Calling the Immigrants Who Do Our Farming By Their Names

A lot of readers asked me to comment on Chrysler's "God Made a Farmer" ad, but I've been reluctant to do so.  Sure, farmers work their butts off, and it is one of the hardest jobs in the world, but I'm not all that excited to see it being used to sell cars.  On the other hand, I was pleased to see Isaac Cubillos' tribute to Latino farmers, one more step in the hard and necessary work of us recognizing the reality that those in America who till, plant, tend, nurture and harvest aren't "laborers" or "illegals" but farmers, and that farming is not the ownership of land by giant agribusiness, but the working of land - a work done disproportionately by immigrants.


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I don't read here every day so perhaps I've missed the immigrant labor debates. Lately talk of immigration reform from D.C. has me worried there is actually agreement that we should have as large an immigrant labor force as companies might want - the example is largely about farming. Near me (MI) picking cherries, apples, and peaches are examples, but sheep-herding might be an example elsewhere (NM).

Anyway, I worry that most people find this acceptable without much thought. I've seen "guest-worker" industrial immigrant worker history in Germany, so I have qualms. It creates second-class people, and I worry it helps companies bottom line but reduces worker's wages.

I propose: if you can't pay workers enough to attract them to pick your cherries without importing immigrant labor, maybe you need to find other ways to grow and harvest cherries so that workers can be paid enough, or admit that growing cherries does not work where you are and with your methods, and choose some other kind of agriculture. If it's sheep grazing on public lands I will be glad for the death of the practice - maybe thinking you can pay living wages to make sheep in our arid west is crazy, so lets just stop it.

Yes I get that the price of cherries will go up - so be it. The price paid for a programmer might go up too (with less H1B's). I expect wages will rise, and unemployment fall. And I think I want to try that experiment. Maybe garbage collection is the best example: we sorta need that, so we work on making it more efficient (and/or pay more for the service) so workers can be paid reasonable wages to get them to take the job. "Nobody wants that job" can be correct - but I'm saying it means you have to change that job, if you still want that task accomplished.
(I can accept the criticism that if I think that will happen with the current political situation - the companies being rather powerful - I am crazy.)

@ rork, I think you're right. It's amazing how many people who laud market economics are the first to forget all about how it works when workers won't take the wages offered. Rather than seeing that as an expression of a "the market", they instead say, "Americans don't want those jobs, so we'll have to import someone who does." Of course there are other ways of accomplishing the same thing. I don't think there is any mystery about why Washington DC is indifferent to the current scandalous unemployment rate. The place is run by and for employers who stand to benefit (at least in the short term) from a desperate workforce. It may be that the fact they have accomplished that is the only reason they even entertain the idea of comprehensive immigration reform.

By Andy Brown (not verified) on 06 Feb 2013 #permalink

My fellow commenters re leaving out an enormously important part of the equation - location. Large scale agriculture doesn't happen in places close to large sources of labor. Farms are not in the city, where most I our unemployed labor force is. When Georgia enacted its harsh anti-immigrant law last year, farmers were desperate to get people to work their crops - thy did offer higher wages - somewhat - but they couldn't attract many people to drive or be bused for three hours each way to make slightly higher than minimum wage doing backbreaking work all day.
Farmworkers housing is if course a difficult issue already - in my home state, WA, there was uproar from the growers when the state tried to mandate electricity and running water.
I am a volunteer interpreter for a public health nurse and I visit those camps. They vary greatly in quality - few I could live in myself, but most are really shockingly awful.
I do favor a guest worker program, but not like ones proposed in the past. There should be no tues to particular employer or industry. Instead anyone with a clean record and an initial
Job offer ought to be be able to get a one year work permit with no hassle
Or waiting time, renewable indefinitely as long as he or she files a tax return and stays out of trouble wih the law.

"but they couldn’t attract many people to drive or be bused for three hours each way to make slightly higher than minimum wage doing backbreaking work all day"
Then let them change something: the crop, the wage, or the difficulty. The market is saying that what they are doing now is not working.

I remember snippets of an old TV series, "My Friend Flicka". If I remember the characters correctly, the kid (center of the show)' father was called "Cap'n" by the "hand", his name might have been "Gus". Today I think the two men might have served in the Civil War together, as officer and one of the men in that unit.

At any rate, for the time, when a farm needed more help to get the work done -- a bunk room, or similar rustic accommodation provided housing, and the "help" either ate with the rest of the family, or had a modest cooking facility.

And old movie, "Pot O' Gold" (with Jimmy Stewart) featured a band living in a boarding house -- rooms were shared, with a common kitchen/dining room/cook.

These kinds of basic facilities have been nearly completely outlawed today. Live-in maids and other domestic help are rare, at least in my parts. And look at what is mandated for children -- so many children, max, per bedroom, no mingling of genders above age Y, no sharing with parent's room above age Z, etc. -- essentially, pejorative cultural edicts to restrict "undesirables" from living In My Back Yard. I doubt that many of these restrictions regarding family structure and living spaces are even good for children or families.

Instead of modest, but adequate, food and shelter arrangements, we have government entitlements to preserve the affluent lifestyle necessary to keep enriching the rentier class (those living on derivative incomes, rental properties, patent and copyright royalties, mortgage and investment incomes, etc.) and other special interests.

There will need to be a lot of change in zoning and "child welfare" standards to make much headway.

"And look at what is mandated for children — so many children, max, per bedroom, no mingling of genders above age Y, no sharing with parent’s room above age Z, etc. — essentially, pejorative cultural edicts to restrict “undesirables” from living In My Back Yard."

Are those local Ponca City restrictions? I've never heard of such things outside of foster homes. I lived in a college town once (here in Iowa) that put "maximum unrelated persons per house" restrictions in, and that's the most I've ever seen in this respect.