Reflecting on Agricultural Labor this Labor Day



This insight is dedicated to Dr. Manuela Romero, the associate dean of the college of engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who did migrant farm work in her youth. She is also Dr. Alfonso Morales’ beloved wife.

Growing Up in West Texas

I was a teenager in the 1970s, listening to my grandfather, uncle and father discuss the limited marketing opportunity they had for cantaloupe and a uniquely difficult problem they faced in getting it to the market. 

In short, the Big Bend country of West Texas had an advantage in the cantaloupe market each summer, when most Texas growers hired Mexican labor to speed the harvest.Another advantage was their century-old irrigation system, which rendered the beautiful Rio Grande bottomland hyper-productive. 

Their hard work often reaped substantial profits and made opportunities for their children and grandchildren, including me. Yet frequently grocers or other buyers would open one box from the back of a tractor-trailer, find one overripe fruit and reject the load. Such idiosyncratic decision-making has put many farmers out of business.

Dr. Morales at Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market, as a vendor and where he did his ethnography of the market.

Agriculture Laborers Must Be Tough

As someone who knows firsthand, the labor associated with harvesting crops, and cantaloupe picking specifically, working in the West Texas sun is significant. I have seen tobacco harvested in North Carolina and done a lot of work myself—ranch work, farm work, hauling hay, branding and castrating – and of the labor practices I have witnessed, few match the stamina required for picking cantaloupe. Laborers must be tough; they must be cared for irrespective of their desire to work. Substantial time is needed to acclimate a body to that stoop labor – frankly, it’s like a kettle ball work-out, for hours, six days a week, (sometimes seven if you’re a grandchild, but I enjoyed a privileged life). 

In the 1970s, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service directed my grandfather and his colleagues to hire US citizens instead of Mexicans; they advertised widely, in newspapers around the country. Needless to say, they had few takers, despite the nice housing constructed for migrant labor. The few who accepted employment quit within a week. The growers had no choice but to continue using Mexican labor and continuing the relationships they enjoyed for more than a century with communities and people united, not divided, by the river.

Many products today are still harvested by hand, in much the same conditions and by much the same people. Certainly, farming has changed, including the return of farmer’s markets, local agriculture and increasing interest in local and regional foodsheds. The food we consume has changed the way some of us regard farm labor and farmers and ranchers. I sense some new respect for these occupations, but also some romanticization of labor. Let’s be direct, there’s nothing romantic about the labor associated with food. Whether it’s “harvesting” beef, fowl or pork; or getting up early on a small farm to harvest asparagus, or topping garlic to take to the farmers market, or navigating the various political protests; the work is physically demanding and emotionally exhausting. At the same time, growers are also trying to create a welcoming space, offering not just food, but also opportunities to build community.

Indeed, the middle class of our country began missing community, especially in the late 1960s and 1970s when farmer’s markets returned to Berkeley, California and Madison, Wisconsin. Today about 9,000 farmer’s markets are havens for the community, rural and urban. They welcome people with face-to-face relationships (sound familiar?), they provide economic opportunities (even to new immigrants) and they celebrate local products. They support food security and provide many non-economic benefits associated with knowing your farmer and your neighbor.

Gustavo Morales, Morales’ father, demonstrating a domestic well in Redford, Texas.

Learning from the Labor

It is these benefits that I support in my software package, Farm2Facts. Market managers need help telling the story of their activities, building relationships and finding support. Instead of doing this one at a time in the way I used to, I leveraged a National Institute of Food & Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grant to create a software platform farmers markets use in Canada and the United States. The hard work of managing a market can be made a little easier and a little more productive. Managers who read this may know a little bit more about why I (and our team) value them the way we do.

It is that trajectory of experience in production agriculture and ranching in Texas and New Mexico that initially shaped my consciousness and still informs my professional life. I was further influenced by my nascent understanding of ethnic and related business dynamics in a part of the US dominated by Mexican-American culture and additionally by witnessing my grandfather and father adopting new technologies in farming and ranching. In short, when I “escaped” the farm for college, I had no idea how farming and ranching related to philosophy, entrepreneurship, ecological demands, human health, and food production and distribution. This professional life I enjoy is founded in the work I observed and practiced.

Friends, on this Labor Day, let’s pause and reflect – for more than a minute – about the labor and training behind the food on our plates. Let’s consider the compensation we owe the farming and ranching community, whoever and wherever they are, for making available the finest food on the planet. 

Alma Warner, Morales’ sister with her four children, Morales’ great uncle, father and son.
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More About the Author

Dr. Alfonso Morales is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Planning and Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is also Department Chair. He co-founded the Wisconsin Organic Initiative as well as Farm2Facts, which is used by farmers market managers in the US and Canada. He is originally from rural New Mexico with roots in family farming, there and in West Texas. He is a researcher, advocate, practitioner and consultant on food systems and public markets, inclusive of entrepreneurial, organizational, gender, racial and regulatory aspects of these activities.

Contact: Dr. Morales

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