Who Picked Those Veggies?

Hat tip to reader Abbie who pointed me to this video. When we talk about local and organic, one of the central things that often gets lost is this - who does the work? And how are they paid? And how do you change this so that they get paid fairly - because right now the way we pay for food leaves a lot of folks out.

Dateline NBC introduces you to your five year old tomato picker


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The US, with it's major grain, cereal, sugar and legume producer industries, cannot produce all of the nutritious foods that are necessary to feed the 310 million people here.

We are a net food importer. As of this year, China became number 3 food supplier, behind Mexico and Canada.

Tens of thousands of migrant worker kids may labor in the US fields, but tens of millions do, in China.

I would be MUCH more worried about what is coming in on the imported foods from China and Mexico, than I would about whether some Mex kid is laboring for his family (as they have done for generations here in the US, but in gradually decreasing, not increasing, numbers).

Food-borne pathogen infections are among the fastest growing public health concerns in the US. There is some interesting science behind the 'how and why' of this epidemic.

But that would be science discussion, wouldn't it?

Actually the US *can* produce all the nutritious food that it needs to feed 310 million people - it does not, but it physically can. Yes, we are net food importers but that's a much more complicated narrative than you paint it - and China is certainly a major food exporter, but less for necessary crops than for desired ones - it is misleading to imply that we have to rely on chinese imports - we don't. We do eat them and certainly labor practices and contamination issues are relevant - but so is social justice - otherwise, I assume you'd be delighted to have your kids work full time in the fields for .03 cents per pound, instead of getting a basic science education.


No, the US cannot physically produce the necessary servings of fruits and vegetables to meet the dietary needs of the US population - not according to a recent USDA study. Food producer industry structure is set by commercial demand, not by the food pyramid of required nutrients. Commercial farming is dictated by contracts set for delivery of product years in advance to food processers and wholesale suppliers.

There are no price supports for fresh fruits and vegetables and no interest by the USDA in providing them. These fresh food growers don't have enough of a lobby to make headway in the fight for funding to expand business, when compared to powerful sugar, corn, wheat, dairy and CAFO operations.

There is a serious disconnect in Washington between legislative support for highly processed convenience foods and study and produced documents by the USDA, FDA and NIH on dietary recommendations to combat eroding public health status and fast growing public health care costs.

I actually am not going to watch the video - I can't stand to, and I already know all the horrible facts. I have worked with latino farmworkers for many years now, and I ABSOLUTELY refuse to believe that good, freedom-loving Americans condone the conditions that they work under. Thank you for publishing this video - even though I haven't seen it - because I choose to believe that when Americans become more aware of the situation they will choose to pay a few cents more for their produce and not be a party to the exploitation of children and powerless immigrants. For those who want to learn more, may I suggest going to the website for Gourmet Magazine and looking under "politics of the Plate" to read their very excellent series on the tomato harvest in Florida.

Personally, I only eat tomatoes that I harvest locally or canned tomatoes from Italy. Choosing Organic is a decent way to avoid the worst abuses.


I think that assuming that local and organic means "fair" is probably not a great way to approach this matter. I'm not going to write an enormous diatribe promoting local agriculture. However, I will say that if you want to know who is picking your veggies, you should ask the farmer (personally) who grows your food. If you can't, you should probably consider taking a look at your consumption habits.

I know that 5-year old migrant workers are not picking my veggies, shouldn't you?

I'm not going to write an enormous diatribe promoting local agriculture.

Should read: I'm not going to write an enormous diatribe against industrial agriculture. Oops!

Brendan - That's kind of my point - that local and organic don't necessarily mean fair, but there's an implicit assumption that they do.

Passerby, if the US wanted to convert to produce the necessary servings of fruit and vegetables, this absolutely could be done - indeed, I actually wrote a book on this subject. It would require an enormous shift in land use, but that's feasible. Commercial producer contracts aren't the central issue - or rather, they are part of the reason we are not doing this, but that's not the same as saying we don't have the ability to do it. The US is actually one of the few countries in the world that could feed itself. That doesn't change that we don't. Nor does it change the fact that your change of subject away from the labor conditions of US migrant farmworkers is kind of irrelevant - interesting to me, but not really on topic for this particular thread.


And here I was thinking the US had proper labor laws.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 27 Jul 2010 #permalink

I was a five year old tomato picker.

This year a 75 year old with cancer is picking my tomatoes.

bwahaha. *twists mustache*

The depression era babies are chiming in on this in the comments and I am starting to lean their way. In all seriousness there is a distinction between a family laboring together and "child labor". We don't get the former very well because we are wearing 21st century post industrial goggles.

I have seen both up close and the difference is profound.

Mayan children working under contract on a Yucatan sisal plantation are a world away from half a dozen extended families each operating a different division of a small factory.

I have noticed a half a dozen sites advertising "traditional pre-columbian hand gathered cactus fiber exfoliating mitts".

I wonder if the urbane consumer activist nitwits that buy them know they have to sun bleach the fiber to get the kid blood out before processing.

Just use a luffa. They don't hurt to pick, grow in the drainage dishes and if the five year olds pick em early, luffas are tasty.

P.S. I find it hilarious when people drink "traditional" Yerbe Mate. It was refined and marketed in it's present form by German immigrant farmers in Paraguay. Mengele hid out and made Yerbe Mate in New Germania. Nietzsche's sister founded the colony. Hmmmm my expensive ethic drink tastes like anti-semitic prussian romanticism...blech.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 27 Jul 2010 #permalink

I watched the video and, while thought provoking, the show is a little incomplete. The main family the show follows, who are perhaps close to middle class?, pull back from migrant labor because farmers have moved to Round-up and don't need human labor, including child labor. The show doesn't really do a great job of covering issues related to child labor in ag and doesn't discuss how the market pushes industrial farmers to move from one low cost solution with long term consequences migrant and child labor) to another (gmos with compatible pesticides). But it appears it was inspired by a recent HRW report which can be found here: http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2010/05/05/fields-peril-0

By anotherpasserby (not verified) on 27 Jul 2010 #permalink

Well, I watched the whole video and it left me kind of surprised in that the family depicted owned their own small ranch, needed some extra, off-farm income, and chose to drive half way across the country in search of it, in a huge, fairly new, full-size pickup to boot.

I know there are migrants out there, living in shacks, and yet this is what the producers dug up?

I'm also a bit concerned that this whole thing will give folks a reason to fear letting their kids out in their own backyard field to do any work as everything the kids did was depicted as so dangerous, back-breaking, or dirty. Well, of course it is, done hour after hour, day after day, for a pittance. There is a difference between this family and say, an Amish family letting the 6 year old into the barn to hang out during milking in the morning, but I bet most of my contemporary friends wouldn't see it.

Maybe I'm splitting hairs, but I went away thinking that the video wasn't exactly the screaming crisis that I was expecting, not that child labor isn't a problem, because of course it is.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 27 Jul 2010 #permalink


I kind of agree with anotherpasserby. I grew up on a family farm in Iowa (not that far from Minnesota). I recall walking soybeans, usually not for days on end, but certainly four to six hours a day. It wasn't that tough a job, aside from lots and lots of walking, bending, pulling (we used a hook for some weeds, had to pull cockle burs and sunflower). Baling, now that got tough work, stacking and moving small bales (60-85 pounds), usually several days in a row as several neighbors put up hay at the same time and shared the work and equipment. I was working hard before I was 12, some days, and many days since I was eight or nine.

My point? The video doesn't show anything about exploiting kids, or about paying fairly for farm labor. Farm labor, almost by definition, is underpaid, at all levels.

It is almost by definition that non-farm, so-called "lucrative" wages, are the product of cheap energy and unsustainable affluence. If peak oil, debt-deflation, or other economic calamity results in a significant economic decline, it may be that those low, "unfair" farm wages may prove to be the most sustainable.

What I would like to point out, is that having someone hoe the fields means that the field wasn't GMO "Round up ready". I am sure most people here are familiar with recent, world-wide studies showing that there are long-term residues from Round-Up (glyphosphates [sp?]) that are showing up in feeds and grain, and food. That some round-up ready grains have pesticide-like components that chickens are refusing to consume.

Unlike most American farms, you might consider - the immigrant family shown is actually raising the next generation of farmers, and that children seem to respect and honor their parents and their parents' values and livelihood. This is an important cultural legacy. That, and they seem better fed that what I remember of growing up. We had enough to eat, but not the abundance (affluence?) of the family in the video.

Growing up on a family farm, I certainly was out working as a child. Picking up rocks, digging up thistles and other chores were just part of life. I certainly hope no laws are passed to prevent such work.

No, the US cannot physically produce the necessary servings of fruits and vegetables to meet the dietary needs of the US population - not according to a recent USDA study. Food producer industry structure is set by commercial demand, not by the food pyramid of required nutrients. Commercial farming is dictated by contracts set for delivery of product years in advance to food processers and wholesale suppliers.

just a nitpick: based on the rest of this paragraph, i believe your first sentence used the word "physically" incorrectly as a stand-in for the phrase "due to political exigencies". hope this helps.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 28 Jul 2010 #permalink

I grew up working on my family's farm, in a similar fashion that I imagine Sharon's children work on the farm. Our farm's customers bought produce picked (and planted, weeded, fertilized, thinned...) by the children on the farm. However, the big difference, in my mind, is that while we worked hard we also got paid and had a lot of fun on the farm, too, and school was a priority. (Though we did take days off for really busy days on the farm.) When children aren't going to school (or being home schooled or unschooled), being paid a fair wage, or working for their family's well-being on their own farm, but instead are being exploited by big agriculture, that's when I have a problem with it.

And no, I'm not a boomer. I'm 29, though I know of few adults with experiences similar to mine who live in my area.

I have to agree with some of the comments made this morning since my previous comment.

This family *is* raising the next generation of farmers and there is nothing inherently bad about the "hard" work kids do on farms. The family in this video is making the kids work too long and too hard I think, but I don't see it as the fault of the farmer. Rather, it seems to be the poor choice of the father to load the kids up in a pickup truck and drive a couple of thousand miles (at rather high expense) and make them help out. If these kids worked long hours back at the family's home ranch instead, would that make it better? Can they cut expenses at home first (maybe by not driving that monster truck so much) and find at least some work closer than Iowa or Minnesota or wherever it was they ended up?

Again, I DO think that these kids could work less hours overall, but then again, I think a lot of other kids in this country could benefit from working MORE physical, "tough" work too. Agriculture is fairly exempt from a fair number of labor laws, and I'm not so sure that all in all, that is a bad thing.

Having spoken against overzealous interpretation of labor laws as applied to kids and agriculture, I do kind of shutter when I see that 10 or 11 year old operating that tractor. Federal law prohibits a kid from operating a tractor of 20 or more engine horsepower unless it is owned by his/her family and operated on their own property. I'm glad the land he is shown operating on is rather flat, because as a sometimes tractor operator myself, I know how easily tractors, especially ones with loaders, can be rolled. (No, I've never rolled one myself, but I've seen videos and caught myself moments before doing something stupid.....A rollover can happen all too fast.)

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 28 Jul 2010 #permalink

I think the critical point is that farm kids working for themselves integrate their work with lots of play and with full protection of the parents - the low protection status of migrant workers in general means that many children don't get that. I'm all for kids working the fields - appropriately, in safe conditions, under the protection of parents able to protect them in ways that I think most farmworkers lack the power to do.

I guess the impression I got was somewhat different from Stephen's - sure, the truck and the ranch suck, and the biggest exploiter here is probably the parents, but I don't think the video did a really good job of explaining why a parent might need to do this - which is a real issue. But I also think that underlying this question is the real question of what the heck any farmer is doing employing children, even with the consent of their crappy parent.

Prometheus, what the heck is a hand gathered cactus exfoliating mitt? It sounds like a joke. I can't envision why you would need a mitt to exfoliate, much less use cactus fibers. We're talking about skin, right, not leather?


Stephen, I can see your point here - I guess what I find disturbing is the idea that farmers would employ the kids, even if the parents are just idiots. And it doesn't seem that complicated to me - of course, maybe it should given the USDA's crackdown on almost everything these days - to distinguish between kids working appropriately hard on a farm, and kids working inappropriately harm, to the deficit of their education.

I don't think it is the best video, and maybe I should have left it off - but I do think it is one of the few public explorations of the reality of child labor in US agriculture.



"Polish your skin with nature's own Sisal, a highly sustainable, eco-friendly vegetable fiber from the Agave Cactus family"

"great for massaging cellulite"

I'm pretty sure that mitt is Henequen and not true sisal but they both hurt like hell to harvest and both are harvested by kids under contract.

Since I was there most of the child labor harvesting quit or moved to Brazil and Kenya. The old sisal plantations in the Yucatan are for tourists who want to see "the real Yucatan" but want to sleep in Cancun or the Merida Holiday Inn where they can get Pizza Hut and souvenir T-shirts.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 28 Jul 2010 #permalink

Stephen B: "There is a difference between this family and say, an Amish family letting the 6 year old into the barn to hang out during milking in the morning"

Don't bet on it. //ex-Old Order Mennonite family

Ordinarily I would have a long rant on the subject of Amish attitudes towards their children, but for now I am just going to say that your ideas are similar to those of many middle- and upper-middle-class folks, and are not informed by experience.

I really really do not have a crapload of patience for people with idyllic notions of what it's like to be Anabaptist. I just deleted about three posts I'd have liked to make because they were too foulmouthed. I am trying like hell not to sound too insulting, so I will give an example of how my cousins grew up, and you will have to take my word for it that this is very very typical even for young children.

3-4 am, depending on how far they lived from school: Up to milk, feed & water 50-100 dairy cows. This involves lifting 50+ pounds of filled milk canisters, 60 lb. hay bales, 50 lb. feed sacks etc. It is actually possible to lift and carry more than your weight, even for a young child. If for whatever reason you don't have production animal chores (as opposed to animals kept for consumption by the family), female children at least are expected to get up and help prepare breakfast, tend the household livestock, clean, get the younger kids up and dressed.

7am, catch bus to school.
3pm, school is out. Go home and milk cows again, if you have them, or feed and check on poultry, pigs, beef cattle. Process milk into cheese, pack some to be collected for sale. Care for horses if the family has them, otherwise chores may consist of harvesting whatever is ready, second cutting haying, driving carts/tractors, washing the family laundry, food processing for the family deli/farmer's market, preparing & hauling fuel of choice, preparing evening meal, cleaning the household, repairing elderly equipment, serving or washing dishes in family restaurant, building furniture, repairing cars/trucks, packing goods to be shipped for sale... Two sets of cousins owned restaurants, another had a tractor dealership, another had a masonry business. Only the restaurant paid any wages, and they didn't hire anyone over 16.

8pm, Receive lecture about how family is Doing Gawd's Work and how grateful you should be to do this work as opposed to your math assignment. Ecclesiastes 1:18, Daniel 1:4-20 & Daniel 12:4, I Corinthians 13:2 are repeated unto you for your edification. Assigned more chores, or sent back to original chores if they aren't done yet. Female children receive a special lecture on Genesis 3 and various sections of Paul while doing the after-supper washing-up.

10pm, bedtime, unless you're working in the restaurant and still have floors to mop.

They quit school as soon as they were legally able to do so, with the full support of their parents. This is 8th grade in PA, where I grew up. It wasn't because they were stupid or failing out--many currently manage successful small businesses in addition to the family farm. It was because they wanted a pleasant 12-14 hour workday instead of a 16-17 hour workday with extra shouting and lectures.

Many of our teachers assumed all the farm kids were stupid and lazy, because we so rarely turned in homework. I don't know if schools still do "tracking," but in 1979 if a teacher decided you were stupid and lazy, regardless of actual grades or exam scores, you were going to be Tracked into a low-wage job for ever.

Another thing about this schedule: It is not true that farm kids don't use illicit drugs. You'd do a lot of amphetamines and cocaine too if you had to work 16+ hour days 7 days/week. You'd grow weed to buy yourself new clothes.


I assure you I am under no illusions that Amish life is always pastoral and Utopian.

For some time I have been reading the blog of a well-connected blogger on Amish life at http://amishamerica.com/ which, in turn, pointed me to the writings of a former, and at times, extremely bitter Amishman, Ira Wagler (www.irawagler.com) and believe me, after reading Ira's rants, *nobody* is going to go away with any false illusions of Amish perfection.

As a person who works with abused and drug abused adolescent boys, (and in a rural setting at that), I also watched the 2002 documentary on Rumspringa, "Devil's Playground" with much interest a few years back as well. Faron's plight just about left me in tears. (Sorry I don't have a link to the video. The one on You Tube has the audio track disabled for licensing issues. Sharon's readers will have to find a copy of this documentary on their own.)

Be careful presuming that you know so much about what "middle class" people such as myself think about plain people.

Nevertheless, having worked with kids in teaching environments on farms for a decade now, I am of the belief that some hard work now and then is in order. Neither do I think that slavery such as you describe is the rule in most Anabaptist families, though I wouldn't doubt the days of most such families are filled and heavily booked.

One image I have of my last visit to Houlton, Maine is that of an Amish family hauling their canoe on their horse cart down US Rt. 2 in Smyrna Mills late one afternoon past my motel, kids sitting along side.

Some families have it good, some not. Some happy families are Amish/plain. Some Amish are hugely troubled. Tell me something I don't know.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 28 Jul 2010 #permalink

Also, regarding rural drug use... Drug use was rampant among the housewives of rural Vermonters and New Hampshire as far back as the the late 1700s and early 1800s. What's that? Rural life isn't always pleasant, especially back in the Frontier days? With all due respect, that's hardly a surprise.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 28 Jul 2010 #permalink

FYI, I also worked in a restaurant in high school and, at 16, mopped many a dining room after closing (which was 11PM, not counting the drive-thru.)

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 28 Jul 2010 #permalink

Lora, I also don't seem Amish life as even remotely idyllic, but I also live close enough to an Amish community to see a lot of play going on for the children. We know a few families fairly well, and while I realize that overworking your children does happen, it also doesn't seem universal. We were back and forth to an Amish neighbor five or six times last year for poultry butchering, often at odd hours of the day, and the younger kids were playing much of the time - they helped, they do chores, but there's manifestly real free time, at least in many of the families we see.

That's not to invalidate your experience, or idealize the Amish - I think the reality is that there are crappy versions of parenting throughout society.

BTW, the law in New England used to be that you could keep your children down on the farm until they were 21 legally, and require them to work full time for you. This led to a spate, in the early 1800s, of mostly young men murdering their parents, mostly fathers, because they were enslaved to the farm. It was the school shooting of its day, and not as uncommon as you'd think.


I've still got this conversation on my mind here this morning.

Don't get me wrong, rural, farm life is not without it's problems as Sharon and I mention above. Still, having lived in the city and the suburbs, and having worked on a couple of teaching farms, I am of the opinion that it's the rural farm kids that are the happiest and have the most things to do. With all too much of our society today, kids have little to do that's constructive and contributes to their family's or community's well being. Soccer is nice, but by and large, that isn't a meaningful contribution to the family the way cleaning out the garage or managing the hen house in order to give the family some extra spending money is.

The trouble today - and I speak from recent experience with kids - is that we've built a world where there is nowhere to go for kids, that's free, except a mall or street corner. It's either that or video games, TV, or trashy computer web sites if the family has the money.

Overworking any kid is bad, but the alternative, glitzy, technological life isn't all it's made out to be either. Last year I think it was, ABC News did a special on Amish/plain teenagers, on Rumspringa, and on the kids' explorations of life outside. Yes, it's another one of those trendy, almost tacky, public explorations of Amish life by us English. Still, it showed that a lot of kids had a LOT of problems a year or two after leaving the family and the farm. Incarceration, drug use, drinking, and just plain unhappiness. Something like 8 out of 10 Amish teens return to their Amish communities in the end. That doesn't surprise me.

Life all over can be bad, unhappy, destructive, and even dangerous. But in my 48 years of experience and in this modern time we live in, I'd say the kids that get up to a full day's meaningful work in a relevant community setting have it best.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 29 Jul 2010 #permalink

I am sure most people here are familiar with recent, world-wide studies showing that there are long-term residues from Round-Up (glyphosphates [sp?]) that are showing up in feeds and grain, and food. That some round-up ready grains have pesticide-like components that chickens are refusing to consume


And um, no, which world-wide studies showing long-term residues from round up in feeds and grain? Inquiring minds would like to know.


But in my 48 years of experience and in this modern time we live in, I'd say the kids that get up to a full day's meaningful work in a relevant community setting have it best.

Up to the point at which they're pulled from school and have to live the rest of their lives with an eigth grade education. Also what extent of the unhappiness is can be accounted for by a community which goes out of its way to shun those who decide not to toe the party line? Or how much is due to being utterly unprepared for life outside of the Amish community? Methinks laying the whole unhappiness angle on working in the community oversimplifies things enormously and lets a mode of life which is tantamount to child abuse off the hook way too easily.