Not deferential enough: Being the Mexicans

Posted Wednesday, May 30, 2012 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: Being the Mexicans

by Gina Hamilton

Long, long ago, when my son and heir was in his first year of school at a university in California which has a large agricultural program, a grower local to said University made a bold offer.  They would pay college students $11 per hour, plus benefits and free room and board, to spend the summer tending and picking organic tomatoes. For agricultural majors, they'd also get college internship credits. 

So, a credited summer job in one's field of study, a reasonably good wage (at least comparable to what the fast food places were paying in California that particular year), free housing and food, no exposure to chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and all the organic tomatoes one could eat.  The kids were lining up out the door, right?

No.  The grower was only able to entice four students to take the generous offer.  Four.

My son and heir asked one of his friends in the Ag department why they couldn't get more students to participate.  The friend rather unfortunately put it like this:

"Ag students want to manage the Mexicans.  We don't want to BE the Mexicans."

Now, okay, that was 2003, and times have changed, right? With high unemployment, there aren't any jobs Americans won't do.  That's why we've created such a draconian anti-immigration policy.  American kids need those jobs picking those tomatoes.

Well, in places that have severe anti-immigration laws on the books, like Alabama, the crops are rotting in the fields, even as unemployment hovers around 9 percent nationally.

Agricultural labor is hard work, requiring skill and proficiency that is developed from years in the industry. Alabama farmers know this and they report that they have not been able to successfully employ native-born workers in any sustained way. One native-born worker, Melinda Martinez, who recently started picking produce, said, “I had to go home yesterday. I couldn't handle it. It's backbreaking.”

Alabama has started putting convicts in the fields to pick fruit and vegetables.  While this might solve this year's problem, it's hardly a model for long-term agricultural sustainability. 

So the question then becomes, if we don't want immigrant labor in the farm belt, who do we want our "Mexicans" to be?

America has always had an underclass that was responsible for such labor.  We imported people, from African slaves in the south to indentured servants in the north to low-paid immigrants from Europe, Central America, Asia, to do the work we didn't want to do.  The latest iteration, of course, was Mexican farm labor, but in state after state, they are being shunned, too.

While a family might be able to manage a small farm with enough youngsters to do the heavy lifting, large-scale agricultural farms are impossible to run without a large, inexpensive workforce.

It wouldn't break my heart to see us dial back to small family farming.  The food is better and safer, and the small-farm community is strong.  However, with the vast majority of Americans now living in large urban environments, it seems unlikely that small family farming concerns alone can meet the needs of the urban majority today, and it seems just as unlikely that major movement from the urban to the rural regions is in the immediate future. 

So until that happens, somebody's going to need to be the Mexicans.  And I have no idea who that will be.

Down at Turning Tide Cottage, which is a small urban organic farm, I suppose we're our own Mexicans.  If we can grow the majority of our summer food and a good percentage of our winter food on our small property, almost anyone outside of a large city (and even a good number of those in a large city) can probably do it. 

The time is now, the costs involved are relatively small, and the rewards are fabulous - real, off-the-vine or off-the-tree or off-the-stalk food that you can vouch for its provenance.  But it's hard work and time consuming.  It involves stooping over, bending down, digging in the dirt, in the sun, virtually every day.  It's probably not everyone's cup of tea.

Until everyone is doing it, though, we have to trust the large-scale food supply, a dicey thing at any time, laden as it is with chemicals we wouldn't knowingly put into our and our children's bodies, and genetically modified organisms that may or may not be safe.  The food may be irradiated, treated with antibiotics, pumped up with preservatives that make it possible for Mainers to eat "fresh" strawberries in December and asparagus in September, brought thousands of miles from California or Argentina or even further afield.

But at least right now there IS food, whether it is entirely wholesome or not.  What happens when the farm field worker population drops to zero in many parts of the country, especially in the south and west, where fresh winter vegetables are grown? Is it possible that, in our xenophobic zeal to rid ourselves of "Mexicans", we are creating an entirely preventable future famine in America and in the parts of the world that depend on American agriculture?  Our food supply is only as strong as the army of workers who bend and stoop and dig in the soil day in and day out. 

Who will be the next crop of "Mexicans"?

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