Friday, May 27, 2011

Struggling To Think Glass Half Full In Face Of Supreme Court Ruling

(This post originally appeared on Red Green and Blue on 5/27/11.  Links to all my posts on various sites)
I usually try to be an optimistic, "glass half full" kind of person, but yesterday when I read that the Supreme Court had upheld an Arizona law that allows fines and business license revocation for companies that knowingly hire "illegal aliens," it took some serious effort to come up with optimistic scenarios for the future of the fruit and vegetable industries in our nation.
United Fresh, a major produce industry organization, quickly posted a response saying that while farmers want to respect the law, they need a rational "guest worker" system if they are going to continue to supply us with healthy food.
Many logical people will adopt the "glass half empty" perspective. For the US to institute a rational, humane, and practical guest-worker system would require an unprecedented outbreak of reason and practicality in our political system.  Remember, this is a system which is currently dominated by hyper-partisans who fit two of the other personality types relative to the status of the "glass":  the liberal, "Is the glass half empty or half full, I can't be sure...?" camp or the conservative, "Hey! I ordered a cheeseburger" camp that was identified by cartoonist, Gary Larson (Far Side).
So I'm going to try to brainstorm some ways that we could continue to eat fruits and vegetables in the future in spite of the ramifications of this legal ruling.  They will appear below in declining order of desirability:

A Rational Guest Worker System

Seriously, civilized societies all around the world have "guest worker" systems that both protect the rights of the workers and the immigration sensitivities of the host nation.  We could do that, but extremists on both the "Right" (anti-immigrant...) and the "Left" (no permanent underclass...) make sure that there is never a reasonable discussion of this issue.

Professionalization of the Job of "Farm Worker"

There are huge inefficiencies in our farm labor system which uses an ad-hoc and "under the radar" approach to connecting workers and employers.  Farm workers should be highly trained in everything from pesticide safety to botany, transported in vehicles which provide their decent housing, efficiently deployed to the places where their efforts are needed through the season, and safely and cheaply transported back across borders for the off-season.  Who knows, this sort of system might actually attract some Americans to pursue this highly important and respectable career.

Even More "Protected Culture"

There is a whole range of technological intensity from completely controlled greenhouses to shade cloth or hoop houses that protect crops from the potentially devastating effects of weather. This approach both broadens the geographical options for growing crops (not limited to the desert West) and makes the limited labor options more viable by having such high productivity and pleasant working conditions that more people are willing to take the job.  A great proportion of our tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers already come from these super-efficient farms.  That segment could definitely expand.

The Euro-option

We could do more of what Northern Europeans and Scandinavians have done.  They have simply "outsourced" a tremendous amount of their food production to parts of the world with bigger labor pools, more sunshine, and sometimes irrigation resources.  The US and Canada have also done this to a great extent to Mexico, Central America, and, in the off-season to South America.  This works until birth rates fall sufficiently in those nations to make it irrational for them to feed us.


Gary Larson's epic cartoon on this topic didn't include the fifth "glass perspective" category of engineers who say, "The glass is over-engineered."  Crops that can be tended and harvested with mechanical and/or robotic equipment can be viable even in the face of our irrationality about guest workers.  That qualifies as "factory farming" which many people think they hate, but who is it that longs to spin thread as opposed to the machines that do it in what were first characterized as "England's Dark Satanic Mills?"  Some crops, like asparagus have frustrated the efforts of agricultural engineers to come up with mechanical harvest options.  Others like Romaine Lettuce or Almonds have been more cooperative and so they are likely to continue to be in your stores even after the impact of this court decision.

"Victory Gardening"

After returning from WWI my grandfather took up the challenge of a "Victory Garden" and supplied his neighbors and family with wonderful vegetables for 60 years.  Many of us could benefit from the exercise and the super-fresh food we could grow if we used our yards, balconies and roofs. There are many limitations to this approach, but it cannot be ignored.

You-Pick Local

Finally, everyone loves the idea of "local" food production, but if "illegal alien labor" is increasingly limited, it will only be a bigger issue outside of the West and East coast corridors of seasonal agriculture.  One option is to have consumers come out and do the picking (often the most expensive component of farming).  But this approach is not without issues.  Inexperienced "pickers" often damage the crop, and after the original excitement wears off, they may not like the effort or the expense.  Still, it can work for some systems.

So, we will probably continue to have access to good food, but almost certainly at higher cost.  Most of us could offset this by simply reducing the number of meals we eat out.

I still believe that the glass is half full, but that does not justify either complacency or continued hypocrisy.
Farmworker's child image from National Farm Worker Ministry


  1. Hi Steve,
    One aspect of this which is under reported, is the animosity of the legal migrant workers, and guest workers who suffer from the substandard wages paid by farms that hire illegal workers. The H-2A visa program is certainly cumbersome when compare to hiring illegals, cash payout and no reporting required vs. major paperwork, which is substantially more than what is required for legal resident workers. The illegal becomes quite attractive... My neighbors, who are legal farm workers do not like it at all... sometimes there is violence.

    As you have clearly stated, one of the problems is the health needs of the workers and the poor living standards as well as the lack of workers compensation insurance. The illegals tend to congregate in camps and colonies which have become health and crime hazards to the workers and the surrounding communities... In Washington State they have set up guest worker camps at some of the state parks insuring sanitation and protection form the semi organized crime that preys upon the workers...

    Illegals almost never go to the police for assistance due to the fear of the authorities... murder, rape, theft, abuse by the "coyotes" who run them through the border patrol gauntlet, and many other crimes go unreported... The United States should be a safe place to work for anyone, but the tradition of working under the radar is not a safe option any longer... The reality is that it is a human rights issue and all of us need to do our part to make sure people are protected...

    Certainly the guest worker program could be streamlined. But getting rid of a cumbersome, self perpetuating bureaucracy tends to be difficult to eliminate. Think I.R.S.

    John, Wenatchee, Wa.

  2. John,
    You are right to point out the conflict between legal and undocumented workers. There are no real winners in today's dysfunctional "system."


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