The headline in the business section of last Friday's Sacramento Bee read "Farmers find U.S. workers wary of hard work in fields." The article described the challenges that Alabama farmers in particular are having in finding field workers. Thanks to Alabama's "tough immigration law," many Latino workers have left the state. One of the farmers in the article indicated that the U.S. workers he's tried to hire "show up late, work slower than seasoned farm hands and are ready to call it a day after lunch.... Some quit after a single day." Another farmer quoted in the article, Connie Horner, who grows 8-1/2 acres of organic blueberries in south Georgia, is considering letting her organic certification lapse because she can't get enough skilled workers.
The article does a good job of discussing the issues surrounding immigration law and labor. It fails, however, to ask the more important questions about our desire for cheap food and its impact on farming and farm labor. Yes, farm work is physically demanding. As a small-scale farmer, I've experienced both ends of the spectrum in terms of peoples' ability and desire to work hard. As a country, we spend less of our disposable income on food than just about any other developed nation. Perhaps this is the conversation we need to be having about farm labor - what is safe, nutritious and wholesome food really worth to us? Can we afford cheap food?
One of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, in an editorial he wrote with Wes Jackson, puts it this way:
"For 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe that as long as we have money we will have food. That is a mistake. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy. The government will bring forth no food by providing hundreds of billons of dollars to the agribusiness corporations."