Owning land provides families with a legacy and, hopefully, some stability, but how do farmers keep their family farming their land? At BuzzFeed, Bim Adewunmi talks with blueberry farmers around tiny Covert, Michigan, to see what life is like for farmers of color. Only 1.46% of America’s farmers are black. Many Covert growers inherited their profession and have enjoyed a rewarding rural life, steady income and something to give to their children, and land, as one farmer tells Adewunmi, is power. But they still struggle to interest their kids and grandchildren in the job.
Farming is physically demanding, financially risky, costly and tenuous, and the market, like the weather, is constantly shifting. When parents raise their kids to go to college, save money and have more opportunities at their disposal, it isn’t surprising that younger generations leave home to work instead of stay on the family farm. As one farmer said, “We worked hard to show our kids what we considered a better life, and they’re taking advantage of those opportunities. They’re doing exactly what we told them to do.”
“He worked on the Hawkins farm for a time,” she says of her husband. “He always loved blueberries, so when we bought this place, he put his own blueberries out there. They’ve been here since 2001, I believe.” Harold died of cancer a few years back, and Carol assumed responsibility for the business. It is safe to say, however, that she never wanted to be a farmer. “If this wasn’t right here at the house,” she says, gesturing out of her kitchen windows, “I would’ve sold it a long time ago, is all I can say. It was my husband’s thing. I was just… I didn’t wanna be a farmer.” She giggles, but it’s a laugh filled with resignation. When I press her about the potential significance of holding on to her late husband’s legacy, she holds firm. “Uh-uh. I keep it because it’s here at the house. You see, it’s a ‘U,’ right here. And I just don’t want anybody else out there. So that’s why I keep it. And it does pay for my son’s college, the berries. So…” This time when she trails off, her laugh is knowing.
Unsolicited family legacy aside, Carol Baber’s most pressing headache is labor. All her berries are handpicked. Blueberries are graded — the handpicked ones generally get the best price at market, but they are also the most labor-intensive to produce, and picking conditions must be dry (“Nobody wants a wet berry,” Steven tells me, sagely, when I ask), which means picking during the hottest, most arid hours of the day. And that’s before the other maintenance issues that concern a blueberry farmer: weeding, pruning, fertilizing, spraying, and so on. “It’s hard for me because I don’t have any equipment,” Carol says. The Hawkinses help out with spraying (she buys the materials), but “it’s really hard to keep the grass down. So I’m working on trying to get a tractor.”
“My ancestors are Irish and they were called all sorts of names,” Pete, a 58-year-old farmer, told me. He said the country has swung back around to how it was a century ago. “Now people say Hispanics are taking their jobs,” Pete said. “Come on. You can’t get a kid who can flip a burger to come here and do this job for $15 an hour. If we had a workforce that was willing to do this work, I’d hire them, but we don’t.” A 2014 American Farm Bureau study backs that up: It shows that unemployed Americans regularly shun farm work, even preferring to stay unemployed.
Which is one reason why Pete told me he’s anticipating a rough year: He’s not sure he’ll have the hands to do the work on his berry, apple, and vegetable crops. “Word of mouth used to bring guys to the farm during the harvest, but now I don’t know,” he said. He wouldn’t agree to let me use his name because he said even talking to a reporter had him worried about repercussions from zealous ICE agents. (While we were talking, Pete’s wife yelled at him to hang up the phone. He didn’t.) Pete pointed to an ICE arrest of five farmworkers in western New York who did not have criminal records. He said it’s just that kind of unpredictability that adds another layer of uncertainty to a business already fraught with pressures farmers cannot control—like the weather or consumer appetites.
Pete points out that the undocumented community is a net contributor to taxes. It’s true: A recent report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that undocumented immigrants contribute billions of dollars to state and local taxes across the country. Deporting them, Pete added, will only hurt Americans. “If they just stopped contributing to the workforce, we’d have a major crisis,” he said. “Pretending [deportation] fixes the system that’s broken only means less food; it doesn’t fix how this works.”
Hunt was born into the industry. He picked in the groves as a teenager, studied citrus in school. Aside from a brief prodigal period—long hair, VW van, the seventies—he has been here in Florida, working with oranges, his whole life. The Hunt Bros. packing house is a technological marvel, a Rube Goldberg machine of whirring, spinning, weighing, cleaning, sorting contraptions capable of marvels that McPhee would have delighted in. As we walked through, though, it was hard not to notice the way the machine was sorting out so much fruit, the small, useless harvest of greening. All the sorting technology in the world makes no difference if you don’t have the right fruit to put in it. We went for a drive in the groves after.
Only a person with Hunt’s experience can navigate a grove. To an outsider, it is like entering a hedge maze, an endless geometric trap of rows and rows of citrus trees. As we cruised the acres in his truck, there was never a spot where you couldn’t see some effect of the disease. When an owner abandons a grove, it creates problems for the neighbors. Without maintenance, a deserted grove is a breeding ground for psyllids, the bugs that carry the disease. The only way to stop them from spreading is to push and burn the infected trees. That’s what they call ripping the trees from the ground, pushing them into a pile, and lighting them on fire. Hunt pointed out evidence of this, swaths of land scarred with rows but no trees. He saw that as a good thing, evidence of owners who had taken care of their property. All around he pointed to abandoned groves, crippled-looking gnarled trees with useless fruit. These were the bad neighbors, he said, ones who cut their losses and walked away and left the problem for everybody else. One day their trees will have to burn, too.
Free range, heirloom, family-owned ─ farm-to-table eating frequently includes practices that not only improve food’s flavor but are better for the land, animals, customers and employees. At Bloomberg, Deena Shanker examines a problem that’s arisen from America’s increasingly sophisticated appetites and the corporatization of its food system: that even as more people seek noncommodity meat, a dearth of facilities able to process small farmers’ animals keeps costs up, prices high and farmers driving for hours before they can plate your meal.
Finding a local slaughterhouse is not just a matter of time and convenience. Small-scale farmers with heritage animals pride themselves on the higher animal welfare standards they say produce superior meat. After devoting months to carefully raising rare breeds on customized diets, farmers are loathe to end the animals’ lives at facilities that may mistreat them. Farmers say they will travel longer distances for better facilities they trust more. The last slaughterhouse Stone Barns used, Haynes said, was mistreating the animals. “I’m not working with those guys anymore. They don’t respect us, don’t respect the animals.”
It’s not just a compassion issue—transportation of livestock is often cited as a major stressor for animals and associated with lower meat quality, and the last hours or minutes in an animal’s life can undo months of effort.
Facilities that are better for animals are often likely to be better for workers, too. Unlike the large processing houses, where workers’ repetitive motions often lead to carpal tunnel syndrome and other injuries, Dealaman’s workers move around, trading positions and tasks, one minute gutting, the next sweeping, the next scalding. This is not uncommon in small operations, but it also adds to the price of meat.
The stories of the more than 800,000 men, women, and children working in California’s fields—one third of the nation’s agricultural work force—are rarely heard. The new book Chasing the Harvest compiles the oral histories of some of these farmworkers. Longreads is proud to publish this excerpt about Maricruz Ladino, who shared her story with journalist Gabriel Thompson.
Occupation: Produce Truck Driver
Born in: Sonora, Mexico
Interviewed in: Salinas, Monterey County
Agricultural region: Salinas Valley
Sexual harassment and violence in agriculture is both widespread and underreported. For years, the everyday threats and assaults faced by female farmworkers was a story that mostly stayed in the fields. In the past decade, however, a number of investigations—made possible by the bravery of women who have come forward—have uncovered a human rights crisis. In 2010, UC Santa Cruz published a study based on interviews with 150 female farmworkers in California. Nearly 40 percent reported that they had experienced sexual harassment, often from their supervisors; this harassment ranged from unwanted verbal advances to rape. Two years later, Human Rights Watch published a report, “Cultivating Fear,” based on interviews with more than fifty farmworkers across the country, which concluded that the persistent harassment and violence faced by women in the fields was “fostered by a severe imbalance of power” between undocumented farmworkers and their supervisors.
Maricruz Ladino knows all about that imbalance of power. “A supervisor can get you fired with the snap of his fingers,” she tells me. And so she stayed quiet, putting up with her supervisor’s daily harassment—and later, violent sexual assault—in order to hang on to her job at a lettuce packing plant in Salinas. Then came the day she gathered the courage to walk into the company’s office and file a complaint. She feared the worst: she could lose her job, or be deported. Both came to pass. But she has never regretted her decision.
We meet at a vegetable cooling plant in early October, where Maricruz welcomes me aboard her truck, which is carrying pallets of iceberg lettuce eventually destined for Honolulu. While she waits for more produce to be loaded, she talks about growing up on the border, her intense drive to always keep moving forward, and why she eventually broke the silence about the abuse she suffered. Read more…
Most importantly, the new facility’s located on landfill property 30 miles north of the city, far away from the prying eyes of tourists and hypersensitive noses of neighbors populating new suburb developments. The Combs boys seemed baffled — and slightly annoyed — by the effect that exurban sprawl had on their dad’s farm. “As the city developed, and encroachment came all around them,” Hank told me, “we would go down to city council meetings and just tell ’em: ‘We’re not moving.’ They’d go ahead and approve the developments anyhow. Right next to him. They have three schools right near there, within a mile.” (The proximity to the farm earned one of these schools the unfortunate nickname “Pigsty High.”) It’s a problem they hope to avoid with their new facility, located on landfill property, surrounded by industrial parks. “That’s the reason we’re here,” Hank noted. “You don’t see a lot of people.”
Hank estimates that the family company currently handles about 15 percent of buffet food waste in Las Vegas. The actual amount is tricky to tabulate, as the total tonnage of food that isn’t diverted to the farms isn’t calculated. “We really don’t know the true number,” Hank said. “Some of these hotels are throwing out eight tons of food a day!”
The stories of the more than 800,000 men, women, and children working in California’s fields—one third of the nation’s agricultural work force—are rarely heard. The new book Chasing the Harvest compiles the oral histories of some of these farmworkers. Longreads is proud to publish this excerpt about Heraclio Astete, who shared his story with journalist Gabriel Thompson.
Occupation: Former sheepherder
Born in: Junín, Peru
Interviewed in: Bakersfield, Kern County
Agricultural Region: Central Valley
Along with fruit and vegetable crops, California’s agriculture also includes livestock, from dairy cows and egg-laying hens to hogs and even ostriches. Then there are sheep and lambs—and the unique challenges faced by the workers who care for them. These sheepherders are predominantly temporary guest workers, often called “H-2A workers” after the type of visa they hold.
Theirs is a lonely occupation. Living out of primitive trailers that are dozens of miles from the nearest town, sheepherders can go weeks without seeing another face. It is also the poorest paid job in the country, with some sheepherders still earning around $750 a month; with their long hours of work, that amounts to about a dollar an hour. In a 2000 report by Central California Legal Services, ninety percent of sheepherders reported that they weren’t given a day off over the entire year. When asked about their best experience as a sheepherder in the United States, many responded: “None.”
Like many sheepherders, Heraclio Astete came from Peru, where he grew up caring for flocks of sheep in his hometown. And like many of the workers who responded “None” to the survey, he had a lot of complaints about workplace exploitation. When he suffered a potentially life threatening work-related illness, he decided to do something about it.Read more…
Harris is an idealist, the kind of all-natural farmer whose cows finish on grass, whose birds run free, whose goats and sheep transform overgrown land. His faith in biodiverse, sustainable methods has only been affirmed by his multimillion-dollar annual revenues. And not that he would, but shooting a bald eagle is punishable by a $100,000 fine and a year in prison. Whatever was to be done about the eagles, Harris’s farm would work with nature, not fight against it. But as he would discover, that’s not as easy as it sounds.
“Now, you know John Muir said: In nature, when you pull a string, you see that everything’s connected?” Harris lamented to me later. “This is a good example of that.”
What happens when your chickens are killed by predators protected by law? At The New York Times Magazine, Wyatt Williams reports on the farming hardships posed by bald eagles and what one family farm in Bluffon, Georgia, is trying to do about it.
Mr Ingold wrote about the importance of the word talo. Roughly translated, it means house. But it also has a deeper meaning. When Finnish herders are raised in a talo, it is not simply that they grow up in one place. “A house,” explains Mr Ingold, “is a total establishment, an organic unity of place and people, cumulatively built up through the work of generations.” It is not something that can be shaken off. When Aarne says that herders are “born” to do it he is not being flippant. Like his father, he feels he had little choice. Nor does he regret that. Raisa explains that “this is what we want to do. There’s a richness to this wild way of life.”
That remains true even as threats from climate change, logging and other signs of expanding human footprints impinge on their vast emptiness. But throughout the centuries herders have adapted to changes wrought from outside. They have embraced GPS tracking, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and drones.
Our truck pulls away, and I watch the sloped farm in the rearview mirror, all yellow and green in the new sun. The mid-morning scene vanishes in a silver chrome flash, and soon, Josh and I are back in the land of traffic lights and brick buildings. Too soon I am back on an airplane, pulling away from these mountains, headed home, where I unzip my suitcase and dump the entire contents into the laundry. Only later—days later, in the odd indoors light—do I notice the sprinkle of dirt I have dropped in the hall. Old dirt . . . the old dirt from Mr. Neal Woody’s farm, now blessing my carpet, tickling my naked toes in the dead of night, shading my dogs’ paws, filling up an inch of my vacuum someday, when I decide it’s time. But for now, old dirt is the best souvenir, for I have North Carolina in my rugs — the farms and flowers and sweet-smelling pines, Josh and Neal, and the misty indigo sunrise. None of that ever goes away. Even now, months later, I can lift the coffee cup to my lip and feel it in my hands, the dirt-brown mug that Josh made — a veritable piece of the Appalachian Mountains, rough as rock and sturdy as stone.