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Organic food and immigration reform

I have a choice of growing one of two types of peaches, but which one will be decided by Congress and President Bush. Without immigration reform, the better peach will be lost.

One peach is complex; the other is simple. One involves many hands; the other would be the product of technology that controls the process as much as possible.

One peach can have an unbelievable taste if I get it right as I work with the intricacies of nature; the other would be bred for consistency and a “good enough” standard, a uniform product designed for efficiency and longer shelf life.

One fruit requires manual labor — an intensive operation of workers constantly in my fields; the other calls for reducing the need for labor, substituting mechanization whenever possible and creating a system that is not at the mercy of worker shortages.

But whether I can grow a better peach depends on whether I have enough field workers, and that’s where immigration reform comes in. In recent years, farm labor has been tight, with some workers lost to construction jobs and others because of increased border security. Some farmers have responded by increasing wages, yet there were still not enough people willing to work the harvests. Last year, pears in California rotted on trees; two years ago, my raisin harvest was endangered, and for the last three years, I’ve struggled with peach harvests, terrified that just as the fruit was at the peak of perfection, I wouldn’t have enough workers. Some of my best fruit has fallen from my trees.

The agricultural industry supports federal legislation for a guest-worker program that would bring in temporary farm laborers when shortages arise. This remedy would fix short-term problems. However, a long-term solution lies in immigration reform that could change the nature of farming, especially when it comes to specialty crops and small-scale operations like mine.

Without sufficient labor, organic and sustainable agricultural methods are jeopardized. The choice to work with nature as opposed to controlling it demands constant monitoring of the fruit and adapting and responding to the rhythms of the seasons. These systems require many hands. I want the human character to be part of my fields and my produce.

With more hands on my farm, I can grow delicate heirloom varieties, pick riper fruit and work with “just in time” management strategies. Dismiss and devalue these hands and the final outcome changes. A peach may look the same on the outside, but the process used to create it will result in a very different end product. Imagine the taste of a sauce made with minimal human touch, substituting prepackaged ingredients in order to reduce the labor needed.

Agriculture makes a mistake, though, if our sole goal in immigration reform is to seek an abundant supply of cheap labor. Farmers must acknowledge the human capital in our fields. Investments in workers, such as training, can benefit all parties. Skilled positions can then be created for a more willing and able labor pool. With the right kind of reform, workers’ worth would be redefined; they would no longer be invisible.

As undocumented workers emerge from the shadows, new tensions will be created. Communities will change. The social contract in a region — the relationships that connect and bind us — will be tested.

New social justice issues will challenge employers. Workers with faces can’t be as easily dismissed; their calls for better wages, health benefits and working conditions will no longer be whispers. We in the agricultural community have signaled an openness to reform and acknowledged the need for labor to fill “jobs that no one else wants.” We also need to accept the responsibility for that labor.

In the future, could providing better farmworker benefits help define a region and industry? Could we create an appellation based on social justice and market a valued-added product, similar to “fair trade” coffee, which guarantees growers a designated price and decent working conditions? Could I then grow peaches with a conscience? Consumers have been willing to pay more when they understand the story behind their foods, be it organic or in support of living wages.

A grape or peach can acquire a distinctive flavor from terroir — the taste of region. Surely the way that individuals, rural communities and industries include “new Americans” in agricultural systems also will alter the delicate nuances of taste. After all, the true character of a pristine fruit is a result of multiple inputs: weather, soil and water as well as management and labor relations.

As we once again debate immigration reform, agriculture has an opportunity to educate the public about the role farmers and workers have in growing food, in satisfying our hunger. We’re all part of a food system at the dinner table, and the policy we create will affect the nature of each bite.

This article is by a Californian farmer named David Mas Masumoto who is supported by the Kellogg Foundation.


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