The news is full of the effects of Alabama’s immigration legislation. I can’t tell for sure whether the exodus of Hispanic immigrants is surprising because so many documented residents left, or if the attitude is more of the I-told-you-so variety. Either way, we are getting real-time updates of what an exodus of hard working laborers looks like – and not just in Alabama. That means we are renewing our attention to farmers’ claims that US citizens can’t or won’t do the work. A lot of those claims are anecdotal, about workers who come and leave after 30 minutes, an hour, a day. I’ve also heard, more than once, that farmers ought to turn to work-release inmate labor – if that says anything about how our society perceives the role of farm workers…

I have thought quite a bit about this one, and at least in part that is because I myself could use a job, and I wonder if I am one of the Americans who ought to be out in the fields. It’s not that I’m opposed to farm work, per say. I even worked on a farm once, and promptly quit – not because the work was too difficult but because I found out the field was a Monsanto genetic research facility [winces]. The biggest hurdle would seem to be moving my family. My six year old is in school, and my partner does have a job. Where would we stay – in a tent? A more abstract concern would be how temporary work would affect my student loan repayments. So… I’m not heading south anytime soon.

I also thought about whether the food I buy comes from these farms, and how this problem will likely affect our family’s food supply. My first thought was that food will get more expensive if much of the harvest is left in the fields. Then I remembered – aha! Our food is mostly either local or from the west coast. And then – I remembered economics.

If the harvests in Alabama (and other southern states like Georgia) rot, we can expect food costs to rise. In classic supply-and-demand fashion, if demand stays even but supply falls, then prices go up. When farmers vie to get into the market, prices fall, but in this case there is less competition between farmers. This affects our west coast producers too, because their incentive to keep costs low diminishes. Competition instead shifts to consumers, who will have to offer more to get the goods.

More than simply affecting supply and demand, though, the changes to the way we produce food will also raise prices because it will become more expensive to produce it. There are those who would harangue the farmers for paying too little, and those who accuse the workers for accepting too little (taking jobs from those who have to work for more), but it is also us – the consumers – who pay too little. Many of us are aware that organic produce, for instance, is more expensive than other, mass-produced produce. Similarly, Fair Trade products are more expensive than goods without that certification. Fair Trade products are priced deliberately to provide a fair wage to producers and harvesters. The importance of these products is diluted as the largest scale retailers offer similarly marketed goods at lower prices. However, organic and fair trade goods – and the price variation – suggest what prices might look like if we consistently paid fair, livable wages to our farm workers.

Everyone deserves dignity, and fair wages are a part of that. As we dismiss the value of the labor, we dismiss to an extent the value of the laborer as well. At some point, we must consider that if we want farmers to pay salaries that people can afford to take, we will have to help them pay for it. If not, those farmers will go out of business, and those large agri-corporations that remain will increasingly outsource their farms to Mexico – which would, in a manner of speaking, resolve the immigration issue.

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