Do you think Mexicans are taking jobs away from American workers? In 2010, the United Farm Workers (UFW) set up an employment website where jobs in agriculture were offered to U.S. citizens and other legal residents throughout the country. About 4 million people visited the website, of whom 12,000 went on to fill out applications for agricultural employment. How many of those 12,000 showed up for work? Take a guess. And while you’re thinking about it, I’ll tell you where I ran across the story and a little more of what’s in it.
“In the Valley of Fear,” by Michael Greenberg, appeared in the December 20, 2018, issue of the New York Review of Books. Greenberg notes that working to harvest fruits and vegetables is a “one-generation job.” Workers want something better for their children.
This means that a constant supply of impoverished Mexican immigrants willing to do the work is required. But [now] those immigrants aren’t coming.
They are afraid to come, and the labor shortage, especially in California, is critical.
Greenberg gives background on farm worker demographics, beginning in the 1950s. In that decade, as reported to Greenberg by the son of Cesar Chavez, 12-14% of field hands came from Oklahoma and Arkansas, 8-10% were African-Americans from the cotton fields, 12% were Filipino, and 55% were Mexican, half of the last group first-generation Mexican-American, half Mexican nationals.
Who are the farm workers in California today? According to Greenberg — and the statistics may be in part confirmed for him by Chavez — at least 80% are undocumented Mexicans. And most of those are from indigenous populations and “speak no or very little Spanish, much less English.” These are the workers the farmers need, the workers now terrified to come for jobs, jobs that Americans refuse to do, even when hourly wages offered in one vineyard went as high as $20/hour.
So are you ready now to guess how many legal residents and citizens of the United States showed up for agricultural jobs across the United States after 4 million visited the website and 12,000 applied for jobs? Twelve. That’s right, 12 people showed up for work — and “Not one of them lasted longer than a day.”
How many of my friends have done farm labor? I picked apples one fall in Leelanau County, Michigan. I lasted a month, part-time (4 hours a day), in sun and rain and cold, before my hands felt as if they might become permanently crippled, and regretfully I gave notice. How about you? Your children? Your nieces and nephews, your grandchildren? Do they look for farm work in the summer to pay down their student loans or buy books for the next semester? “Potato vacation” is a thing of the past, and not even farmers’ kids want to pick asparagus any more. Will the United States become one big “city,” importing food from other parts of the world where people are willing to grow and harvest it? Is that what we want?
Note: All my images today come from Leelanau County, Michigan, not from California, and most are from the summer farm market in Northport, where food comes directly from growers to purchasers.