There’s a little-discussed issue that immigration reform is bringing to the fore – whether you view the person who picks your food as an “illegal” when they require emergency health care or a “guest worker” if you are a large scale fruit or vegetable producer or consumer in the grocery store. More and more, I’m aware of the disadvantages small, family-scale farms run against. I often hear “Why can’t a small farm grow things cheaper than I can get in the grocery store?” The answer is they (we) can’t, because our tax dollars are subsidizing the larger producers directly and indirectly by caring for the “illegals” or “guest workers.” To start out, just a few examples of the direct subsidies that encourage “illegals” or “guest workers.”
Taxpayer-Funded Migrant Worker Housing
Many state and federal programs are set up to pay for housing for migrant workers. Jessie Lane, Washington Growers League says “It just didn’t make a lot of sense for growers to spend the money to build housing that was just going to sit there for 11 months of the year empty.” Gee, it doesn’t make sense for me to buy a hay baler that sits idle 360 days a year, or a tiller that sits unused 360 days a year. Do you think I can get the government to pay for it, like farm labor housing is being paid for by our tax dollars while the profits stay with the private companies who use the housing?
Here are just a few programs I’ve run across the last few months in the Vegetable Growers News magazine.
In New York, loan programs are available to help growers pay for housing that provides growers with 10 years of interest-free financing.
In Michigan – fruit growers have USDA duplexes, which are funded by a loan from USDA’s Rural Development program.
There are more than 100,000 agricultural workers in Washington, about one-third of whom are migrant workers, according to the Washington State Employment Security Department. In 1999, recognizing the need for more farm worker housing, Washington dedicated $8 million to creating new housing every two years. In 2007, the state increased this amount to $14 million every two years and added a $4 million infrastructure loan program for growers who wanted to build on-farm housing.
In California, President of the Nisei Farmer’s League says “We’ve recommended to many of our growers: Don’t put housing on your farms,” Cunha said. “You’re asking for trouble.” Cunha envisions a scenario that might solve the state’s migrant housing problems: Let cities take over the construction and management of migrant housing.
Reliance on Migrant Workers
Of course, this is all due to the heavy reliance large growers have on “illegals” or “guest workers.” The US Homeland Security Secretary said “Efforts to secure the border will fail unless the magnet that attracts illegals is turned off,” the fact sheet said. “Unfortunately, the fines for relying on illegal workers are so modest that some companies treat them as little more than a cost of doing business. No sector of the American economy requires a legal flow of foreign workers more than agriculture.”
The treatment of these workers can be gleaned from this common-sense advice to growers from Vera Bitsch, an agricultural economics professor at Michigan State University. “Simple things like readily accessible drinking water can make a huge difference in worker productivity and morale.” Really, someone has to say this?
There’s a reason that no one wants to touch this issue politically. Depending on where you sit, the same person is an “illegal” or “guest worker.” So when politicians rally about closing down the border and stopping the flow of illegals as part of campaign rhetoric, then cash the checks from their big agricultural friends, it’s not surprising that little reform of any kind happens.
I would like to point out that I certainly can sympathize with those that want to make a better life for themselves. It points out that there are powerful interests at work that are not being truthful. In the end, it’s all about how important we think food is to us (if you remember Maslow’s Pyramid of needs – shelter and food were at the top of the list, but while shelter is at the top of how we spend our money, food is not.) The following tables highlight the differences from 1901 to 2003.
In 1901, shelter accounted for 32.8% of income, in 2002 shelter accounted for 23.3 % of income.
Food, meanwhile required 42.5% in 1901 and only 13.1% in 2003, with approximately 35% of that spent at restaurants. I argue that we should pay the real cost of food at the store, and not in our income taxes. If the real price of food was reflected in the grocery store price, more smaller farmers could compete, increasing rural vitality, and more people would find it worthwhile to grow their own, and be able to take more of their own needs, making them more resilient to economic downturns.
one year ago…”Thingamajig Thursday #184″