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How to think about farm labor

Workers harvest artichokes at Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, CA.

I don’t even need to ask anymore.

As part of my Blue Book duties, I write articles spotlighting certain regions and commodities for Produce Blueprints magazine. It’s my custom, when I interview sources, to ask what their greatest concern is for their business or the industry.

The answer almost always comes back the same: labor. Labor costs. Labor availability. Reliability of labor supply. The coronavirus has accentuated but by no means created this problem.

Blame is tempting, of course. It is like when a couple is short of money. They often fall to fighting, although this does nothing to solve the problem and usually makes it worse.

How could the farm labor problem be solved? This is a tough question—no one has answered it, or if anyone has, they have not been able to execute their solution. But I think it would help to lay out simply and briefly what is required.

From the grower’s point of view, the chief concern is having enough workers in the field when they are needed. Next is cost: wages must be in line with the likely return on the sale of the crop. Third is security of supply: not only must the workers show up when needed, the grower needs to know that they are coming so he can actually plan to use them; if not, he has to make alternate arrangements.

From the worker’s point of view, the first concern is being paid a living wage: that is, at least enough to provide basic necessities such as food, clothing, shelter, and health care. If you cannot afford (or have access to) health care, you are not being paid a living wage.

Workers also need a sense of security. They may well be migratory or semi-migratory, so they need to know that when they show up somewhere, there will be work waiting for them. (Actually, this dovetails nicely with the grower’s requirements.) Furthermore, they need their source of income to be reliable, so that they know over a yearly basis where and when they can find work.

Workers need security in another sense. There should be adequate safety measures to protect them in what is often a dangerous job. They should also be protected from crime, which is by no means absent from the produce industry (as we see from the regular drug busts in supplies of fruits and vegetables).

Furthermore, workers need to have protection of their civil rights. This does not include the right to vote (if they are not citizens), but it does include adequate access to fair treatment from the law, and protection if they report abuses. It also includes the legal right to be in the United States for at least the duration of their labor, because illegal immigrants can be (and often are) mistreated with impunity.

Good employers know all this and treat their workers fairly. But not all employers are good employers. Furthermore, many farm workers are permanent employees, with secure pay and benefits. But the greatest problems have to do with seasonal labor.

Finally, all parties need to know that the system itself is secure: it is established in law, can be relied on in both the short and long terms, and is immune to the whims of politicians. Such a system may or may not be administered by government.

All of this is obvious, but often stating the obvious is the most valuable thing one can do.

It’s possible to imagine such a system of secure, reliable labor that is fair to both employer and worker. That will be the subject of next week’s column.

Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 11 books.