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National Public Radio’s food and agriculture correspondent Dan Charles was in town the other day. The radio man journeyed from our nation’s capital to the Valley to report on farm labor issues, our long-simmering immigration crisis in particular. Calling ahead to inquire if I’d speak on that delicate subject, we cut a deal — Dan would appear as my “Down on the Farm” radio guest where we’d discuss labor. I’d negotiated similar choppy waters back in October with Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies author Dr. Seth Holmes who encouraged Charles to look me up. Unfortunately, most farmers are uncomfortable talking about this issue, obviously concerned for both our businesses and employees’ wellbeing. The last straw for me was NPR’s Dec. 10th coverage of Los Angeles Times’ reporter Richard Marosi’s year-and-a-half investigation of labor conditions on Mexican mega-farms that export produce to US markets, documented in a visually stunning four- part series published that same week. I’d long been aware T&D Willey vegetables compete with same from Mexican farms paying for an entire day’s work what we US growers pay for a single hour’s. I didn’t know that Sinaloa’s industrial produce farms near-exclusively recruit laborers from Mexico’s distant highlands, traditional regions where indigenous Amerindians maintained on subsistence crops until North American Free Trade Agreement’s 1994 ratification ended self-reliance. Desperate to feed their families, those whom Marosi describes as “the invisible people of Mexico, the poorest, the most discriminated” are bused hundreds of miles to western Mexico’s vast agricultural complexes where they contract to work for minimum periods of three months. There, they live in squalid camps within barbed wire perimeters, guarded at night to prevent escape, provisioned by company stores to which workers commonly become indebted for greater amounts than they have earned. Marosi claims inspectors for US grocers like Wal-Mart, Safeway and Whole Foods become apoplectic over slight deviations from food safety canons while largely ignoring these abusive labor conditions. Any wonder that men and women in such circumstances risk life, limb and economic resources borrowed from family and friends to reach the United States where they might better themselves? My Irish grandparents sailed for American shores in 1915 without permit or permission, where each gratefully encountered the Mother of Exiles hearkening: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Is there to be any breathing room for those who provision our tables so generously from the shadowlands?
Dan & Tom radio: Mar. 6th Marosi LA Times: bit.ly/1yY15sY Dan Charles: n.pr/1uWo0Ca