From SanFernandoSun.com, Shawn Dell Joyce, Creative Syndicate, 23 Nov 2011.
Thanksgiving is a holiday built around food. We gather, we gorge, we acknowledge the work of the cook, and perhaps we thank the divine. But rarely do we honor the hands that feed us.
Growing the food that feeds our country is one of the most thankless and low-paying jobs a person could have. In 2002, the median net income for a U.S. farmer was $15,848, while hired hands and migrant workers averaged around $10,000 per year. Farming has become so unpopular that the category was recently removed from the U.S. Census, and federal prison inmates now outnumber farmers.
Migrant pickers often put in long hours — up to twelve hours a day, in fact — and earn about 45 cents for each 32- pound bucket of tomatoes. This amount hasn’t risen in more than 30 years. At that rate, workers have to pick two and a half tons of tomatoes to earn minimum wage. Most farm workers don’t get sick days, overtime or health care. Some farmers often don’t fare much better.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we stopped putting such an emphasis on “cheap” and instead put an emphasis on “fair,” maybe those people who grow our food could afford to eat as well. Raising farm wages would have little effect on supermarket prices, mainly because farmers and farm workers are paid only about 6 to 9 cents out of every retail dollar spent.
If we raised farm wages by 35 percent and passed that cost on to consumers, it would raise the retail price of food by only a few pennies, according to the Center for Immigrant Studies. The total cost to consumers for all fresh produce would add up to less than $34 per year, per family. If we raised wages by 70 percent, that cost would be about $67. Divide this among 52 weekly trips to the supermarket, and you’re looking at spending barely a dollar more each week. Wouldn’t you spend that much to know that people didn’t suffer to feed you?
In Jan. 2001, the U.S. Department of Labor informed Congress that farm workers were “a labor force in significant economic distress.” The report cited farm workers’ “low wages, sub-poverty annual earnings (and) significant periods of un- and underemployment,” adding that “agricultural worker earnings and working conditions are either stagnant or in decline.”
For agriculture to be sustainable, it must provide a living for those who work our land. Let’s honor the hands that feed us by restoring the dignity of a fair wage to farmers and farm workers. Here are a couple ways to do that:
• Buy your produce from local farms, where you can meet the farm workers and see for yourself whether they’re treated fairly. The smaller the farm, the more likely the owners are to treat workers well; often, they’ll have only family members working the farm.
• Support an increase in farm worker wages by joining the Alliance for Fair Food.
Shawn Dell Joyce is an award-winning columnist and founder of the Wallkill River School in Orange County, N.Y. You can contact her at Shawn@ShawnDellJoyce.com.