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  • The uncertain immigration status of many farm workers often translates into a workforce reluctant to advocate for its rights. 

  • Small farmers who don't have access to industrial food system subsidies are challenged in their ability to meet fair labor standards.

  • The local food movement must focus its awareness not only on where and how food is grown, but on farm worker justice.

A Conversation with Maggie Gray, Food Justice Writer

Contributor: Robert Raymond

Maggie Gray, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Adelphi University and author of Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic, became interested in human and labor rights in graduate school.  “I dove into the topic of farm workers in New York State, a greatly understudied topic,” she reports. “As I was writing my dissertation and living in the Hudson Valley, the local food movement was taking off and I repeatedly confronted stories that heaped much deserved praise on local food and local farming initiatives, but were glaringly missing any sort of mention or analysis of labor conditions on these farms.” She discussed her journey as a writer about food justice here.


Why did you decide to write about the  Hudson Valley farming region? What's unique or significant about it?


The Hudson Valley is unique because of how it developed historically. I think today some important legacies of that are pretty small farms because the farms were all small land holdings in this rocky, hilly area around small towns. So it's an ideal place for studying smaller farming regions. What's also very significant is that the New York metropolitan region is one of the top two  areas—if not the top  area—for local food sales. It’s very significant because of the demand for local food coming from this huge metropolitan region. So in so many ways, I think the Hudson Valley really epitomizes what we think about when we think about local food because of the opportunities farmers have in the region to sell to this market.


When we talk about the overall food ecosystem of the region, today, you largely have fruit and vegetable farms. In the 1970s, dairy was a really significant factor in farming in the Hudson Valley, but that's dramatically changed over the last few decades. A lot of former dairy farms have become horse farms, and are also giving way to the development of housing because farmers in the Hudson Valley are living and working in really expensive real estate with high demand because it's so close to New York City. This is also one of the places where you have a younger farmer network really solidifying in the last decade or two.

Can you talk a bit more about who comprises the farm worker labor force in the Hudson Valley and also what kinds of conditions they work in?


When we talk about farm worker demographics in the Hudson Valley, the first thing you have to understand is that there are no formal statistics or demographics about this workforce. You can use the agricultural census to get a number of workers, but it's not going to tell you anything about their demographics. However, there has been research over the years, including my research, that shows that since the late 1970s, there has been a shift in the workforce toward a Latinx workforce. Historically, the farm worker population in New York State has been African Americans coming from the South and also Afro-Caribbeans who may have migrated from the South or may have been coming from their home countries. The history of the farm workforce in New York State is also one of migrant farm workers who come for the season and then go back to their homes. But with the increase in Latinx workers, we've also seen a shift to workers who are living here year round because of how impractical it is for the workforce to return to their homes at the end of the season. We tend to see workers coming here and some of them might work for two, three, or four years and then go home for a little while and come back again. But we also see a lot of farm workers who are just settling in New York full time.


Almost every farm worker from Latin America to whom I spoke told me they had plans to return home—that they were definitely going home and they were going to go home in x number of years. I interviewed some of these workers five years later and they told me the same thing—"We're definitely moving home. I just need to get enough money, probably in another two, three, four years." And when I pointed out to one of the workers that this was pretty much the same exact answer he'd given me five years earlier, he said, "Well, this is a story we have to tell ourselves to make it easier to live here."


And that's very much related to the conditions that they work in. Most of the farm workers I met don't have the legal status or the English language skills needed to get a better job—most of them didn't have an existing skill set that could translate into getting a better job. However, most of them also seemed to enjoy doing farm work itself—but not necessarily under the conditions that they were facing.


My research focuses not on particular abuses, but on what the workers everyday experiences, and one of the things that farm workers have dealt with are the labor laws. Farm workers in New York State currently do not have the right to a day of rest, they do not have a right to overtime pay, and they do not have collective bargaining protections. However, the governor of New York just signed the Farm Worker Fair Labor Practices Act that does give workers more rights. That will not take effect until January 1st, 2020.

Was there a grassroots movement behind that legislation? How did it come to be passed?


The Justice for Farmworkers campaign has been around for more than twenty years trying to influence change at the state level to improve workers rights. And in the 1990s they were able to get clean, cool drinking water for all farm workers—because up to that point the smallest farms had been excluded. They were also able to get latrines and hand washing facilities in the fields for all workers. Then in 1999, the farm worker minimum wage was set to be the same minimum wage as the state minimum wage. Before that, farm workers didn't have the same minimum wage. After those successes, the Justice for Farmworkers campaign decided to try to work on an omnibus bill that would even the playing field and give them the same rights as all other workers. It took close to 20 years, and I think there are two main factors why it finally passed this year: one is that the New York State Senate is now held by the Democrats—the Senate had been held by Republicans for most of the past 60 to 70 year. There was a moment a decade ago where Democrats did have the Senate, but the bill failed. So this State Senate has been very interested in pushing progressive legislation.

The second main factor is because of a man named Christine Hernandez. Christine was working on a dairy farm and local advocates were on the dairy farm talking to them about English language classes and health and safety issues when the farm owner called the police. In really rural areas, sometimes not just the local police show up, but the state police show up as well. They separated the workers from the advocate, they questioned everybody, and you can imagine that if you're undocumented, this is a pretty scary scenario. There wasn't any law being broken, and so, I don't know if it was a couple of days later or the next week, Christine and a colleague started to go door by door to try to explain to his coworkers that they had not broken any law. They had every right to get together if they had a guest come in—as long as they were welcoming the guests, there was no law being broken. He was fired. This served as the basis for a lawsuit against the State of New York—a constitutional challenge about the collective bargaining exclusion for farmworkers. It took a while and the first judge who looked at it ruled that there was no problem with the Constitution, but the second judge who looked at it on appeal overwhelmingly decided that there was a violation and that farm workers should have a right to collective bargaining.


Now there could be another appeal in that lawsuit, but I think for the farm industry, they were looking at either a lawsuit that was going to give farm workers the same rights as other workers in terms of collective bargaining, or they could try to negotiate around collective bargaining with the state legislature. So I think that the Democrats being really progressive and holding the Senate for the first time in a long time and the collective bargaining lawsuit were the main drivers for the law to be passed this year. I do want to point out that the law doesn't give farm workers the same rights as other workers. They have the right to overtime after 60 hours a week, not after 40 hours a week. They have a right to a voluntary 24 hour day of rest. And if they choose to work the seventh day, they have to be paid at time and half. And the collective bargaining includes provisions that they are not allowed to strike or engage in any work stoppages or slow down. But they also have card check.


Most of the time when a workplace is trying to form a union, there is an election that takes place on one day and all the workers have to vote that day. With a card check system, it can happen over time just as long as workers individually sign a card that they're willing to join a union and have union dues collected. So it allows for a longer organizing campaign. And the law also requires employer neutrality, which means that employers can’t show anti-union films or distribute any sort of anti-union material, which they do in other sorts of workplaces.


So as far as the conditions of the workers, up until January 1, 2020, there were all these legal exclusions. And a lot of workers that I've met told me that they felt like these legal exclusions created the category of second-class workers. They thought that because the law sent the message that they were second-class workers, it almost paved the way for labor abuses to take place. I think the other thing to keep in mind is that when you have a largely non-citizen workforce, these are workers who experience fear on a daily basis. And so for workers who are afraid of being deported and workers who are living on the farms where they work—being fired would mean also losing their housing. So this tends to be a more docile workforce who are not going to complain because there's just too much at stake.


In terms of worker conditions, one of the major contributions of my research is to reveal paternalism that was taking place on the farm. Paternalism means that your employer has oversight of some area of your life outside of the labor relationship. So as soon as workers are housed on a farm, that's automatically paternalism right there. But what my research found was that there were different levels of paternalism. Some sort of simple version was that workers could have farm products for free, some was much more serious, where workers might be promised a green card or maybe even be promised part of the land.


What I found was that this paternalism acts as a very effective form of labor control. And it's really complicated because I think that a lot of the farmers who engage in paternalistic behavior are doing so because they care about their workers. But we can't really separate this from labor control. So the same way that we've heard a lot about how local food creates an intimacy between the consumer and the farmer, I think with a lot of these small farms that also translates into an intimacy in the workplace because on smaller farms you're unlikely to have middle managers. So these farmer owners are sometimes working alongside workers or directly supervising them and they get to know these workers. And so this relationship develops where farmer owners understand that the material benefits from working on a farm are not so great, and so they try to buttress these in informal ways. But then workers feel as though they have to be really good workers and not complain in order to continue to get those benefits that aren't part of a labor contract.


Coming back to the fear issue, I also think that there are a lot of workers who feel protected on the farm and that as long as they're on the farm, nothing bad is going to happen to them. So workers often rely on farmer owners in a way for a sense of protection because of their legal status. And again, all of this translates into labor control and a docile workforce that doesn't complain.

It seems like there are some seemingly insurmountable systemic issues that lead to the exploitation that many of these farm workers in the Hudson Valley experience. And it doesn't sound like the overwhelming amount of exploitation comes from farm owners who are nefarious in their intentions. What do you think is the dynamic there? Farm owners often say that they would love to pay their employees more, but they wouldn't be able to afford it—that they would go out of business. I don't mean to say that exploitation seems necessary for financial viability, but it seems like under this current system, that's sort of the case.


If we think about the reasons why the industry as a whole seems to rely on an exploited workforce, I think we can consider several factors. The first factor is the cost of food in the U.S. The U.S. has the lowest food prices of any industrialized country, and the best statistic to buttress this is the fact that twenty-five percent of the food we purchase ends up in the trash—we wouldn't be throwing out twenty-five percent of the food if we had to invest in it more. But the fact of the matter is, food is really cheap in this country. We can consider government policies that try to keep food inexpensive, but we also know that in the 21st century, we've seen the dominance of a handful of major supermarket chains who become the price setters for food. Because they work on such a large scale, they can make a good profit off of really low food prices.


We also want to think about how the farmer and the grower themselves often don't see the majority of the cost of food that you buy in a local supermarket, because the retailer has to make a profit, the produce and the other food items need to be shipped from the farm, so there are all these other costs involved. And so farmers selling wholesale have a really small profit margin because they don't get to set the ultimate price of the food and they don't get to see the majority of what consumers pay in the supermarket.


What's interesting is that one of the promises of local was that there would be a lot more profit in the farmer's wallet because they don't have to deal with any middlemen in this scenario when they're selling directly to consumer—and presumably they can set the prices. But even with local sales, I'm consistently hearing about how farmers are really struggling and how in reality they don't get to set the prices because they're still competing with other farms and they're competing with supermarkets. So I think one reason for the dependence on exploited workers in the industry has to do with money.

Why are food prices so low in the United States?


Certainly in terms of dairy—it’s because the government sets prices for dairy for milk sales and things like that. I don't know how much of a role the government plays in other food products—but we should consider that the way the government subsidizes farmers very much impacts affordability of food. So, for example, if you walk down the cereal aisle in a grocery store, that's exactly the sort of farm product that sees the greatest subsidies in this country. The corn and grain—you don't see a lot of subsidies for dairy or for fruits and vegetables. And in fact, if you watched the subsidy process and got rid of the subsidies for a lot of those basic products that go into the food that comes in a bag or in a box, and you shift those subsidies to fruit and vegetables, then fruit and vegetables and dairy products would be a lot less expensive and your Fruit Loops price would go through the roof. I'm not an expert on this, but in terms of the role the federal government plays, I think a lot of it has to do with subsidies and promoting certain sorts of farming as opposed to other sorts of farming.


Michael Pollan's chapter on corn in The Omnivore's Dilemma is exactly what I'm talking about. The subsidies of corn in the U.S. have driven entire markets of food products—cheap food products. So I think that one reason why food is cheap in this country has to do with the role of the government. And I think the other has to do with these huge supermarket chains that dominate the market and get to set the prices.

So subsidies and the consolidation of supermarket chains are responsible for cheap food products in the U.S.?


Definitely. I think when we consider why industry relies on exploited workers—one reason has to do with the cost of food. I think we also have to keep in mind the saying that “farmers live poor and die rich.” If you're a farmer, particularly if you're a farmer in the Hudson Valley, you might be sitting on extremely valuable real estate and you've got major investments in the infrastructure of your farm. But it's not like you can cash out on that and then keep farming. And even a farmer who has three great years in a row is constantly concerned that the next year, she's going to go broke because it's going to be a bad year. So farmers always proceed with caution in terms of the profitability of their ventures.


Another major factor why the industry relies on exploited workers has to do with the history of slavery in this country. We cannot discount the fact that for so long this country largely depended on slave labor for its cultural profit—particularly in the South. When slavery ended, of course, then you had a whole new set of Jim Crow laws and this is what made it difficult for black workers to really get their own foothold and careers. The tenant farming system was highly exploited and the reason why farm workers and domestic workers were left out of substantial labor laws during the New Deal era, most specifically the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act, was because they were black workers and because southern Democrats in the 1930s did not feel that far removed from the slave owners who lost all this free labor. And so being so highly dependent on exploiting black workers translated then to the exclusion of these workers from federal labor policies, which almost every state then adopted, including New York State. When we talk about subsidies to the farm industry in the United States, I would argue to you, the number one subsidy is farm worker wages, which, because they do not have the same minimum wage laws and because most farm workers in this country aren't covered by overtime laws, is really the largest subsidy to the industry.


This is also an industry where there's not a promotion ladder. Very few farm workers become any sort of manager or even become farmers themselves. So it's a job that becomes dependent on finding workers who don't either expect to or don't have the skill set that would enable them to form careers that include promotions over time and increased wages and benefits over time. So this is why for a century and a half the industry as a whole has relied on the most vulnerable workers to take jobs in agriculture.

Your book invites readers to consider what it means to embrace a more comprehensive food ethic. It’s pretty clear what needs to happen on the policy end. But in light of all of the challenges and struggles that you outlined, practically speaking, what steps do you think would need to be taken in order for real labor justice and for an ethics that respects the value and dignity of labor to actually manifest in these farm worker’s lives and in their jobs? Are there examples in the Hudson Valley or other places where you would say they're doing something right, despite the systemic challenges?


In order to create a holistic food ethic, we need to rely on consumers. Number one, consumers would need to be educated about the situation of farm workers. And number two, they would need to have a shift in their thinking about what sustainability and food ethics mean. Starting with educating consumers—we've been so inundated with stories that romanticize local farming that it's a very hard sell to convince a consumer that the workers on the farm might not be treated well. And I think Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma is the epitome of this, because he discusses two types of farming, one he calls industrial, and the second he calls pastoral. And what's really interesting about that is that pastoral invokes very visual concepts. We think about landscape paintings, for example the Hudson Valley School of Landscape Painting were known for their pastoral images. And so I think when Michael Pollan discusses just these two types of farming, he sets up a dichotomy that consumers then adopted and other writers continued to push. The idea is that either you're a large, industrial, pesticide-using, labor-exploiting farm, or you're a small family farm who's doing right by local community, right by the land, and right by the animals.


And then by extension, because we haven't seen enough about the conditions of workers, consumers jump to a conclusion and assume that this also means they're doing right by the workers. I think there are lots of consumers who imagine if they're buying from something called the family farm, it probably doesn't even have any workers. And it's important to note that family farm has nothing to do with scale and everything to do with ownership structure—but it's a term that gets used a lot because it's a nice marketing tool to invoke a romanticized notion. So I think the first hurdle in education is to try to get consumers to understand the situation of workers. And so much of local food campaigns has been focused on looking at farmers as local heroes, and so then to have to imagine that these local heroes might not be treating workers in a sustainable way creates a cognitive dissonance.


I think the second main issue is for consumers to really think about what “sustainable” means.  And what does a food ethic mean? This is one area where food writers have really oversold the concept. I think at the end of the day, there are a majority of consumers who are less concerned with sustainability and more concerned about the quality of the food that they're putting into their bodies. So they want to put organic food into their bodies, they want to eat animals that have been humanely raised and slaughtered, and they like the idea that eating locally means that it might be fresher and more flavorful—all of those ideas happen to intersect with sustainable practices. I think consumers would need to shift to really think about what the implications are for the earth, for animals, and of course, for workers with their food purchases.


You also have to keep in mind that, even in a place like the Hudson Valley, local food sales are a tiny portion of food sales. I haven't looked at it yet for the 2017 agricultural census, but according to the 2012 agricultural census, local food sales accounted for 1 percent of food sales. So that also helps you understand the outsized attention that local food efforts get. And I don't mean to dismiss the benefits of local food—I think it's really important to buy local. I try to buy local as much as I can. But I think we have to think about this in a bigger picture, particularly in terms of the humans involved in tending to the food that then arrives on our plate.

You're saying you think that the biggest hurdle is educating consumers, but that seems like a very large and long term challenge. What about the production side—are there any farms that are currently working within the constraints of the system that you would point to as potentially good examples of how, within the current system, farm workers are not experiencing as much exploitation?


I'm hesitant to point out any particular farms by name, but I've certainly met farmers who are trying to pay a living wage—which is well, over the minimum wage—farmers who offer paid sick days, who offer paid vacation days, and try to maintain open communication between themselves and their workers. I don't think they necessarily market themselves that way, maybe a little thing about it might be on their website, or when you talk to them, they'll tell you that that's really important to them. But I think your typical farmer tends to say I'm following the law, right? I'm doing exactly what's expected of me by the law, even though that means I might be paying minimum wage for an 80 hour work week.


The Coalition of Immokalee Workers developed the Fair Food Program, which I think is a good model going forward. This is a contract between large buyers and the farmers who provide the food and it requires farmers to abide by a code of conduct and allows for inspections and worker education. It’s now been replicated in Vermont with a program called Milk with Dignity with Ben and Jerry's. Now, the problem with that is, when we think about the Hudson Valley, by definition, we don't have a large corporate buyer for local food efforts, right? Because they're selling direct to the consumer. But I think some options might be government buying. Los Angeles instituted what's called a Good Food Program. And in August New York’s City Council introduced legislation that would implement the Good Food Purchasing Program. I think that there's an opportunity there to say, well, we will only procure from farms that have this code of conduct in place. It gets complicated because then you need people who are going to oversee that the code of conduct is actually in place and you need to have those mechanisms in place for monitoring. But I think certainly with the Fair Food Program and Milk with Dignity, these are some of the most successful farmworker efforts we're seeing in the country right now.

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