Cornucopia’s Take: Tom Willey is a policy advisor for The Cornucopia Institute. He recently gave a speech on labor issues in farming, and shares it with us here.

by Tom Willey

Tom Willey
Courtesy of T&D Willey Farms

I did not set out forty-some years ago to be a hippy, organic or alternative farmer of any sort. Deeply disillusioned after a few years striving to reform society’s miscreants in the prison and parole system, I ached to produce something of unquestioned value for myself and my community, namely food. Though a jolly good ride, that proved to be not as simple as it looked either. Let me share a “thing or two about a thing or two” that I learned along the “way of the dirt farmer.”

Few are aware that this business of growing our own food we call agriculture is a rather short-lived experiment, the final results of which are yet uncertain. Astonishingly, Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel indicts agriculture as “the worst mistake in the history of the human race,” while at the same time admitting that its invention “enabled us to build the Parthenon and compose [Bach’s] B-minor Mass.” Diamond argues that along with humankind’s abandonment of hunter-gatherer subsistence ways, that characterize 95% of Homo sapiens’ history, to henceforth scratch the soil and grow food crops, “came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence” to this very day. I once believed that California agribusiness originated the sinful practice of exploiting economically desperate immigrants as low-wage farm laborers, until I traveled abroad and witnessed impoverished North Africans and Eastern Europeans living in the hedgerows of Italian farms on which they toiled. A bit more reading of history and the archeological record reveals that, following agriculture’s widespread adoption, the confiscation of surplus food grown by others for less than its intrinsic value became the foundation of what we refer to as civilization. According to Diamond, slave-owning Greek or Roman agriculturalists were certainly not the inventors of democracy; that form of governance being the birthright of hunter-gatherers whose few yet existing societies “have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others.”

But that’s not the fork in the road taken by the rest of humanity some 10,000 years back. Denesse and I quickly learned that highfalutin University of California degrees were worth exactamente nada when swinging hoes in a vegetable patch; the marketplace valued our farm labor at the same $3.35 per hour we’d pay any bloke tramping rural roads in Ronnie Reagan’s 1981 economy. So, we hired such folks, mostly Michoacáners, who streamed across a semipermeable international border in that era by their own wits or for a mere $200 or so paid to local hometown coyotes. So, with no intention of growing other people’s food for less than a middle class income, we aggregated small margins of value that we could earn on the production of every minimum wage earner in our employ. One deeply principled neighbor, down the street, farmed a meticulous four acres of vegetables; refusing to exploit others, he insisted on making a living from the sweat of his own brow. He lasted a few years until the wife, weary of hand to mouth living, chased him into town to complete a degree and get a real job. Meanwhile, empowered by an increasing number of hired hands, we headed towards 50 acres of production on rented land and the opportunity to save a nickel or two.

I fear for a legion of Jeffersonian youth pouring from halls as hallowed as Yale’s and Princeton’s, determined, as was my idealistic neighbor, to make an honest living on small plots of land. God knows how many now attempt it hereabouts in Sonoma County. Throw in a child or two, unaffordable health insurance, college debt, empty retirement piggy banks, and most back-to-the landers soon rush for a metropolitan exit where they can cash those university meal tickets. Hunting for any viable T&D Willey Farms successor over several years (our own three children decline the honor), I have uncovered widespread aversion amongst land-hungry millennials to production agriculture, defined as, growing a great deal of food for people beyond one’s own household and local community, product which navigates the marketplace’s anonymous, wholesale circuitry. Such apparent nearsightedness frustrated me to no end, until I began to appreciate the profound criticism of a failed American food system imbedded within it. However, I know of precious few, if any, models that promise a middling income to families feeding themselves and neighbors from a small acreage. One local example attracts a great deal of attention, and even some criticism, for its purported ability to do so. We need more.

Pulitzer Prize finalist Richard Marosi periodically updates L.A. Times readers on the aftermath of a violent farm labor strike that shook Baja California, Mexico’s otherwise tranquil San Quintin Valley 15 months ago. After 12 weeks, during which “strawberry pickers clashed with police in a series of running battles that left government buildings torched, laborers bloodied and dozens of people arrested”, Marosi reports, “labor leaders and growers reached a historic agreement to raise wages and guarantee benefits for tens of thousands of farmworkers.” Just what did this “historic agreement” achieve? The region’s most responsible grower BerryMex, affiliated with Driscoll’s, the world’s largest conventional and organic berry distributor, raised its minimum wage to $12 per day. Less scrupulous Baja producers still fall short of that goal. This $12 wage, earned for an entire day’s work, is what California farmers will soon be paying field hands each hour, and with Jerry Brown’s not-yet-dry signature on a freshly passed bill from our state’s legislature, farmers will soon tack on time-and-a-half after eight hours. Can well-meaning Californians now pat themselves on the back for solving the underpaid farm worker problem? National Public Radio reported, as of two years ago, the volume of Mexican fruits and vegetables imported into the US had tripled since NAFTA’s passage in 1994, a phenomenon over which Denesse and produce buyers arm-wrestle each morning while she struggles to obtain fair prices for T&D Willey Farms’ organic vegetables. Collaterally, our employees no longer hail from Michoacán but are now, for the most part, Native Americans from Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca. These non-Spanish-speaking people who invented corn some 8,000 years ago, more-or-less thrived as subsistence farmers ever since, until NAFTA’s economic disruption triggered a diaspora that scattered their populations as far north as Washington State. Our farm town, Madera, is reputed to host the largest population of Mixtecs, Triquis and Zapotecs outside of Qaxaca proper. Since infamous 9/11 attacks, our country’s southern border is no longer porous; requiring immigrants to risk life and limb and pay drug cartels up to $4,000 to reach the land that pays wages ten-times those of Mexico’s.

While human beings constitute the only near-limitless resource on Earth, California agriculture continues its evolution, intensified since Cesar Chavez’s 1970s labor strife, towards mechanization and away from hand labor that proves troublesome, costly and now paradoxically scarce. The million-acre-plus almond and nut craze is a case in point, when a well- organized orchardist can operate 1,000 acres with three hired hands, wage rates are inconsequential. But those highly-diverse farms, like T&D Willey’s, growing 50 to 100 crops on a modest acreage, that characterized California’s organic movement until now are in jeopardy. The immense variety, in mimicry of natural systems, that awards biological stability on our farms, allowing us to eschew chemicals, also condemns us to labor inefficiency. With no apparent heir, T&D Willey Farms will not mechanize; just too little time left farming to amortize major capital investments.

The Land Institute’s Wes Jackson challenges us to quit fiddling with problems in agriculture, to instead confront the problem of agriculture. Jared Diamond does the same. All who eat, 7-billion of us, are now obligate farmers, with no way back to that hunter-gatherer Edenic state. If the human race will persist, we must rapidly evolve agriculture to be in greater harmony with those natural systems operating this planet. If “all are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, among these Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, how can we continue to perpetuate this 10,000-year exploitation of the poorest and least-educated among us who daily heap our tables with abundance? With no stomach for reading journalist Marosi’s four-part exposé “Product of Mexico,” such exploitation remains out of sight, out of mind, just like that which produces the smart phones in our pockets and a myriad of consumer goods. The soil that nourishes us and those who work it for a meager existence cry out for justice. Do we heed their cries; will we respond any differently than our ancestors have over ten millennia? These are very great questions.

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