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An Orchard Without Workers

Last year for one day, no one came to work in my peach orchard. A row of ladders stood empty. This was my day without immigrant labor.

Without workers, I cannot farm. If I cannot farm, my organic heirloom peaches and raisins won’t reach people’s dinner tables.

Without passage of immigration reform, I can’t get enough help to harvest my fruits. This work is transient and something most Americans won’t do, even with higher wages. Under the current system, which gives so many immigrants illegal status, good workers from south of the border are forced to hide in the shadows, constantly fearful of deportation.

As the debate over undocumented workers unfolds, the growing of food seems to be left out. This debate isn’t just about citizenship. It’s also about who works the fields and how crops are grown. And it’s about working conditions and treating workers fairly — something that I and other small farmers try to do as we labor side by side with our workers.

Immigration reform needs to grant some form of legal status to the nearly 2 million illegal workers on farms and acknowledge their contribution to the farm economy and rural communities. At the very least, we should grant undocumented workers a guest worker status, ensuring fair treatment for their hard work.

Specialty fruits and vegetables depend on these hands. Now more than ever, a labor shortage threatens these crops.

I almost lost my raisin crop two years ago. Last year, pear farmers in Northern California were forced to let fruit rot on trees because there were not enough workers. I try to ripen my peaches to perfection, but lose many when I can’t get pickers; some of my best fruits fall from my trees.

Without labor, agriculture will mechanize the process as much as possible, substituting technology and capital for people on the land. This shift is not simply about the invention of a machine, but rather a dramatic change in how things are grown. It means rewarding plant breeders not for great flavor, but instead for fruit that works with machines.

I can imagine the ideal machined peaches of the future. Design them so they will simultaneously ripen. (My crews revisit a single tree four to five times, picking only what is ripe at the moment.) Breed a peach with a stem that snaps easily, so a tree can be shaken by a machine. Manufacture fruit that won’t bruise when harvested, picked rock hard to survive a handless system.

But there is no technology that can replace the human touch without sacrificing good taste.

Sustainable and organic fruit farming demands constant attention and response to nature each season: Our systems are labor intensive. I need the human element on my farm.

Farming is an inexact science. There’s an art to pruning and growing a perfect peach that requires years of practice and many hands. Without workers, I’ll have no choice but to farm differently: The politics of undocumented immigrants can change the flavor on my farm.

But agriculture is morally wrong if the sole goal is to create a new pipeline of cheap labor. Farmers must acknowledge the value of the people in their fields.

Undocumented workers have labored like ghosts — invisible, hidden, secluded. Immigration reform would shed light on them, revealing their worth.

As these new Americans are recognized, wages, working conditions and health benefits must be addressed. This will challenge farmers and the old ways of doing business. Agriculture has openly acknowledged the need for labor: We also must accept responsibility for these workers.

I farm with a social contract — a network of honorable, mutually supporting relationships that contribute to the quality I seek. My work can’t be done by machines. I want to grow “face food,” produce with faces and their stories, keeping alive the legacy of good, authentic food.

Undocumented workers are part of this food system. We all have a stake in immigration reform, and the need to recognize the important role of all food workers. We need to support farming that contributes true flavors to life.

David Mas Masumoto, an orchardkeeper from of Fresno, Calif., is a Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy Fellow. He has written several books, including “Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm.” He wrote this comment for the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.

 

 

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