By: Rubén Martinez, Ph.D.


The demand for labor on America’s food-producing farms and the current anti-immigration climate are crashing into each other and putting America at risk of food shortages and exorbitant prices. Farmers need workers to nurture and harvest the crops, milk the cows, and tend to the livestock, but American workers are unwilling to perform this type of labor.  Consequently, farmers are forced to depend on foreign workers willing to do the work, often undocumented workers. Conservative politicians and White Nationalists have for several years promoted and stirred anti-immigrant sentiments, especially against persons and families coming from the many countries south of the border.  In this context, immigrants willing to perform farm labor have been forced to enter the country without going through the legal process—a system and process that does not meet the nation’s demands for farm labor.
The number of farmworkers in this country is not known exactly, and estimates range from 1.3 to 3.1 million, depending on which categories are used (e.g., agricultural, year-round, migrant and seasonal, etc.).  Estimates of the number of farms in the country come from the Census of Agriculture which is conducted every five years.  Figures from the 2012 census are available, but those from the 2017 census have yet to be released, and will probably be available in a year or two.  
The 2012 census set the number of farms at 2.1 million, reflecting a long-term decline in the number of farms; in 1935 the number of farms was estimated at 6.8 million. At the same time, cropland has shifted from smaller to larger farms, with the midpoint in the average number of cropland acres shifting from 589 in 1982 to 1,234 in 2012.  Mid-sized farms, those with $350K to $999K in “gross cash farm income” (GCFI), declined in number, while small farms (less than $350K in GCFI) increased in number.  In terms of productivity, large farms (with $1 million or more in annual GCFI) comprise approximately 2.9 percent of the farms, but account for nearly one half of total production. Mid-sized farms comprise 5.6 percent of the nation’s farms and account for approximately 23 percent of production. Small-sized farms comprise 90 percent of farms and generate approximately 24 percent of total production.  The majority of small farms make less than $150K in GCFI.  Generally, the larger the farm, the more workers they employ. Not surprisingly then, most farmworkers tend to work on mid- to large-sized farms.
Those working on fruit and vegetable farms have attracted public attention relative to wages and working conditions, but those on dairy farms are increasingly attracting attention as well. The relationship between farm workers and farmers is a complicated one, involving immigration issues, federal labor laws, food safety, and the social conditions of local communities. Because of the broken immigration system, our food systems depend on the labor of a slight majority of undocumented farmworkers, and the current anti-immigrant climate, which, like all previous movements of nativism is driven by fear, irrationality, emotions and demagogues, promotes enforcement raids, detention and deportation without regard for the consequences to our agricultural industries and the larger economy.
There is fear, for example, that immigrants are changing the nation’s institutions, and efforts are made to affirm what are regarded as core cultural institutions. Take the Official English bill that is winding its way through Michigan’s legislature. The work of Michigan’s governments already is conducted in English, so it does not address a particular problem, and is superseded by federal laws in many instances. With the many problems that Michigan has across many societal sectors, including a deteriorating infrastructure, increasing poverty, a public education crisis, among other problems, this legislation is needless and irrational.  Since it does not have any positive practical consequences, it can only serve as a symbolic gesture that promotes anti-immigration sentiments. That is, it plays on the emotions of those holding anti-immigrant sentiments and who are willing to be led by demagogues to the abyss; in this case the potential collapse of our food systems.
Rather than seeking to develop practical and just solutions to the labor shortages that occur in Michigan’s agricultural industry, our legislators pursue policies driven by political ideologies that promote fear and nativism. At the national level, the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants puts the nation’s agricultural systems at risk. We are told that these immigrants are criminals, but the fact, demonstrated in numerous research studies, is that immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans. And, contrary to popular belief, they are willing and motivated to learn English, but the demand is much greater than the availability of programs.  Immigrants know that it is incumbent on them to learn English if they are to be able to take advantage of opportunities for advancement.  No one has to tell them that, they know it.
The principles of free market fundamentalism, especially anti-government and radical individualism, shape the policy environment against funding public programs that promote immigrant integration. Further, Michigan legislators, guided by the these principles, have voted on HB 4438 to amend the “Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act,” which directs the Department of Environmental Quality to develop rules for the management of sewage and septic waste. The Bill, however, exempts farm operations with regard to servicing portable toilets if they meet field sanitation, worker protection and food safety requirements. While these are laudable objectives, a problem that has plagued American agriculture has been the enforcement of farmworker protection laws, and this problem is exacerbated today when government is reduced through tax cuts and its enforcement capability diminished.
As such, it is not only immigration raids and a broken immigration system that put our food systems at risk, free market fundamentalist policies are also contributing to the problem. With many reports predicting that global food shortages will reach crisis proportions in the coming years, it is imperative that Americans rise above the propaganda of anti-immigration, White nationalism, and free market fundamentalism if a rational and pragmatic approach is to be adopted in preventing the impending food crisis that is emerging here in the U.S.  Already increasing income inequality puts the political and social stability of the country at risk. And while poverty rates are stabilizing, they remain high (12.7% in 2016), especially among Latinos (19.4%) and African Americans (22%), populations that already experience food insecurity. In 2015, it is estimated that 42.5 million Americans experienced hunger as a result of inadequate food access. The broken immigration system will exacerbate this problem by threating farm production, causing food shortages that will ultimately lead to social disruptions that will shake the foundations of this great nation.
Moreover, farmworkers, as a labor force, have endured poverty for over a century. Low pay and harsh working conditions led to widespread strikes in 1933; strikes that were quelled by force and the use of immigrants as strikebreakers. This scene was repeated in the 1960s, when Filipino and Latino farmworkers sought to improve their wages and their working conditions. Indeed, it was César Chávez, Gil Padilla, Eliseo Medina, Dolores Huerta and many others who formed the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) and had the first major successes in organizing farmworkers; efforts that led to the passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975.  Despite initial successes by the UFW, the overwhelming majority of farmworkers today continue to suffer low wages and harsh working conditions. Perhaps the film “Harvest of Shame” (1960) best captured the lives and work conditions of migrant farmworkers, conditions that continue to prevail today, the limited gains by the UFW notwithstanding, especially given the ease by which undocumented workers can be exploited under today’s conservative and anti-immigrant political climate.
One of the great ironies of the deportation of migrant farmworkers is that farming was introduced in southeastern Europe centuries ago by migrants from the Fertile Crescent in Western Asia. Today, our food-producing farms are sustained by migrant farmworkers, many of whom lead lives of fear because of their undocumented status; lives of poverty and hunger despite the fact that they perform one of the most critical labor functions in our state and national economies. Food production and farmworkers are at the heart of the future of this great nation. We should fix the broken immigration system and keep our food systems at the center of our thinking as we do so.