There’s an old saying about seafood of which East Enders are particularly fond: “It’s not fish you’re eating. It’s men’s lives.”
This phrase has long proved a rallying cry to protect baymen and fishing grounds here, but it’s one we’ve never really thought to apply to agriculture.
This month, the New York State Legislature is mulling enacting sweeping changes to agricultural workers’ rights, an attempt at restorative justice for people who have labored for generations for long hours in the fields across our state.
Those of us whose lives are not directly involved in farming may not have any understanding of the hidden labor force that is working from before dawn until after dark to keep our vegetable stands, vineyards, nurseries and greenhouses running. Suffolk County has long been one of the most productive agricultural counties in the state, and much of that production is done by hand right here on the East End, by people who are so busy working that you might not have ever met or spoken to them.
The United States was built on the backs of slave labor and indentured labor and this history is baked so deeply into our culture that we don’t even conseptualize that our ideas about the price of food relate directly to the hidden cost of the backbreaking work done primarily by people of color here.
The only way to rectify this historic wrong is if we, as a society, agree that our food is worth more than we are currently willing to pay for it. There are other cultures throughout the world that support the dignity of farming as a profession, and people who live in those cultures are willing to spend more of their budget on food.
The New York State Senate’s consideration of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act is a sweeping attempt to right a very big wrong. It’s an idea that is on the right side of history. But it is also an idea that could prove economically disastrous if implemented in its current form, especially here in Suffolk County, which has some of the highest land costs and will soon have nearly the highest minimum wage in the country.
Members of the State Senate came to Smithtown in late April to hear from local labor leaders and farmers about what the bill would mean for them. They heard several hours of testimony about the high cost of farming here, and of the severe price pressures that already put Long Island farmers at a disadvantage against farms in neighboring states and Canada, which have lower minimum wages or advantagous prices due to international currency exchange rates.
They heard from just one farm worker, who is retiring, who spoke of working 70-plus hours per week and said he made just $29,000 last year. It’s not surprising that more workers didn’t show up for the hearing — it’s very uncommon for immigrant laborers to willingly speak up before the government, and the past two years of national anti-immigrant sentiment have not helped build the trust necessary to hear their perspectives.
Most local farmers who spoke said they treat their workers like family. They detailed the housing and medical care and benefits they offered their workers, and said they worked beside them in the fields. While their affection seemed genuine, it also struck a strange chord. We’ve heard this before in America. It’s an idea with roots in the original sin at this nation’s founding — slavery.
New York cannot take on such a massive injustice on its own.
Most farmers who spoke at the hearing said their primary objection to the bill was in paying farm workers overtime — time and a half — above 40 hours per week. Many of the farmers said labor was more than half of their cost of operation, and the nature of farming — long hours are essential when the weather cooperates — necessitates these long hours.
They also spoke passionately about the difficulties they are facing with increasingly unpredictable weather due to climate change — a pattern that is likely to increase their need for laborers to work long and irregular hours in the years to come.
Farms are essential to our community’s food security, and they are also essential to our nation’s security. We could argue that there will never be a perfect time to give our farm workers the dignity they deserve. There’s never any time better than the present.
But the truth is that New York can’t do this alone. If our farms can’t survive the changes proposed in this labor bill, the workers will need to go somewhere else. This is a national problem, and it requires a national solution. We may not get there in our current political climate, but we need to get there soon.
In the meantime, we urge our readers this summer to get to know their local farmers, and their local farm workers. Understand that when you bite into the first spring strawberry you are eating the product of human life and labor. We can’t get to a place of justice without remembering this every time we eat.