Labor and the Locavore: The making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic

review by Elizabeth Henderson

I hope that many organic farmers and our supporters will read this book, the result of ten years of study of the conditions for farmworkers and farmers in the Hudson Valley of New York. Gray gives us an honest picture of how farm labor relations look through a labor justice lens. As passionately as any NOFA member, Gray wants to reform our food system, but she wants to be sure that in our rush to be more humane to chickens and earthworms, we do not leave out the human beings who do so much of the work. It might help you to start with the final chapter, “Toward a Comprehensive Food Ethic,” her testimonial as an ardent locavore, so that you can read the rest of the book without nagging worries that she does not care if she puts farmers out of business.

Two questions drive Gray’s research: why don’t farmworkers make more of an effort to change the conditions of their work? And why have “leading participants” in the alternative food movement paid so little attention to farm labor? This book provides a lot of insight into what restrains farmworkers. Along the way, Gray shares fascinating details from the history of agriculture in the Hudson Valley, who the farmers have been, the strategies they have adopted to keep farming alive, and who they have hired to help them. She also reports on the history of farmworker advocacy efforts in NY and the shameful story of how Cornell shut down its Migrant Program (p. 137).

The second question is probably more rhetorical – Gray does not even try to probe the psyches of foodies to find out why they get more upset about injustices to baby pigs than to hard working humans. More important, she throws down a challenge to those of us who claim to be transforming food and agriculture – are we just creating “an alternative market mechanism”? or are we truly changing the basic “relations of production” in agriculture?

To find answers to the first question, Gray interviewed farmworkers, farmers, advocates, government employees, service providers and others, and attended dozens of meetings, protests, marches, and legislative hearings. Of the one hundred farmworkers she spoke with, 71% were undocumented migrants, 21% were H2A workers and only 8% were US citizens or held green cards. They worked on produce and fruit farms, most of them conventional and a few organic, with from 3 to 80 employees. Gray paints a realistic picture of the challenges that family-scale farms face both historically and in the present. While she does not hide that her deepest sympathies lie with the struggles of farmworkers for dignity and economic justice, her book is not a sensationalist expose of extreme examples of abuse. She presents the broader patterns of “meager wages, long hours of difficult manual work, lack of overtime pay, run down housing, lack of respect, and paternalistic management practices.” (p.4)

One of her most interesting observations is the way farmers (even farmers who treat their workers well) and Department of Labor officials have silently conspired to shift to as many undocumented Latino workers as possible because undocumented workers are easy to discipline and make “a tractable work force.” They quietly get the work done and do not complain since that might result in arrest and deportation. Their main point of comparison is not other US workers, but the situation back home. They sacrifice for their families and the improvements that remittances sent from the US can buy.

In describing relations between farmers and their workers, Gray uses the term “paternalism” – an important term to examine. In self-defense, as farmers we will probably say – well, she is describing employers who are trying to be decent, to provide better housing, use of a vehicle, internet, advances or loans – all truly generous. In the absence of legal protections or a contract, the good things that an employer does for an employee inevitably have a tinge of self-serving manipulation. The farmworker responds with loyalty and disciplined work – exactly what the farm needs. Deep down and unstated, the employee knows that if he/she complains, asks for too much, criticizes, the farmer can withhold those benefits. In our current legal framework, where almost all businesses are “at will,” there is an inherent imbalance of power between even the nicest employer and an employee.
In addressing her second question about the failure of local food advocates to pay attention to farmworkers, Gray argues that the locavore ethic espoused by Michael Pollan and countless imitators not only renders these abuses invisible, it actively enables them by lionizing independent farmers and romanticizing small-scale food production. As Gray puts it, “food advocates and their organizations display a tendency to conflate local, alternative, sustainable, and fair as a compendium of virtues against the factory farms that they so vigorously demonize.” Farm customers assume that local farms are “profitable,” that farmers earn middle-class livings and pay workers well. This is not the reality I have experienced.

In concluding her book, Gray admonishes locavores to offer meaningful support to farmworkers by becoming informed, asking their favorite farmers questions about their workers, demanding more reporting on farmworker conditions, and forming coalitions to work for policy change.

It is all too natural for us farmers to be defensive when a researcher looks with cold, clear eyes at our chosen and cherished way of life. But for farms like the ones I lived and worked on – under 100 acres and deeply organic – to become the basis for an ethical and just food system, we will have to take up Gray’s final charge to locavores “to build a food movement that incorporates workers” (p.148). As they have done for organic practices and humane animal treatment, shoppers can give market preference to farms where labor practices are as high in quality as the nutrient dense produce. For a model of those practices, see the standards and templates of the Agricultural Justice Project (www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org)