My wife has a long history of working with migrant farmworkers., and I often say I have a second-hand education in farm labor issues through her work. Migrant farmworkers receive among the lowest pay in America for some of the most challenging labor available.
Migrant agricultural workers, it is safe to say, are primarily undocumented workers, although some workers arrive through temporary work authorizations. In either case, the work is hard, and the pay is minimal.
The growers that own and operate the farms claim that Americans will not do farm work, although they fail to mention that low pay is a significant barrier to American workers entering the farm labor force. Compensation for agricultural work is below a reasonable living wage for families. Farmworkers often live in rustic conditions unsuitable for families. The bulk of migrant labor consists of young, unattached men who are willing to work hard and suffer the indignities of that work.
Farmers also claim that Americans will not pay more for food, and with farmers operating on very slim margins they cannot consider raising wages.
I question those claims. I believe that Americans would work in agriculture if compensation were commensurate with the difficulty of the work, and I also contend that American consumers would pay more for their food purchases if they had some understanding of what that meant for farmworkers.
My optimism is based on what I have seen happen in my town, where local farmers are supported and celebrated. I am happy to purchase from local farmers through our the Carrboro Farmer’s Market and Weaver Street Market, a local grocery cooperative. It costs more to do this, but I do not understand the logic of paying cheap prices for the most important health item we buy – food. While I have not personally analyzed the numbers for my family’s grocery purchases, National Geographic published an article estimating that the added cost for most families would be about $20 per year. The article is food for thought.
What do you think? Would you pay $20 more per year if it meant farmworkers received better pay? Would it make a difference if you knew that more Americans might work on farms, instead of foreign labor?