat.
Sometimes farm labor is wasted on the farm itself, as anything that grows out of the Earth is entirely subject to the will of the weather. This means that farmers and their ability to have a productive and marketable yield is also subject to harsh or unexpected weather conditions. Our cherry and walnut farmer from the Central Valley told us that right now he has 120,000 pounds of cherries on his trees that will be unmarketable because they cracked in the weeks of heavy rain that came down this Spring. Cracked cherries are cosmetically inferior, and the market for them is far, far smaller. This has happened to him before and he knows he will be unable to sell. All of the work that went into planting and maintaining the cherry trees all season long, done both by the farm owner and his employees, here becomes a sadly fruitless effort. He gave me a simple math problem to illustrate what this means for him and his finances this year:
1 box holds 18 pounds of cherries. Each box sells for $55.
120,000 lbs divided by 18 lbs per box = 6,666 boxes
6,666 boxes multiplied by $55/per box = $366,666
For clarity’s sake, that’s a loss of $366,666 for this farmer due to weather, after he and his employees put in all of the necessary work needed for the fruit to grow. This means he has to take crop insurance this year on a policy that he pays $6,000 a year to maintain. He informed me that crop insurance will never equal the money he would have made had the unusually heavy rain not wrecked the viability of this year’s cherries. The insurance pay out is based on an algorithm that takes into account your crop history, or pounds you have harvested in previous years. But what if two of those years had a similarly low yield because it was also a wildly rainy Winter and Spring? With discussion of the failings of crop insurance came the topic of policy makers and regulators who enforce these and other kinds of rules.
The cherry and walnut farmer went on to share his frustrations with regulators, saying that through a number of unfair policies, they place a tremendous strain on farmers that he says will soon make food so expensive “you won’t be able to afford a car”. He brought up the ever-imminent possibility of being held liable for something that contaminated a product at the grocery store – i.e. long after its care was in the farmer’s control – the result of which can be losing classification as a viable farm that can sell produce to distributors. Our friend Megan Langner from Imperfect Produce shared with us a broader but quite similar thought: we asked her what she thinks is the biggest obstacle faced by the farming sector today, and she said point-blank it is the lack of representation for proper legislation. Just like with any sector or any body of people, those making the rules need to have a thorough understanding of who their choices are affecting. As Megan put it, “It really boils down to government decisions that are misinformed and do not provide protections that help where the real issues occur on the ground”.
All of this to say that farmers suffer enough loss without us throwing away the food that they were able to harvest and sell. There are innumerable negative consequences we and the environment incur when we toss out perfectly good food or let it spoil in our fridges. This seemingly small action leads to methane released into the atmosphere, to water wasted, to landfill buildup, and so much more. If you have spent your life in absolute food security, there is a sense that there will always be more at the store. Perhaps there is some truth to that; however, that “more” has to come from somewhere. It comes from farmers who have to contend with unpredictable and uncontrollable weather, and farm workers who contend with unfair labor practices and meager wages. It comes from a farmer who will lose over $300,000 this year due to rain and from those unable to speak up about the unjust treatment they endure. The least that consumers can do is take the time to recognize and support the incredibly challenging labor that farmers do to feed the population. They do the thankless work that all of us depend on for our sustenance and nutrition to keep our bodies healthy and fed. Again, it can prove difficult to place a high value on things we don’t interact with regularly or that we don’t understand, but what we can do is take more time to reach a higher awareness of the work that farm laborers do for us. By coming to that knowledge we can fully grasp the acute importance of this kind of work and we will be less likely to waste food and all the labor that goes into making it.