Farmers: did you not believe Trump? (fears of labor shortages with no supply of illegals)…

February 11, 2017

I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry or be understanding or outraged when I read that farmers in California and elsewhere I guess, especially in the west, supported Donald Trump in big numbers but now they are chagrined to find out that he really meant what he said about clamping down on immigration.

You see, the story I read said they depend upon something like 70 to 80 percent of their field help who are illegals, or undocumented workers, most of these from Mexico.

This has been an open secret for ever since I can remember. Well actually when I was younger there was the Bracero program, originally began I think in WWII when there was a shortage of help due to so many men being in the military. Men came up from Mexico without their families. And the program continued on through the 1960s but at some point was discontinued. And I’ve recited this tale before but I recall picking prunes with my mom — and we did it not because we depended upon it but for extra money — and seeing poor white people working, who did depend upon it. But I think the white people participation petered out in the late 60s with the enactment of various social programs pushed through by President Lyndon Johnson in what he called his Great Society Program.

But farm workers were still needed, and to fill that demand people came up from Mexico, some had green cards that permitted them to work and some not. I do not know the process of obtaining a green card.

So if you are ever around the big farming operations in the west you will see that a majority of the help is Hispanic. Men and women do all kinds of work, everything from crawling through fields of strawberries to driving tractors with computerized controls, to working in the processing plants to loading trucks to working at the computers where it all is coordinated.

I haul produce for a living and have noticed that many produce outfits are run by Hispanic people. Many have had great success.

These are hardworking and often quite skilled people — really all the work requires skill and stamina.

But let’s get to the fact so many are here illegally. Why is this? If we know we need the labor why do we play this game?

Some would answer cynically that it allows big agriculture an upper hand in controlling labor. When you’re illegal you are not as likely to complain.

I don’t know what people think. I can only guess or surmise. But I think if nothing else it has just become an accepted pattern.

I don’t want to speak for farm workers because I don’t have to live their lives. But as a kid I saw some of the wretched conditions in the old farm labor camps — the ones I saw were for unaccompanied men, but they were crude and they were a shame.

I think big agriculture should take the responsibility and push for legalization of imported help. And if it does not, it deserves what it will get.

Yes, we the consumers are told we’ll pay via higher prices at the grocery store and maybe even by not seeing all the products we once saw.

So be it. We expect good pay and we expect tolerable living conditions for ourselves. We should expect no less for those who toil in the fields.

I have also written before that in some cases where labor shortages are acute, more mechanization will be added. Some things resist mechanization — but as we all see, in the end nothing does these days.


LBJ’s Great Society was pushed through after documentaries showing the poverty among white people in Appalachia. But that was back in the 1960s. Poverty persists. Ironically, it is reported that many of these people voted for the billionaire Trump. I don’t know, you can only do so much through government action, whether it is social programs or incentives for business. Some problems have more to do with culture. In the end it seems to be up to the individual. But yes, if good employment can be returned, that would seem a positive — and I don’t think everyone can be or needs to be a computer programmer or wind farm designer. Hillary Clinton made a misstep when she promised to put coal miners out of business. Her words may have been taken out of context, but to make that mistake in coal country shows a lack of judgment. And I hate to pile it on her — sorry.





Our food in plentiful, but could this be without massive govenment subsidies?

November 27, 2013

As you sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner, you can be thankful that food is so plentiful in this nation and although it might not seem so, I think I’m safe in saying that it is relatively cheap, relatively I say, as compared to what it might be in many other parts of the world. And I imagine that is because of two main factors: one, our nation (the United States of America) has a vast amount of farm land and a variety of climate zones, compatible with a wide variety of crops. We are totally self-sufficient in food production, even though the global market reality is that we also import a lot (but we would not have to in order to survive). Factor two: we have a complicated federal agricultural subsidy system that supports our agricultural production to the tune of billions of dollars of taxpayer money each year.

I write this after reading a story in about the current farm bill being worked out in congress, the last one being passed in 2008. Despite having some background (limited to be sure) in agriculture myself, I barely understood anything in the story. I think it was too much inside baseball (or should I say inside farm lobby speak).

Probably few people, outside of the agricultural lobby and besides big farming interests (both corporate and large family farms) understand farm bill-speak either.

One of the biggest hypocrisies I have seen in my lifetime is the fact that farming interests for the most part take the conservative Republican line and decry federal subsidies and social programs to help the poor and what they call the “nanny state”, but don’t seem to consider their own subsidies in the same vein.

But, all that aside, I have often wondered whether the government should even be involved in the farming and ranching business. Why can’t it all just work under the vaunted free market system?

Of course, right off the bat, I can see some reasons why not. Farming requires a lot of investment in land and equipment and knowledge. And usually you are into some kind of specialization and your inputs are not necessarily interchangeable at a whim. If you are big into row crops, you can’t just plant an orchard and harvest it next year. If you are a rangeland cattle operation, you’re not going to turn to planting corn next year. If you run a dairy and the price of milk drops, you can’t just change over to beef cows at a whim (although you can sell your cows for hamburger). And in some cases, federal subsidies underwrite crops that without them would not even be practical for an area. An example is that some distance south of where I live now, vast acerages of rice are grown. Much of that rice is shipped overseas, ironically to areas that at one time may have been self-sufficient in rice growing. Rice growing in the area I am speaking of would not be economical if it were not for federally-subsidized water and rice subsidies from the government. And I am not suggesting this is a bad thing (not sure).

Along the same lines, prices for agricultural commodities on the open market vary from year to year, heck from day-to-day. Deciding what to grow and harvest in order to make a profit is always a gamble. So in order to take some of that risk off the shoulders of producers and thereby in the process stabilize our food (and fiber, such as cotton) supply, we have the subsidy programs.

Now as hard as it might seem to believe in the area where I live, all farmers are not conservative Republicans, but the political line we generally hear from farming interests is conservative get the government and its taxes off our back. So I just wonder if we ought not call their bluff and do so. Get rid of all government price supports and other types of agricultural subsidies.

It’s probably not possible; our whole system depends upon some type of government involvement.

There is this movement toward local and organic farming — kind of like bring your home-grown garden produce to market. I like that. But I doubt we could feed everyone with it.

And one more thing. It is interesting that within the farm legislation (the farm bill) is the food stamp program (there is a move now to cut that back). In my first newspaper job I covered farm news. I was still new to things and had been hearing the Farm Bureau (a kind of non-profit/for-profit business that pretends to be a group of farmers) oppose all types of welfare programs, which food stamps are generally aligned with, and then I attended a meeting of the California Cattlemen’s Association and was surprised to hear its staff of experts tell of that organization’s support of the food stamp program. But then, you have to realize, why not? People using food stamps buy food, produced by farmers and ranchers, some of whom are the same people who oppose welfare programs (as in you ought to work for me for substandard wages).

Agricultural people reading this might take all of this as negative towards them. I don’t mean to be. I have always had an affinity towards people close to the land. My ancestors, and even my own father at one time, were farmers and ranchers, and I have worked a little on farms, and was in the Future of America in High School, and now have spent more than a decade and a half hauling produce in a big truck.

I was just wondering.

Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy the bounty!


One of my late uncles farmed for many decades in the San Joaquin Valley of California. He owned 60 acres, not a big spread. He began as a dairy farmer but later went to work for the county and changed over to raising sheep, part hobby, part supplemental income I suppose. I recall him lamenting that the local county farm advisors (a state program, for the most part) were not interested in working with him because his operation was too small. The government agricultural establishment prefers big time I think. My point is that there are a lot of small farmers across the nation who do not partake of government programs, both because they may not be eligible and because the big-time establishment is not interested.

The corn for enthanol problem and millions in subsidies for millionaires…

November 13, 2013

Apparently the federal government is still doling out millions of dollars to millionaires via agricultural subsidies, some of whom aren’t even gentleman farmers — have nothing to do with farming, other than to collect their subsidy checks — and just as bad or maybe even worse is a misguided effort to burn cleaner fuel and help corn farmers at the same time. It is causing an environmental crisis and has increased food prices. The latter has to do with the corn-based ethanol mandate for our gasoline.

I’m talking about two different but somewhat related things here.

The subsidy scandal has been around for a long time. I mean at least once a year the story is done. But the lobby that supports the subsidies is strong and misrepresents itself as supporting Ma and Pa down on the farm, lest they lose the farm to the uncertainties of crop prices and weather and the high cost of chemical based, manufactured fertilizer (and gee in the old days it just came out of the end of a cow, as a byproduct, you might say), oh, and the evil banker foreclosing on the unpaid mortgage. But much of the subsidies go to extremely large farming operations and even business operations of individuals who have nothing to do with farming, other than they have investments involving land and other than they have somehow finagled their way into the subsidy bonanza.

And whether some of these subsidy payments may be collected illegally is apparently in question and there does not seem to be a lot of oversight by the government agencies involved. In fact, I just read that rules are being changed in the name of more transparency but in reality some of the subsidies are going to be moved to different programs that do not provide transparency. I know. That does not make sense. I don’t claim to be an expert in all of this. Like Will Rogers, all I know is what I read in the papers, well on the computer. But there is a bad smell from the farm programs and it is not cow manure.

And I’ll just add, something I have mentioned previously, my own congressman comes from a family who has a large farming operation, of which he is part, and it has collected millions of dollars over the years in subsidies. He is a conservative, anti-tax, get the government-out-of-my-business conservative Tea Party Republican. He sees no conflict. I imagine he considers it just good business.

The ethanol mandate was supported heavily by presidential candidate Barack Obama and continues to be supported by President Obama. He needed to woo Midwest corn farmers, particularly the Iowa farmers to influence the Iowa caucuses. Supposedly, replacing part of the gasoline mix with the additive of ethanol makes the fuel burn cleaner. Whether that is true or not, the resulting demand for corn has resulted in more pollution and environmental damage and has caused food prices to skyrocket because corn that would have gone either directly for human food or to humans via livestock feed is being siphoned off into ethanol production, the process of which causes pollution. And what has been noticed now is that farmers have put so many acres into corn, to include virgin ground, that it is becoming an environmental disaster, to include heavy erosion. And such heavy fertilizer use contaminates ground water and water ways and large bodies of water, such as the Gulf of Mexico. Lands that had been put into conservation programs, that carried a government incentive, are now being put into corn because the price of corn has jumped.

Now as to farm subsidies, there may be an argument for them having to do with supporting family farms and maintaining a stable food supply. But they seem to be maintaining rich people and maybe there is a less costly and more efficient method of maintaining food supplies. And stepped up oversight is certainly in order. And if your income is in the millions (or billions), really it is hard to argue that you need help from the government. And if it is only in the millions because of the government, well the government should not be in the farming business and you should not be either.

As for the ethanol thing, well for one thing, as I understand it, it does not improve gas mileage and in fact reduces it. And I have already mentioned the environmental harm and the effect it has on food prices.

I am not at all against our agricultural sector. Much of my life I have worked in connection with it. A lot of family farmers run major operations that look more like corporate endeavors than that iconic picture of Ma and Pa down on the farm somewhere in Iowa, but the farmers I have come into contact with are hard working and multi-talented, being part businessman, farmer, mechanic, construction worker and so on. I don’t begrudge their success. And I suppose if the government is offering a subsidy it in most cases it is simply good business to take advantage. But on the other hand, we all have to realize that it makes no sense and is not fair to the rest of us for our government to subsidize people who can do quite well on their own. And I really have no good feeling about subsidizing corporate farming operations. Businessmen want independence and they should get it.

I’ve provided links to two stories that deal with the subjects I covered:


I forgot to mention that energy independence was used as a selling point for corn-based ethanol production. But as I understand it, what with natural gas and new oil extracting methods we are now energy independent. I mean Hitler did turn to making fuel for his tanks from distilling the alcohol out of potatoes — but that meant everyone had fewer potatoes to eat.

Rich Republicans decry the government dole, except when it comes their way…

February 19, 2012

Those Republicans who are so adamant and vociferous about getting government out of our lives and not being dependent upon it and for goodness sake keeping its hands off business in the best laissez-faire tradition are often quite the hypocrites, don’t ya know?

My California State Assemblyman, Republican Doug LaMalfa, belongs to a rice-growing family. That family received $4.7 million in federal subsidies over the past 15 years in connection with their farming, I read in my local Record-Searchlight newspaper online site . So let me get this straight Mr. LaMalfa, it’s okay for the government to fork over money to rich farmers but not to help poor people. Of course, as all of those rich people on the government dole would argue, they deserve it for their efforts are and it helps the economy.

Well there is something to the it-helps-the-economy argument. The rice-growing industry in Northern California creates a lot of jobs, to include those who work for farmers and those who supply and provide various services to the farmers and all the related businesses that go with it, to include all the retail outlets that benefit from the turn over of dollars in the local communities.

In fact, I hauled at least one load of rice in the early days of my trucking career. Another driver and I team drove a semi loaded with bagged rice from Richvale, where the LaMalfa headquarters are (maybe it was theirs), and went across the United States, some 3,000 miles, to Connecticut with it. So there you have it. I gained from the federally-subsidized rice business.

But that is just it. The Republicans are complaining about the Obama stimulus program, weak that it has been overall, and are saying free enterprise needs to get government out of its way and stand on its own. And Mr. LaMalfa is as hard-right Republican as you can get.

He’s running for the U.S. Congress now. Cut aid to poor families, but save it for his family, he’ll probably argue.

(Right now, LaMalfa is actually facing political attack over his family’s windfall from the feds from his Republican opponents. His Democratic contender indicates he is just holding back until maybe LaMalfa starts railing against federal stimulus or something.)

Government subsidized farming is a mixed bag (of rice — just could not resist that). It does provide stability in an economic activity that is highly volatile when it comes to prices. And it is hard to switch from one kind of production to another when so much of the equipment one must use is specialized. And it is probably hard to get crop loans when the lenders cannot be sure that there is some protection against wide price swings and natural disaster.

But how can the likes of LaMalfa and other Republicans argue against economic stimulus when they get so much themselves?

The story I referred to can be seen via this link:

The U.S. domestic rice-growing industry, at least in Northern California, also depends upon federally-subsidized water; it is a water intensive crop. Some argue that other crops could be grown and the water put to better use. There are other regions on the planet more suited to growing rice with natural conditions.

If you want government out of your business Republicans, or anyone else, you cannot at the same time have your hand out for it largesse (that’s just the way it works).


Today I haul a lot of agricultural products, so indirectly I likely benefit from federal farm programs, that include direct payments, as well as insurance, and various services. There no doubt is a major benefit to government involvement in agriculture, to include stability in the food supply and economic system. But I think rich farmers and corporate farmers utilize the image of poor farmers, of which there were many in the past, and still are, to get support for farm subsidy payments. It seems that the majority of help from the federal government goes to those who need it the least. One of my late uncles was a small farmer, 60 acres, and he used to complain that the farm advisors with the state University system were far more eager to work with the big farmers than him.

Traditional agricultural pursuits are not always welcome out in the country…

November 1, 2011

A story in the Washington Post about a couple who ran afoul of their neighborhood association for running a winery in a horsy set rural area in Virginia reminded me of what my dad and I ran into when I tried to go into the hog business after my mom and dad had rented a house on an acreage out in the country.

But let’s back up a little:

Back in the earlier 20th Century, maybe especially before 1930, a large part of the population of the United States lived out on the farms in what some, like by dad, reminisced about as a bucolic paradise — whether it always was or not is another story.

But anyway, back in the day it was not uncommon for country folk to be rather self-sufficient and no matter what their cash crop might be they probably had chickens running around the barnyard and probably had a pen or so of pigs.

Now livestock tend to put off an odor, especially pigs, that is not always pleasant to human beings. But farms tended to be well separated from each other and people with any sense would put the livestock downwind from the main house most likely. Besides not everyone agrees on what is a good or bad odor.

But the country was the country and you could pretty well do what you pleased.

With that in mind, when I was a freshman in high school we had just rented a house some eight miles south of town, a rural farm town at that, and I was interested in going into farming and had signed up for agricultural classes at the high school and had joined the Future Farmers of America chapter at the school.

I was fortunate enough to get what was called a Sears Project pig, and it was free (and you know? No one ever explained what Sears had to do with it or why. But the long and the short of it was that I got a female pig absolutely free. The only stipulation being that I would give back a female from the pig’s first litter). It was pretty exciting. I was getting into the hog business for nothing.

My dad, an old farm boy, was pretty hyped about the whole thing too. In fact, I confess, he probably did as much or, let’s be honest, more work than I did. Out of some scrap lumber and odd pieces of wood he constructed a pig pen. But he did not make the sides high enough and that little sucker jumped right out and ran down along the creek and through the orchard and we were afraid we would never see it again. But we did catch it and made the sides higher.

We did not live in pig country — this was not the corn fields of Illinois or even Iowa or Kansas and Toto too. This was walnut orchard country in northern California‘s Sacramento Valley, relatively flat land with hundreds of acres of walnuts — we lived on an eight-acre plot that had been subdivided from a larger one — planted in straight rows so you could not really see the countryside — you could not see the forest for the trees, so to speak. We did, however, live on the beautiful Sacramento River and could see it, plus a creek that flowed into it. The pig pen was just up from the creek and well back of the house — I don‘t recall any pig odors coming down to the house — but who knows? Maybe they did.

We also raised a vegetable garden. I was quite active in that.

Like I say, my folks just rented the place. The rent was relatively cheap, even for those days (the mid 1960s — would you believe $75 per month?).

I think dad, who worked as the editor of the local newspaper, loved coming home and reliving his days as a farm boy.

What I have not mentioned yet is that to get to our house you had to use what was essentially the driveway of these two rich retired folks from the Bay Area. They were business people. Not farmers. But they loved their rural paradise on the river and had a nice house with giant picture windows.

They were friendly enough. But occasionally they would run out and yell at visitors to our house to slow down through their driveway. It was unfortunate that our house did not have a separate driveway — they did not own our house. It was two separate properties.

The old retired city folks never said anything bad when they saw I had a pig out back. They thought it was like one of those 4-H market hog projects where you fatten up a pig and sell it at a junior livestock auction and that is it — no more pig.

I think they were happy, though, when they saw my grown pig — now a mature sow — leave in the back of a pickup truck. What they did not realize, though, was that she was off to visit the boar (male sire) at the high school farm. Once that was done, they were shocked to see her return.

Dad, and I, were getting excited about the expanding hog business — soon there would be a litter. We’d need more room for them all to forage. Dad and I, but I want to stress dad, for he seemed to do the bulk of the work, cut small trees down by the creek and made fence posts and began to construct the perimeter of a large, natural pig pasture that would run down by the creek (I don’t think the EPA was in existence yet).

That’s when we got a visit from the old retired city guy. He threatened to sue if we went whole hog, so to speak, into the pig business.

And that is when I learned that just because you live in the country does not mean you can be in the pig business. Actually our landlord said it was okay with him, but my dad did not want to spoil good relations with the neighbors, so we moved the pig operations elsewhere.

Strangely, we noticed our neighbors never had any qualms about the tons of poison spray the local orchardists applied and we all had to breathe. They were of the moneyed class and respected what one must do to make the big money — and walnuts are a high-value crop.

Ironically, we were not the first to raise pigs in a walnut orchard. A well-known orchardist in our general area had raised them for years and fed them on cull walnuts. And in fact, after we moved the operation I did that too. It’s fun to watch those hogs eat walnuts. They break open the shells with their teeth and get the meats inside.

But what I get out of this is that out in the country means different things to different people and if you want to do what you want to do on your own or your own rented land, it is always nice to have a rather large buffer between yourself and the neighbors and of course zoning and property covenants and such play an important role.

The story that made me remember all of this was:

If the supply of illegal farm labor dries up, go to Plan B…

June 20, 2011

Well here we go again: farmers worried their source of cheap harvest labor might be drying up due to what is said to be the toughest state immigration law yet in Georgia, due to go into effect in July.

It seems that berry farmers there are having a hard time finding enough pickers and they think the reason may be that the new immigration law is scaring off some would-be Mexican or Latino workers, who may not be in the U.S. legally.

I’m getting this from a story to which I will provide a link in a second here. But first some observations:

It is difficult to impossible to get legal domestic labor (and read that white people — and no racism intended here, truly) for harvest work because the pay is relatively low, it is hard work that many are not used to or acclimated to (although they could get that way with  a little effort), it is only temporary and not a career (generally), and existing social welfare programs provide a disincentive to do this kind of work — although, paradoxically, existing social programs and laws subsidize the work to some extent too for those who do it, to include illegal aliens (they get medical treatment and education for themselves and  their children through tax dollars).

As I have often noted before, there was a time when non-Hispanics and people other than black people (often referred to as “white people” — again I am only describing, not trying to be racist) did back-breaking and low paying manual labor field work (and a few still do). But I think the Great Society programs of the 60s largely spelled an end to that.

I could go on and on about this subject, but I would rather not, really.

As long as there is a supply of relatively cheap labor, you cannot blame farmers, really, for using it. It makes good business sense. But if that source of labor was to dry up I don’t think the world would end. The farmers would go to Plan B.

In fact, in the afore-mentioned story, to which I still am going to provide a link, it notes that one type of berries can be picked mechanically, but some (much) of the product is lost in the process.

But that is the way things go. Where manual labor has become too expensive or impractical or impossible to find, mechanization tends to take over and it will continue to do that.

For those things that just cannot be done mechanically then hand labor will be found — if the price is right. Labor does and should have value.

The threat from the agriculture community, its form of blackmail, is that if they have to pay more, things will cost more for the consumer. Well, what else is new? Anyway, we can survive without blackberries or we can go to one of those pick-it-yourself fruit stands or we can go to a farmers market where a small-time grower has harvested it him- (or her) self — and this goes for almost all food commodities.

(I should note too that in some cases crops may not be raised anymore in certain areas if labor cannot be found, but if there is a demand for them, they will be grown somewhere else — yes where the labor is cheaper, no doubt.)

I’m really getting tired of hearing the whining about the shortage of cheap labor.

I do realize, though, that even if the wages were upped, it would still be hard to find people to do manual labor, often paid by the piece rate (out of understandable practicality). That is where you have to face reality and look at that Plan B (or perhaps Plan C, just quit) .

Maybe if we were not so liberal in our social welfare programs (and I am referring to everything from Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Social Security Disability — sometimes/often granted for questionable disabilities –such as an allergic reaction to work — just kidding, kind of — to extended unemployment and so on) we would have a larger pool of labor for the less desirable jobs.

But do we want to encourage or force whole groups of people to make a career out of nowhere employment that requires government subsidy in order for the people to have shelter and medical care?

It seems to me that in agriculture the real small farmers can do a lot of their own work — employ family members — and in the larger outfits, they just have to face the reality of the supply and demand of the domestic labor market. I do not think we should have to rely on the illegal alien labor market that eats up tax dollars with the social service demands (even though some amount of tax money may be derived from it), and the pull down of wages it creates for potential domestic workers (and yes, the domestic labor force will work if that is the only way to make a living), along with the criminals that sneak in with legitimate, albeit illegal workers.

Sometimes people looking for extra money, to include young people, have done harvest work and will do it.

Yes, please read the story I mentioned and view the accompanying video (if I do this correctly), I found it interesting.,0,3768292.htmlstory


And my contention continues to be that almost all harvest labor could be near totally or totally mechanized and will be once the supply of hand labor disappears.

P.s. P.s.

Associations representing farmers (or purporting to do so, such as Farm Bureau) spend a lot of time lobbying for cheap labor and for federal officials to look the other way when it comes to hiring illegal aliens. They would do better to come up with a way to devise some type of program that would make farm labor available, such as temporary guest workers and so on. They could tax themselves for this. They might even do it essentially outside of government (of course with legal permission).

Premature categorical statements by health officials can be devastating…

June 5, 2011

It seems like a tragedy to me that German health officials mistakenly blamed the world’s worst E. coli outbreak on cucumbers from Spain and now have found out the likely culprit is bean and other sprouts from one farm in Germany. Meanwhile one report I heard on NPR radio indicated Spain’s produce industry or at least one distributor ( interviewed in the report) has been put out of business for the time being with all of its workers left idle.

So far, 22 deaths have been reported and 2,200 cases of people becoming ill in the latest E. coli outbreak that one report I read termed the worst ever reported.



And even before I can finish this post I read now that German officials are still not sure where the contamination has come from and are still warning the public to be wary of vegetables, imported and domestic, I guess. And apparently it was not just cucumbers, but lettuce and other vegetables that had been or are suspected.


With foods being imported and exported all over the world it is a difficult situation health officials face when a contamination incident surfaces. They of course feel obligated to warn the public for that is their whole mission. And the public would be rightly outraged if they withheld vital information and people suffered or died as the result.

Unfortunately, food contamination turns out to be difficult to pinpoint many times, what with all the distances and stops it makes along the way and the possibilities of cross contamination and the fact that food stuffs may become just ingredients mixed in with other items in processed foods.

But this current incident has shades of Alar in Apples, eventually found to not be much of a threat or no threat at all but quite devastating to the Washington State apple industry many years ago after negative reports about it (no Alar, a chemical growth regulator, is produced or used anymore, as I understand it — and you know? That is probably a good thing).

More recently, a couple of years or more ago, tomatoes sold in the U.S. (some imported from Mexico and elsewhere) were suspected to be a source of contamination. Much of the year’s crop was put to waste over the scare, as I recall. Finally it turned out that the contamination was linked to one farm growing peppers in Mexico, as I recall.

All this kind of hits home with me. I’m not a farmer but I make my living largely from the produce business. I haul it over the road.

Coincidentally, I suffered food poisoning that might or might not have been linked to those contaminated peppers I mentioned. I was not driving at the time — I was recovering from a cancer treatment and was on my way to a hospital in San Francisco for tests when I ate an omelet at a restaurant along the way. I think that is where I got the food poisoning.

I think health officials are in a bind. On the one hand they have a duty to warn the public as soon as possible and on the other hand they can do grave damage to whole industries, not to mention individual producers or even employees whose livelihoods depend upon working in the industry when their reports are erroneous.

I would say their best bet would be to always qualify their warnings and not make categorical statements unless they are really sure.

And now, the Agricultural Communicator of the Year…

May 6, 2010

A lot of times farming is really all about weather.

Back in the mid 1970s I got my first newspaper job. I was a photographer, a reporter, and the farm editor. I put together a weekly farm news section for the newspaper, composed of various hand-out stories, plus news I gathered myself, and usually a feature I wrote about some local farmer or agricultural experimental project.

I did not grow up on a farm, but I had done some limited amount of farm work as a teenager and then as a young man out of the Army, to include irrigation and some tractor driving. I had been a member of the Future Farmers of America in high school and had raised some pigs and cows and done some vegetable gardening.

I put a lot of effort into the farm news section, probably more than had been done by some of my predecessors.

So it was not a surprise when my editor informed me that I, we, had been invited to the local Farm Bureau’s annual meeting where they were to give out the Agricultural Communicator of the Year Award.

Being as I was the only agricultural news reporter in the county, I was a shoe-in to get it.

I didn’t write an acceptance speech, but I had the words in my head. Heck I loved speech class in high school and could give a talk at the drop of a hat — no notes needed,

Now if the farm news guy to the county south of me was in the competition I might have had to worry, but we were out of his coverage area. I knew that old guy personally. He had majored in agriculture at college, but spent his years as a newspaperman.

My editor picked me up in his old green pickup truck with the cracked windshield he never did get around to repairing as far as I ever knew. He was not a farm boy himself, but he did grow up in the mountains where his dad owned a saw mill. He was all dressed up for the dinner in his workman-like jacket and tie. I don’t think he owned as much as a sport coat. I was dressed up in a sport coat and tie and slacks, looking like the professional newsman I aspired to be.

We ate the dinner and listened to the requisite business meeting and then it was time for the award. I was thinking of what I would say when they called me up. My editor was proud of me.

The Farm Bureau president made the announcement.

The award went to the TV weather guy.

Farmers value weather news.

Why should farmers or anyone else have a right to cheap labor?

April 23, 2010

I’ve plowed this ground before, so to speak, but I have to ask the question: why do farmers feel they are entitled to a source of cheap labor? And maybe, for that matter, it is only fair to ask at the same time, why does the U.S. consumer feel entitled to groceries based on cheap labor?

Consumers would howl in protest if illegal aliens took their jobs, but they would also likely complain, more than they already do, about any rise in the cost of groceries attributed to a shortage of cheap labor, primarily from Mexico.

And I know that farmers would have you believe that it is not so much the need for cheap labor as it is the need for labor period, because — we all know the standard argument — Americans will not do stoop labor or climb up ladders to pick fruit and so on.

Actually, there is some truth to that argument. Although once upon a time U.S. citizens, to include, pardon the expression , white people, did all kinds of field labor, along with Mexican immigrants and of course non-whites, for the most part those days are in the past.

In the 1960s there were television documentaries and at least one book about the abuses inflicted upon migrant workers and then under President Johnson’s Great Society programs people were able to get out of migrant labor, even if the result was that new generations would come along and not only not do migrant work, but not do much of anything.

Now partly in response to a shortage of field labor much of agriculture that had not already been mechanized has become so.

Some examples that I am aware of first hand: plums (or prunes as we call them in the area where they are grown in California, even when they are fresh on the tree before they are dried) began to be harvested by machines rather than pickers crawling around in the dirt under the trees (or hand picking them off the tree as was done for some varieties). Same thing with walnuts and almonds.

Even wine grapes can now be harvested by a machine.

But many things, such as many fresh fruits and some vegetables, still defy complete mechanization.

If employers were required to pay higher wages and offer better working conditions and if welfare and unemployment benefit regulations were really enforced, there might not be such a shortage of domestic labor.

And in some cases we might just have to get along without some things — I think I posted this one before, but you know, we could probably get along without iceberg lettuce. We might find it more practical to grow other types of crops that lend themselves more to mechanization.

The demand for hard physical and often stoop labor continues strong, particularly in big agriculture — which is not ma and pa on the farm feeding the chickens and slopping the hogs and milking the cow and hoeing the beans.

During World War II, what with so much of the labor force off to fight overseas, there was the Bracero program in which Mexican men came to work the fields. Many of them were cheated out of their wages.

That program ended in 1964. But Mexicans and others, most of them illegal, have streamed across the border to meet the farm labor demand (and of course the demand for other labor as well).

The agricultural industry got used to using workers without proper authorization, illegal aliens.

Think I mentioned this in one of my previous posts, but I remember an old eccentric woman who ran a kind of a rag of a small town newspaper back in the 70s. She did not mince words. She said right on her front page that her little city’s (area’s) economy depended upon illegal aliens to pick the local olive crop.

At the time, most people, particularly growers, did not admit that in public.

But I see we’ve come a long way. In the April 22 edition of the Wall Street Journal via a letter to the editor, the president of Western Growers, of Irvine, Ca., calls for the support of proposed federal legislation, the so-called agJOBS bill, that would allow farmers to hire illegals, who under certain conditions could eventually get their citizenship.

In a separate letter which I read on the web, California U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, a sponsor of the bill, says farmers are going out of business and can’t compete with the rest of the world for the lack of labor.

(And while I was writing this I heard an item on the news that Stockton, California’s Asparagus Festival is being held amid a vast reduction in asparagus plantings which has resulted from competition from imports.   Add1: It occurs to me that the smaller scale — less or no outside labor required — locally-grown sustainable farming method could replace some of that lost market. )

Hey, I don’t want to see anyone go out of business and I know when farmers cut back it has a drastic impact on the economy because of all the related jobs that go with agriculture, and I don’t want my groceries to cost any more than they do. But I don’t feel good about saving money by importing cheap labor. And why should the agricultural industry get a special privilege to import cheap labor? Actually I guess even high tech and other industries import relatively cheap or cheaper labor through special emergency visa programs.

I’d rather see employers be forced to pay decent wages. When they are not, the public has to step in and pay the extra costs through social welfare programs that provide for the poor working class, to include legal and illegal aliens.

And in this day and age, working men are not as willing — and nor should they be — to leave their families behind to be part of guest worker programs.

Letting employers import cheaper labor depresses the wages for everyone and brings the national standard of living down.

The argument, even outside the farm labor issue, always seems to be we can’t afford to pay decent wages, which is another way of saying we can’t afford to let other people live as well as we do (even though we expect their labor).

What’s old could be new in Silicon Valley — farming anyone?

April 22, 2010

Add 1: I didn’t even realize today was (is) Earth Day when I originally posted this. But what follows is more than just a gripe or cynical comment by me. It’s a hope or a wish that we all could appreciate Mother Earth better than we do and quit trying to pave over every inch of it and quit polluting it in the name of progress. I know where I live the goal by many a landowner and outside developer is to turn one of the most beautiful places in the world into a concrete ghetto. The people that do it usually take the dollars and go elsewhere or at least vacation elsewhere. Even agriculture in the way we have practiced it over the past century can be destructive. This post does not really address all that, but it was on my mind and I may go further into that in the future.


The article said it was only posted 4 minutes ago when I read it and it took me about that long, or less,  to read it, but this item on the New York Times website said that the newest thing out of Silicon Valley in California (computer land, formerly beautiful farm land) is investors being sold on something called “sustainable agriculture”.

Two quick thoughts here:

One, too bad they could not have thought about that a few decades ago when they bulldozed over some of the prettiest and probably most productive farmland (orchards and crops) in the world and put up a parking lot. The Santa Clara Valley of California was like a Garden of Eden and developers turned it into what has to be one of the ugliest places you would want to see, rivaled probably only by greater LA.

I will be interested in reading more about this “sustainable ag” movement in the Silicon Valley.

And two, I hope it is more than just a passing fad.

But if you want to throw some money around, I might be able to line you up with some folks who would sell you a jojoba farm in southern Arizona (that was all the rage back in the late 70s, early 80s).

Don’t get me wrong on this sustainable ag thing, though. I’m all for locally grown and natural fertilizers versus chemical fertilizers and I like the idea of natural pest control and such, versus spraying poisons into the atmosphere and all over our food.