To be quite honest, I don’t know Walmart’s corporate stance on immigration. Heck, they may not even have one. That’s pretty irrelevant. As with people, I judge companies by their actions, not their words or mission statements.
And Walmart is the single largest purchaser of Driscoll’s Strawberries in the world. Who picks these strawberries? Illegal immigrants for the most part.
This is not to bad-mouth Walmart…or Driscoll’s for that matter. We all need to eat. And a recent trip to “the salad bowl of the world”—Monterey County, California—gave me yet another lesson (most likely not needed) in why politicians are stupid…and why some of their constituents are, too.
Before I begin this rant on the ignorance of people and politicians (yes, I consider the latter separate entities), let me make a disclaimer: I am a contributing editor with The Progressive Farmer. That’s a big part of the reason why I came to California in the first place to look at food production. But my work with this highly respected agricultural journal for the past 10 years has been focused on objective reporting. My rant here is completely separate from my contract work with any magazine, though I’m happy to rant for money on this issue if anyone wants to hire me….
I digress, however. Because some things wind me up to the degree that I will actually forego any type of remuneration in order to write about them. The issue of illegal immigration and American agricultural production is one of them.
Do you want to know where your food comes from? And no, I’m not talking about the level of ignorance where people think it magically appears in the grocery store. That’s a whole other issue. I’m talking about where it’s grown. Guess what? 80 percent of the produce we find on American supermarket shelves (and yes, that includes Whole Foods, my Birkenstock-wearing friends), is produced in Monterey County, California…where 70 to 80 percent of the agricultural workforce is made up of illegal immigrants.
It doesn’t matter if the produce is from a corporate farmer like Dole or Driscoll or a smaller family farm operation like that of fourth-generation organic producer Chris Bunn, owner of The Farm, who is quick to say, “The government is the biggest obstacle to farming today.”
This isn’t news to anyone in the agriculture industry, but it may be news to a lot of American consumers who believe illegal immigrants are stealing American jobs. Bunn wasn’t referring exclusively to federal and state governments’ stances on immigration (and it may be hard to believe, but if you’re an illegal, you’re a heck of a lot safer in regulation-heavy California than Arizona).
He was also referring to the too often ridiculous legislation that keeps growers from making the money they need to make to stay in business. (And let me tell you, when the county says you have to plow under 15 acres of your strawberries because a domestic dog or a raccoon walked through your field and may have pooped there, something is seriously wrong with how we approach agriculture in this country.)
Bunn’s biggest concern, like that of his other farmer neighbors, however, isn’t even the absurdity of local and state regulations that make California the absolute worst state in which to do business…or farm. It’s labor.
Bunn told me 70 percent of the farm laborers in Monterey County are illegals. When I asked another Salinas Valley farmer, Steve Church of Church Brothers Produce, if Bunn’s statement was true, he replied. “No, it’s 80.”
Don’t go assuming these farmers are “bad guys” hiring illegals and stealing jobs from Americans. Far from it. Every one of them is complaining about labor shortages, and strawberry farmer Ken Lewis says even when he’s placed advertising on the side of the road offering employment with benefits, “I’ve never had a single Caucasian walk into my office and ask for a job.”
So California agriculture has become kind of like the military: don’t ask; don’t tell.
Plenty of producers would like to hire legal immigrants, but most say the government’s H2A program has become so cumbersome and expensive, they can’t afford to use it anymore. Instead, they hire Hispanic workers who come to them with documentation, probably plenty of it fake, and employers fill out I-9s for them. Under California law (A.B. 263), producers can’t question the validity of workers’ documentation unless it is blatantly obvious it is forged.
At the same time, however, they can be fined up to $1,500 per person in Monterey County if they knowingly hire an illegal.
When Lewis once asked his foreman how many illegals he thought were on the payroll, the foreman replied, “Do you really want to know?” To which Lewis decided to answer, “no.”
And that’s because these farmers know that they’d have no one to plant, harvest, or package their crops were it not for illegals. For a variety of complex reasons related to everything from the back-breaking nature of the labor to unemployment benefits that make sitting at home a heck of a lot more attractive than working in the fields, there is no one else to do this work.
Illegal immigrants are keeping food on all of our tables.
And don’t presume this is some kind of John Steinbeck scenario where well-to-do landowners exploit the foreign masses (though one producer did remark, rather tongue-in-cheek, that “Hispanics are America’s new Negro”). Illegals are making decent money here, most of them receiving pay well above minimum wage. A fast picker can earn up to $22/hour in the fields if he’s working berries, for example. Many types of produce allow pickers to get a “piece rate” in addition to their hourly wage so they have an incentive to work harder.
Lewis says he doesn’t understand why the government wants to keep Hispanic immigrants out. He says most of them are hard workers who want to improve the lives of their families. As an incentive to do so, Lewis will pay for any of his employees to take English classes while they work for him. “Not knowing English is the critical barrier to advancing in employment,” he says. He would like to see a program that allows immigrants to work legally in the U.S. and be eligible to apply for citizenship so long as they can go for a period without any felonies on their records.
It seems a simple enough solution.
Why do politicians make it so hard?
I wish I had the answer. Plenty of us who enjoy the benefits of American citizenship today do so because our ancestors came here, poor yet hopeful, wanting to improve their own lives and those of succeeding generations. My great- and great-great grandfathers were cotters in Norway—nothing but tenants farming fields they would never own. They came to America with the hope they could, through hard work, become landowners themselves. And they did, and each succeeding generation got along a little better than the one before. Today the descendants of those foreign tenant farmers are dentists and doctors. This is the American dream, is it not?
Apparently, only for those who already have it, many of whom are the same people decrying illegal immigration or fussing that the very people who supply the food on their dinner plates are trying to destroy the very environment they depend on for their livelihood.
If you want to keep eating, you might want to consider a little harder where your food comes from and what’s involved in bringing it to your dinner table.