But Who Picks Those Locally Sourced Beets?

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A farmer sprays pesticides on grape vines.

Margaret Gray, associate professor of political science at Adelphi University and the author of Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic (University of California Press, 2013), argues that the locavore movement needs to look at the labor practices of those small family farms.

Excerpt from the Introduction of Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic by Margaret Gray

Is local food an ethical alternative?

A September drive up the Taconic State Parkway or New York Thruway or a journey along one of the region’s rural roads offers storybook views of bountiful red and yellow fruit adorning rows of trees. The orchards of the Hudson Valley have been a staple of the agricultural region for several centuries. The twenty-first century has seen a revival of interest in the valley’s farms as consumers visit pick-your-own farms and pull over at farm stands. For local urbanites the Hudson Valley delivers; many of the goods on offer at farmers’ markets originate from the region. The media storm of food advocacy has increased our exposure to farming. We have a better feel for the seasonality of local produce; glossy photos help us see how our food grows (who expected okra to point up?); farmers’ struggles with the weather and pests are more fully understood; the nuances of the meaning of “free range” are no longer lost on us; and we read about the many tasks involved in farming from sunup to sundown.

What the orchards often hide and food writers tend to avoid are the stories of the farmworkers who staff these regional farms. Unheard is Marco’s complaint that his sixteen-hour workdays at minimum wage are destroying his body and Gloria’s desire for a seat during her long days packing apples. Although the 2000 case against upstate New York labor contractor Maria Garcia, who pleaded guilty to forced labor, received some media coverage, we usually do not get to read about how Hector was fired from his job and lost his home on the farm when he hurt his back trimming apple trees in icy conditions. Hidden are the conditions, the expectations, and the hopes of the farm labor force.

“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” So went the acerbic response of Upton Sinclair to the reception of his muckraking novel The Jungle about workers in Chicago’s slaughterhouses. The book’s profound impact ushered in a round of legislative protections—including the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the 1906 Meat Inspection Act—along with a durable consensus about the need for consumer regulation and advocacy. However, neither public advocates nor policy makers responded in kind to Sinclair’s depiction of the low-wage immigrant work force and their deplorable workplace conditions. In much the same way, today’s burgeoning alternative food movement is in danger of repeating this injustice.

Food movement advocates and consumers, driven to forge alternatives to industrial agribusiness, have neglected the labor economy that underpins “local” food production. Consequently, the injunction to “buy local” promotes public health at the expense of protecting the well-being of the farmworkers who grow and harvest the much-coveted produce on regional farms.

The U.S. public has not been reluctant to recognize the exploitation of immigrant farmworkers on factory farms, which are part of the industrial, commodity food system. But the resurgence of interest in healthy food and sustainable agriculture among academic and popular writers has overlooked the role of hired labor in smaller-scale agrifood production. Instead, it has been borne along by an idealized, agrarian vision of soil-and-toil harmony on family farms. In a similar vein, it was once commonly assumed that organic fruits and vegetables were produced under more ethical conditions, until journalistic exposés and scholarly scrutiny demystified the category of “organic” by revealing how it was co-opted by big agribusiness, which influenced the weakening of federal organic standards. The “organic” label on a product no longer carries the automatic imprimatur of morally superior food.

Despite the veneer of ethical production, it remains the case that local or small agricultural producers are driven by market dictates and regulatory norms that render their approach to labor relations more or less undistinguishable from those of larger, commodity-oriented, industrial farms.

Localism trades on the ideals of agrarianism and the self-reliant yeomanry, ideals that have written out of their record the role of hired labor. In correcting the record, and making a case for expanding the ethical reach of food justice, this book explicates the hidden costs of agrarianist dogma and the human consequences flowing from policy makers’ neglect of these costs.

Food writers have promoted locavore diets as wholesome and righteous alternatives to the capitalist-industrial food system, and many small farmers have seen their businesses thrive on the back of this new consumer trend. In the public mind, eating locally resonates with eighteenth-century republican ideals about self-sufficiency that hark back to the nation’s origins. Yet countering the influence of this Jeffersonian romanticism is the growing public awareness, stimulated by heightened scrutiny of immigration, of the fact that small farms, like their factory farm counterparts, are largely staffed by noncitizen, immigrant laborers, and specifically undocumented workers and foreign guest workers.

The insourcing of this cheap immigrant labor, a longstanding practice in large farming states and metropolitan areas, is now widespread in smaller farming states, as well as most service industries and in a range of suburban and smaller urban locations. Yet the prevailing mentality within the alternative food movement has not absorbed this reality. Promoting ethical consumption and demanding a shift to sustainable and just agriculture rarely include a call for justice for farmworkers. Food advocates and their organizations display a tendency to conflate local, alternative, sustainable, and fair as a compendium of virtues against the factory farm that they so vigorously demonize. Yet this equation discourages close scrutiny of the labor dynamics by which small farms maintain their operations.

Following the logic espoused by the food movement, the moral scrutiny of food production should focus in part on the livelihoods of those who labor in the fields. In other words, for food politics to truly promote public health, improving workers’ conditions should be considered as important as protecting watersheds or shielding animals from pain and stress. With so much laudatory attention heaped on the small producers, their employees, by right, should be afforded the same high moral estimate. In addition, sustainability in all areas of life is increasingly recognized as an inherently valuable goal.

Ethical eaters should be concerned if their own health and livelihoods are advanced at the expense of others. Exposés of the high cost of cheap food, which count the external environmental costs of industrial food production, do a disservice to readers by neglecting the farm work force. The same principle should be applied to the local farm ecosystem. A better understanding of immigrant workers’ role as the mainstay of U.S. agriculture is necessary if the new generation of ethical farming is going to provide sustainable jobs.

Promoting local food justice in terms of environmental protection, animal welfare, and saving small farms from the auctioneer or the bulldozer is an admirable goal for those interested in an alternative to the capitalist-industrial food system. But if a food ethic that values environmental, economic, and social goals is to extend to all those involved in production, then it must entail active support for workers’ rights with a view to improving the livelihoods of the laborers. The research presented in this book—about the labor economy of regional farms in the Hudson Valley region of New York State—is an effort to take on that challenge. This book questions the underlying power systems that shape the way we understand our food systems, large and small, and invites readers to consider what it means to embrace a more comprehensive food ethic.

From the book [Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic] . Copyright (c) 2013 by Margaret Gray. Reprinted by permission of University of California Press. All rights reserved.