In these photos taken on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013, near Fresno, Calif., farmworkers pick paper trays of dried raisins off the ground and heap them onto a trailer in the final step of raisin harvest. In Spanish, they say: “levantando la pasa” – lifting up the raisin. (AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka)
I’m usually a big skeptic when it comes to labor shortages in agriculture. I put on my reporter hat and ask: are these shortages real, or are they just slogans used by the agriculture industry to advance an agenda? I say this, because for years – for decades – the U.S. had been awash in farmworkers streaming in from Mexico. Labor was plentiful as the unauthorized immigrant population ballooned… and yet, employers still complained of shortages. Sure, changes in crop patterns, stringent immigration laws in some states, or drastic weather changes might shift harvests and lead to a temporary need for more workers. But overall, farm labor has been plentiful for a long time.
This slowly changed in recent years. The recession in the U.S., an improved economy in Mexico, changes on the border and other factors contributed to the shrinking of mass migration from Mexico. Though the unauthorized population has now stabilized, mass migration of years past hasn’t resumed. And so, labor shortages.
There’s one way to tell whether shortages are real: and that’s to look at the wages of farmworkers. Last year, and even more dramatically this year, the wages and working conditions of workers have actually improved. Based on my conversations with workers, contractors, and farmers, labor is very tight. To be clear: crops are not rotting in the fields and consumers won’t see huge price increases. But for the first time, working in the fields means getting a better wage. As Fresno-area labor contractor Jesus Mateo put it: “For the first time, I can demand a living wage for my workers.” He also said, “Before, people were begging for work and some employers skimped workers on wages. Now the roles have reversed, with growers asking workers to come. And if the grower doesn’t want to pay, people will walk off his field.” Read my story here: AP-Labor Shortages
Walk. When the sun’s strength dims and shadows start to fall on homes and sidewalks. Walk down, straight down your street, your broken sidewalk, turn without thinking, Van Ness, Elizabeth, Fulton, Dudley. Walk. Past overgrown alleyways, past nopale bushes with tiny red fruit that cut your hands when you tried to steal them (someone once said, ‘be brave when picking cactus’), past children riding beat up bikes, skinny stray cats of every color, boys playing basketball inside a locked schoolhouse yard. A crumpled dollar bill to the street vendor, corn on the cob con mayonesa, queso y chile. Walk. Watch old men watering yellowed lawns as if nothing else awaited them, cholos in wifebeaters smoking on front stoops, women pushing strollers bulging with grocery bags and no children… Pit bulls bored, straining behind chain link fences, a bum with long unwashed hair swaying, absent. And always, a man or woman hidden in the bushes of a side porch, completely alone, suddenly emerging to greet you. Someone down the street singing. Walk, under trees flowering pink and white, sculptures of frayed palm leaves. The air stifling still, pressed against your skin like a warm bath. Walk until night envelops you, hints of wind brushing past the eyes of lit windows, crickets keen on their song. Listen to the train cutting diagonal across the neighborhood, its shrill call, its swish and lulling – walk, until you can walk no more, paused by the endless train tracks.
After living for some time in Central California, America’s top farming region – where more than 250 different fruits and vegetables are grown! – you can’t help but notice the disparities and imbalance.
On one side, the farmworkers, who often earn wages well below the poverty line – because farm labor is a seasonal occupation and because it pays little. Many (if not most) of the workers can’t get unemployment insurance due to lack of legal immigration status. As seasonal workers, they have no benefits, no health insurance or paid days off.
On the other side, the farmers, whose revenues have been growing steadily in the past few years – despite the recession and despite the drought. That’s right. As agriculture officials have often said, agriculture is one of the bright spots in our sagging economy. Alas, this bounty does not trickle down to the workers.
I wanted to drill down on this division in a more in-depth story. For half a year, I followed one farmworker family in Fresno County, the nation’s richest agricultural county. I visited them as they worked, lost jobs, struggled with health problems and with their children. I participated in family celebrations. My goal was to paint a picture of the divide at the heart of an agricultural region, a duality that has real impacts on the workers at the bottom.
Of course, farming can be a low-profit margin business. The costs of farming keep growing. Labor is a significant expense. And American consumers demand inexpensive food. Competitors in other countries pay workers even less, meaning their products are cheaper. American farmers don’t set food prices. In many ways, farmworkers’ poverty is ingrained in the very nature of agriculture – and has been so for centuries. For some farmworkers, most of whom are immigrants to this country, working in the fields can be a springboard to a better life. But for too many, it is a permanent, punishing situation – one which they pass on to their children.
We must continue to ask: Is this situation intractable? How can we improve the lives of farmworkers and those their children? What are the impacts of depression, isolation, of being worn down by circumstances? What role can education play? And, how much do we, as a society, owe to them? Lastly, what is the impact of leaving so many Latinos, one of the largest and fastest growing ethnic groups, in destitution – especially considering that Latinos will make up the vast majority of our future labor force?
Read “In nation’s breadbasket, Latinos stuck in poverty”. This story is part of an Associated Press series called ‘America at the Tipping Point: The Changing Face of a Nation.’
With the battle over the bipartisan “gang of eight” immigration bill heating up, I took a look at what the bill might do for farmworkers. While it’s hard to predict how workers will behave if given a path to citizenship faster than the rest of the undocumented population – but recent history offers a few interesting lessons. Just like the current legislation, the previous amnesty program of 1986 offered a special provision for legalizing farmworkers. What happened? Read my story.
Here are some of the farmworkers who legalized their status after 1986:
Here’s the short film about China Alley in Hanford, Calif. that I shot and produced with my colleague Jes Therkelsen and his two students, Tou Yang and Matthew Vincent. The film was made for the International Documentary Challenge. As part of this competition, crews from around the world are given five (5!) days to shoot, edit and upload a short non-fiction film. It’s pretty intense.
China Alley traces its roots to 1877 when the Central Pacific railroad was extended westward to central California. Numerous Chinese came to the area at that time, initially to help build the railroads and later to farm the vast fields surrounding Hanford. Since then, China Alley has endured, essentially unchanged – but in bad need of renewal. This is the story of one family who has taken care of China Alley for generations.
The residents of Campo Nebraska on the outskirts of Fresno in California’s Central Valley live in shabby houses, in near complete isolation. The migrant camp, hemmed in front all sides by vineyards and fields, is owned by a Mexican mayordomo and houses immigrants from the village San Miguel Cuevas, Oaxaca. They are indigenous people, most of them Mixtecos who speak a pre-Hispanic language and little Spanish and cross into the U.S. from one of the poorest regions in Mexico. According to tradition, every pueblo holds an annual party for the village saint. Since crossing the border back and forth is difficult these days, this year the mayordomo organized the party for the camp’s residents in California. The highlight of these parties, other than the hand-made tortillas and the beef, is the dance presentation. This year, I photographed my favorite dance: la danza de los diablos.
The smell is musty, the wooden floorboards rotten, the original owners long dead. But the century-old Chinese herb shop with its towering armoire of small wooden drawers can still be found nearly intact behind a set of heavy metal doors. Herb bundles sit on dust-coated shelves; wafer-thin paper used by the doctor to wrap the herbs hangs on a rack by a counter, stained with bird droppings. In the back and upstairs, where the herbalist and his family lived, pigeons nest. The last herbalist, Dr. Jack Chow, died in the early 1950’s. With his death disappeared the customers who drank their herbs at the counter, the men who gathered around the stove to gossip, and the translators who assisted English-speaking and Mexican patrons. The herb shop and its interiors endured, undisturbed in this community in the rural central California town of Hanford that traces its roots to 1887. My colleague Jes Therkelsen and I recently filmed a short documentary on Hanford’s China Alley. A local preservation society is working to save the herb shop and other buildings.
On the 10th anniversary of the American-led invasion of Iraq, I would like to offer a poem. It was written by Brian Turner, a poet who was born in central California and went to Fresno State University. Turner is a U.S. Army veteran who served as an infantry team leader in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. His poems are widely published and this one comes from the collection Here, Bullet.
To sand go tracers and ball ammunition.
To sand the green smoke goes.
Each finned mortar, spinning in light.
Each star cluster, bursting above.
To sand go the skeletons of war, year by year,
To sand go the reticles of the brain,
the minarets and steeple bells, brackish
sludge from the open sewers, trashfires,
the silent cowbirds resting
on the shoulders of a yak. To sand
each head of cabbage unravels its leaves
the way dreams burn in the oilfires of night.
— Brian Turner