Swans Commentary » swans.com June 4, 2012  



Growing Ideology And Dwindling Harvests


by Jan Baughman





(Swans - June 4, 2012)   A recent article entitled "Farmers struggling to find harvest labor" provided a shocking view of California's agriculture industry and a glimpse into the future of America's food supply. According to a Pew Research Center report cited in the article, "Of the 1.2 million people employed in agriculture-related jobs in the United States, 70 percent are undocumented." The report also showed that the number of people leaving Mexico dropped from 1.05 million people in 2005-2006 to 375,000 in 2010-2011. The numbers are predicted to decline further as the crackdown on illegal immigrants grows, the birthrate in Mexico continues to drop, and the economy in Mexico improves. California growers produce a significant amount of the nuts, fruits, and vegetables consumed in the United States, and its agriculture industry is being hit particularly hard by the labor shortage.

For example, the article reports that the cherry harvest season in the San Joaquin Valley has 20 to 30% fewer pickers compared to the previous year, growers in Fresno and San Mateo county are struggling to find field workers and are having to switch to growing less labor-intensive crops, and some asparagus growers are digging up their fields due to the shortage of labor.

This is occurring in the state that, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, "...remained the No. 1 state in cash farm receipts in 2010, with $37.5 billion in revenue. The state accounted for 16 percent of national receipts for crops, and 7 percent of the U.S. revenue for livestock and livestock products. California's agricultural abundance includes more than 400 commodities. The state produces nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables."

Despite the state's role in feeding the country, from 1995 to 2010 it received only 4% of federal farm subsidies -- ninth behind Iowa, Texas, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Kansas, Arkansas, and Indiana -- and of that, in 2009 44%, about $271 million, went to cotton and rice growers, whose output accounts for only 3% of the state's production, according to an Environmental Working Group report (PDF). Of the nationwide $167.3 billion in federal subsidies during the period 1995 to 2010, about 46% went to corn growers -- subsidies that continue despite having long outlived their original, Depression-era purpose.

The US Senate will soon debate the 2012 Farm Bill, packaged as the "Agricultural Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012." According to a statement by Craig Cox, Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources, Environmental Working Group, "The 2012 farm bill should do more to support family farmers, protect the environment, promote healthy diets and support working families. Unfortunately, the bill produced today by the Senate Agriculture Committee will do more harm than good. It needlessly sacrifices conservation and feeding assistance programs to finance unlimited insurance subsidies and a new entitlement program for highly profitable farm businesses."

The majority of Americans, who no longer live on farms, probably give little consideration to the relevance of the Farm Bill to their lives. Yet it defines the agenda for our very nutrition and health. For example, the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup in our food supply is considered one of the underlying causes of the rise in obesity. As for the concerns of California growers, and all of us as consumers, the bill is completely silent on the issue of immigration and the deficit of agricultural labor that threatens the harvest of our food supply. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 included a guest worker program that would have addressed this problem, but Congress failed to pass it and there has been no political will to confront the issue of immigration and migrant workers since.

In the meantime, winegrowers from San Joaquin to Napa are raising wages to attract workers to their fields and offering bonuses to crew bosses who attract laborers from other areas, and despite lingering unemployment, American workers are not stepping in to fill the voids. It's low-paying and backbreaking work. America may win the War on Illegal Immigration, but it will lose when it comes to providing food for its citizens, and it stands to destroy one of the oldest and last remaining industrial sectors. Mexico will have the last laugh when workers who used to risk life and limb to come to this country to work in the fields find better-paying jobs at home, and their country becomes the main source of food exports to a country that can no longer produce its own because of an ideological, xenophobic agenda.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 4, 2012