Fairness for All

But Really— Who’s Your Farmer

by Sam Dolph

But Really— Who’s Your Farmer

Lucy Engelman

Farming, especially in the Northeast, is experiencing a cultural shift. In the past, farming has been a rural, working-class, no-formal-education-needed, often family-run profession. Now, many young people with no prior farming experience are flocking out to the fields, sometimes not too far from their urban homes. Many of these young people are college students or recent graduates, some with environmental backgrounds and some just looking for temporary jobs. While farming has not traditionally been a profession linked to these young, privileged professionals, the culturally understood definition of farming has grown along with its participants. There’s urban farming on rooftops, hydroponic farming without soil, and even vertical farming with conditions controlled by an app. But if we step outside of this trendy bubble and into most of the rural United States, farm work (apart from long standing family-run farms) has historically been—and still is— performed by migrant and seasonal agricultural workers. The migrant and seasonal agricultural worker (MSAW) community includes over 3 million people, often a large percentage of undocumented immigrants from Central and South America. Many of these farmers travel seasonally from their home countries to farms across the U.S. for work, and these few months of low-paid work make up their yearly income.

Before we look more at the MSAW population, let’s first look at why our notion of the farmer identity is shifting. First, academic programs (undergraduate and graduate) are increasingly paying attention to the role that farming plays in the environment and sustainability, both scientifically and politically. Additionally, the technology industry as a whole is currently experiencing a boom-—there’s a startup for almost everything now— and computer programmers and engineers are exploring the intersections of food, the environment, and technology more than ever before. Moreover, the job market is overwhelmingly difficult for many new graduates (and even older ones) to infiltrate— traditional opportunities like 9-5 office jobs are becoming rare, inspiring this population to look elsewhere for a paycheck. Communities like World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), which facilitates volunteer opportunities on domestic and international farms, has popularized farming among young professionals and recent graduates who are looking for unique experiences before settling into a more stable and permanent lifestyle.

But what does farming around the country look like for the MSAW population? It certainly doesn’t involve an app, nor is it like my experience as a privileged, white American farmer on Martha’s Vineyard during college summers, while riding on my parents’ health insurance (and being easily eligible for MassHealth if necessary). Farming for MSAWs, on the other hand, does not include an hourlong lunch break—paid, I might add—spent enjoying fresh and thoughtfully prepared lunches by colleagues, before heading back out to the fields for a few hours of harvesting until 5 p.m. hits, and they can happily take off to the beach for a casual, after-work swim (with proper access to organic sunscreen) prior to heading home, where they can enjoy remodeled and safe housing options.

Many of these farmers do not have access to health insurance or healthcare, are paid incredibly low wages that put many of them below the federal poverty level, have hazardous living conditions, are overworked with little to no employee rights, suffer from continuous exposure to pesticides and other health irritants, and experience regular discrimination from employers, coworkers, and local communities. Despite working on farms and growing fresh fruit and vegetables (or shade tobacco), these workers do not have easy or affordable access to healthy food (nor to nutritional education grounded in both language/ cultural sensitivity) so they suffer from health conditions tied to poor nutrition. On top of everything, many fear being deported and deal with the constant, nation-wide message that they are unworthy due to their race, ethnicity, and immigration status.

So while the broadening of the farming community and demographics does indeed have some positive effects—like the creation of more jobs, changes to the traditional negative stigmas associated with being a farmer (uneducated, poor, unintellectual), and the increased awareness regarding the importance of supporting small-scale farmers and the local food movement as a whole— it also overshadows the most vulnerable part of the community and excludes them from the modern farmer identity.

Look to the magazine, Modern Farmer, for instance, which commonly boasts photos of rugged, sexy, endearingly messy, plaid-wearing young farmers. Sure, some farmers do look like that. Some of my friends do, in fact. But it’s limiting to showcase only these faces, and to only focus on topics like mushroom foraging, CSA-programs, and new apps. I’m not saying that these things aren’t important—they certainly are and they’re helping to transform our relationship to the environment and our community— but there are a lot of other issues that are pushed into the background (or even further) because they are sad and uncomfortable, and in turn they’re unknown to many; in turn, the MSAW population suffers dramatically.

The point of this isn’t to deter people away from farming, or to condemn and guilt the community—I’m a part of it myself. But being part of the local food movement and an engaged member of the farming community means being aware of the larger issues that surround us. It means opening our eyes to the topics and concerns that extend past our local communities and our independent relationships to the land, and into the realm of interpersonal relationships among our fellow farming humans, even if they’re different from us. Especially if they’re different from us. Being a part of this community means understanding what being a farmer looks like across the country, and fighting to make this profession respectable and fair for all.