Homing in on the Harvest: Punjabi Farmers in the Orchard, at the Border, in the Streets
“Injustice was the way of the world; what mattered was what one could accomplish between its cracks and fissures.” Rishi Reddi, Passage West
Amid the myriad undercurrents of immigrant livelihood coursing through this land, are the journeys of Punjabi farmers, truckers and migrants across our country and approaching its borders.
Though circumstances vary, there is a larger movement afoot gathering these loose threads as they culminate in two cohesive narratives: it’s time to know our people and to hear our farmers. Therefore, there is considerable cause for Americans to tune into India’s farmer protests, ignited several months ago and peaking at over 250 million participants. For perspective, the U.S. population is around 330 million. The sheer size of this strike, the largest in history, is not the sole reason to perk up but is worth absorbing.
“This is the moment to pay attention to who Punjabis are, their migration journeys and the skills they bring with them,” insists Jaya Padmanabhan, San Francisco Examiner.
“Handing over the keys of agriculture to corporations touches a deep and painful nerve for the community.” Mallika Kaur, U.C. Berkeley
The commotion: Last fall, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rushed three farming bills out the door without regard for India’s smallholder farmers, who comprise the vast majority of the agricultural sector. Pitched as bolstering the economy, many fear the bills will prevent farmers from competing with larger companies that would earn unlimited stockholding power.
“Left to the mercy of private players,” farmers and non-farmers alike stand to bear dire financial, environmental and health burdens. This, explains Kaur, is why ordinary people from all sectors are “standing up to the government handing over yet another sector to large corporate control.”
The connection: To American farming communities, this echoes a familiar tune. During the Depression-era New Deal, our government protected farmers by setting price floors for crops; by the 1960s, these protections were rolled back as the Green Revolution took hold, releasing large farming complexes into the arena. These factory farms, credited with exploiting surrounding communities, were “the culprits behind mass dumping of dangerous pollutants” into the air and water streams of those regions.
Beyond wreaking environmental and health havoc, explains Rohan Arora of The Hill, “the monopolies within the American farm industry have promoted environmental and financial ruin for family farms” leading to the closure of nearly fifty small farms every day.
“In the summer of 2017, Tamil farmers protested while we were swooning over Despacito and Bahubali. The Kisan Long March in 2018 saw 35,000 Maharashtrian farmers swarm into Mumbai […] They were marching again in 2019.” Manu Kaushik, Outlook India
Likewise, we find no shortage of distractions pulling our focus from the strife of our own communities.
The closure of small farms goes hand in hand with that of thousands of rural schools and support services. Farm bills must now set aside multi-million dollar budgets for mental health, as Farm Aid and others establish suicide prevention hotlines.
Meanwhile, India’s farmer protests coincide with the devastating crises of farmer suicides, further exacerbated by the pandemic. Tallied at dozens each day, these actions are not only personal but harmonize with a collective outcry, a final signal sent out from each forsaken farm.
The corruption: Already under international scrutiny, Modi’s move to “shove [the bills] down the throats of the people” lands as a final straw, leading to a rare ruling in January by India’s supreme court to suspend the laws.
“Modi has been seen as untouchable. But a lot of people are watching this,” notes Naindeep Singh of the youth-driven Jakara Movement, “Will it be the farmers that break Modi’s authoritarian streak?”
“Punjab or California or anywhere, Punjabis will never quit farming. It’s in our DNA.” Karmdeep Singh Bains, a 4th-generation farmer. As our country grew, in its early years, so too did the number
of immigrants arriving with generations’ worth of agricultural knowledge. By the late 1800s, just before Alien Land Laws set in, Punjabi farmers were building new lives on American soil and establishing California’s first Sikh communities.
In Yuba City, CA, “Little Punjab”, Punjabi immigrants account for as much as 95% of peach farming and fill a gaping shortage of truck drivers nationwide. Central Valley communities, where Punjabi is the third- most spoken language, have raised funds for billboards to draw attention to the movement, while across the sea thousands of tractors do their part to block further roads to injustice. Celebrities have spoken out, big rigs have stolen the road, and Punjabi-Americans in several states have rallied in support. “Media corruption has led to the desperate cries of the farmers to be hidden from the mainstream narrative,” notes Arora from The Hill, “and thus, the onus to speak up falls on us as Americans.”
We can begin by tuning in to the struggles of our neighbors’ families abroad, just as Punjabi-American truckers tune in via radio during their long hauls trolleying our produce across the country.
“Homing in on the Harvest” is part of a series to take and share a closer look at what’s happening on the front lines of farming in the U.S. in hopes to bring everyone a little closer to the table and a little further into the field. The title and the series were sparked by stories and news that is missing from the mainstream, especially during Covid, and grew from taking deeper dives into the world of agriculture as an outsider: where our food is coming from, whose hands do the work, how lives are affected, what’s happening to the land, with cultures, how we got to where we are, where we’re headed as a country and society.
Bec Sloane is a visual media professional and educator, bridging awareness gaps between the agricultural sector and the general public through content creation and cross-sector collaboration. She can
be reached through her website at www.botheredearth.com.