The Families Who Really Grow Our Food

Terra Firma is a family farm, but not in the mainsteam mythology, TV ad kind of way where everything is done by the members of a single family.  Hector and Elena are full-time owner-operators, along with their son Hector Junior.  But they have lots of help from dozens of other people on the farm who work alongside their spouses, cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and in-laws.  I may be one of the few people on the farm with no family member co-workers.
Family connections are probably the most important component determining which employer agricultural workers choose.  Few ag workers have resumes, and few farms get employee ratings on HR websites.  If someone likes working on a particular farm and recommends it to their family, it is a huge endorsement.  Likewise, if a good employee recommends a family member for a position, most employers take that as preferable to an applicant listing a reference they’ve never met or spoken to.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that most of Terra Firma’s staff are Mexican-American, or Mexican nationals.  This is true for the vast majority of agricultural employees in California.
Increasingly restrictive and punitive Federal immigration policies over the last 10 years have — among numerous other impacts — essentially cut off thousands of seasonal agriculture employees in Mexico from their former workplaces in California.  Otherwise law-abiding, productive members our communities have been deported for immigration violations.  Thousands of families have been cruelly separated.
A new, bi-partisan bill introduced this month by Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose in Congress attempts to create a pathway for agricultural employees already working in the U.S. to gain legal status for themselves and their families.  The Farm Workplace Modernization Act would also make improvements to the existing agricultural visa program (H2-A) that would give employees more flexibility.  It is supported by both farmers and labor organizations including the United Farm Workers (UFW).
This bill will not be without controversy, and it will not come close to resolving our nation’s internal conflict over immigration.  On one side, there are vocal opponents to any effort to liberalize immigration rules.  On the other side, there are those who will settle for nothing less than open borders.  Both sides will yell loudly that farmers just need to raise wages high enough to attract the employees they need.
But the reality is that much of the food grown in the U.S. is grown, harvested and packed by an experienced workforce of undocumented immigrants.  Everyone should be able to agree that this is not, and never has been, a sustainable system.  The families that produce our food deserve better, and we as a nation owe it to them to do better.


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