Monday, October 10, 2011

On the Shoulders of Immigrants

A recent article in the New York Times offers a striking view of American culture and food system - “How can there be a labor shortage when nearly one out of every 11 people in the nation are unemployed?”

The H-2A program of the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Service allows for the temporary employment of non-U.S.-citizens for agricultural work.  The program specifically states that it is appropriate when there are not U.S. workers available for the job.  In the current economic situation, it is easy to imagine there would be hundreds of U.S. workers lining up for these jobs, whose minimum wage (under this program) has recently risen to over $10 an hour.  However, as the NYT article portrays, it seems not all  Americans are fit for the job.

Farmers who typically use this program for seasonal harvests cut back on their international hiring in 2011, to allow for U.S. workers to take the jobs.  Unfortunately it didn’t take long for these farmers to realize that there was a reason the H-2A program exists - many U.S. workers are not interested in these jobs. By lunchtime, the group of local farmhands that Colorado farmer John Harold hired had quit - some giving no reason.  Another 25 workers admitted the work was too hard.

It’s not hard to argue that the majority of Americans have grown up far from the farm, many having no concept of the work involved in bringing seeds to life and, ultimately, to the dinner table. Subject to long hours, heavy lifting and weather conditions (corn needs to be harvested, rain or shine!), farm work is not an easy job.  But it’s unsettling to know that even in difficult times many American workers will not put in the effort for a reasonably-paying job to support the food system.

Something needs to change in our country for the farm to be able to attract - and retain - workers. To build local and regional food systems we need farms and farmers.  Stay tuned to this blog for updates on the Farm Bill and other legislation which will make REAL impacts on the quality of food available and accessible for your dinner menu.