Editorial: No Farm Workers, No Food

If you’ve spent enough time in any agricultural area throughout the United States, you’ve probably seen a bumper sticker that says “No Farms No Food.” This is an admirable sentiment that does much to remind us of how essential farms are to our survival.

But equally as essential are the people who work long hours picking crops, whose life stories are seldom told because they are often quite bleak. Laborers on farms have also long been excluded from labor laws that govern other industries.

New York State recently passed the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, which grants overtime pay to farm workers once they’ve worked more than 60 hours per week (workers must receive overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours per week in most other New York industries), along with the right to engage in collective bargaining and receive paid family leave and workman’s compensation. Farm workers who are not working on H2A seasonal foreign worker visas are also now entitled to unemployment benefits.

While it’s difficult to argue with a law that grants farm workers the same rights as everyone else who works in New York State, this law is likely to have dramatic implications for our region, which is dependent on agriculture and is already facing unprecedented labor shortages in every industry.

“In New York, there is a Jim Crow-era law still on our books that denies human beings— mostly black and Latino taxpaying New Yorkers— parity with nearly every other worker in this state,” said New York State Senator Jessica Ramos at the one Long Island public hearing on the bill in April of 2019.

But farm owner after farm owner from the East End quickly took to the podium to say they believe the law will make it impossible for local farmers to price their food competitively enough to sell it regionally, because neighboring states without such labor laws can undercut their prices, and would likely hasten the sale and dissolution of their farms. Many also said they had not taken salaries themselves in recent years while paying their employees more due to the increasing minimum wage.

This regulatory change is going to have real consequences for consumers of local food, perhaps most immediately in the cost we pay for produce, which is already quite high. It’s important for us as consumers to remember that, when we’re paying a premium for local produce, we’re paying for the dignity of the laborers who brought that food to our plates.

This is a hard sell as a marketing pitch, in part because the reputation of the agriculture industry here has long been tainted by the history of migrant labor camps that proliferated in the shadows here in the years following World War II, the subject of a harrowing new book of local history, “Long Island’s Migrant Labor Camps: Dust for Blood,” released earlier this year (see story).

The slogan “Buy Long Island Cauliflower to Support The Dignity of the Person Who Picked It” just doesn’t have a Madison Avenue ring to it.

How do we fix this? By remembering that it is the love of the soil, the love of growing and the love of sharing the bounty of the soil with our neighbors that keeps both farm owners and farm workers plying the soil long after it would seem prudent to quit.

Only one farm worker spoke at that public hearing back in 2019 (It is not unusual for immigrant laborers to hesitate to publicly share their concerns about their working conditions with the government.)

Juan Antonio Zungia told the state senators, through a translator, that he was retiring after working in the horticultural industry since 2006. He said he did not know how he would support himself, but he could no longer work at the pace he had, sometimes as many as 70 hours per week, from 6 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. He said he’d earned just $29,000 in 2018.

“These long hours are needed to tend to the agricultural needs that come up,” he said, without bitterness. “We collaborate with the bosses who are in charge of these companies. We have to continue to collaborate with them to make sure the work gets done.”

Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, who’s worked for more than two decades to help farm workers and farm owners resolve labor issues, agreed that there is a way forward.

“I think it’s possible to be able to look at this farm bill and have farm owners and farm workers come up with an intelligent way to make farming the great industry it is,” she said. “People are leaving the industry because they can do better outside of it, but within the farming industry is where they find their heart.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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