Migrant work plays vital role in feeding your family

Recently, the conversations in my classroom have eerily mirrored the current political situation happening in the real world. It is not hard to have this happen when you are reading John Steinbeck’s, “The Grapes of Wrath” and Helena Maria Viramontes’ “Under the Feet of Jesus.”

Steinbeck and Viramontes’ books examine agriculture from a vastly different perspective than many are familiar with — from the viewpoint of the migrant farm worker.

Migrant farm workers are not a new concept to American agriculture; they have been keeping agriculture afloat since practically the very beginning if one considers what Native Americans taught Europeans in order to keep the latter from starving to death.

This continued through forced slavery — especially in the South — and continues in a new form through modern day.

Today, economic hardship and opportunity create jobs for migrant farm workers, who run the “gamut of being U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, seasonal laborers on special guest worker visas or undocumented workers — most are affected by immigration status; it is estimated that at least 6 out of 10 of our country’s farm workers are undocumented” (Southern Poverty Law Center).

Before the walls are immediately thrown up, just like in my classroom, I ask you to consider this. Agricultural jobs are open and available to all Americans, no matter one’s ethnicity, race or even gender. Jobs picking individual pea pods, heads of lettuce or even tomatoes, not to mention strawberries, blueberries, peaches,apricots, etc., in grueling heat with few breaks, for pennies a day, seven days a week, is available for anyone who needs a job.

It just requires that one move or travel to a location with an available farm. There are places in southern Ohio that need available workers and I’ll be glad to provide information, but one must come ready to put in back-breaking work consistently and diligently because ripe fruit and vegetable harvesting must happen the moment the food is ready.

If fruit and vegetable harvesting are not one’s strong suit, then how about working in the meat industry, or agricultural shipping. There are always jobs available. However, the pay is low, the work is grueling and the conditions are rough.

Back to the subject at hand: There is a legal program for migrant workers to come to America. It is called H-2A. Yet just like most things with the government, it is highly flawed.

According to research, “the permits have never covered more than 10 percent of available fieldwork jobs in any given year. The fact that at least half of American field workers are undocumented immigrants reveals a massive gap between the nation’s need for low-wage workers and its sanctioned supply” ( Modern Farmer, 2017).

Here is the conundrum — without migrant workers we do not eat. It is literally as simple as this.

If there is some skepticism, allow me to present some rock solid facts.

≤ In 2016, the average income was $22,540 per year or $10.83 per hour.

≤ It is estimated that there are 3 million seasonal work jobs available and 2.5 million of those are filled by migrant workers.

≤ Migrant workers make up less than 1 percent of all wage and salary workers in the U.S.

“Eliminating immigrant labor would reduce the U.S. dairy herd by 2.1 million cows and would increase the retail price of milk by 90 percent,” reports a Texas A&M AgriLife Research study.

While I could continue on and on, I think that this situation boils down to one main idea. I like food; I like the current price of my food; I like walking into my grocery store to find good, cheap, healthy nutritious food; therefore, I like and appreciate migrant people and their labor.

I tip my hat to people who face perilous journeys to come to America to work in blistering fields for little pay with few government protections, picking food that I get to consume every day.

So whatever your feelings on the situation, I want you to think about this: Every vegetable, nut, fruit, piece of meat or legume that you consume was the result of a migrant worker’s back-breaking labor for piece rate under a hot California, Georgia or Ohio sun. Without them and their labor, we will face a serious food shortage; it is not a matter of if, but when.

I seriously urge you, just as I urge my students, to become informed before buying into the hyperbole and hype that surrounds the migrant worker community right now.

I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to dinner tonight and counting myself lucky that I did not have to pick it, kill it, package it or ship it. I simply had to buy it and cook it.

Clemson is a member of the Trumbull County Farm Bureau and completed her Ph.D. at the Pennsylvania State University. She and her family farm in Mecca.