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Labor & The Food System

Eamon Molloy

Last week we discussed some of the ways that the federal farm subsidy and crop insurance programs affect farmers and the food system. Specifically, we looked at how these policies impact the cost of food. If you didn't get a chance to read it yet, we'd suggest going back (and while you're at it, check out the Farm Bill update too). These aren't required for understanding where we're going today, but they'll sure help. You can find the back issues linked below. We should also note that, for the purposes of this series, we've decided to focus primarily on the costs and considerations associated with producing fresh produce - but that doesn't mean producers of meat, dairy, or other animal products aren't facing the same (and additional!) challenges when bringing food to market.

One of the most important inputs in bringing our food from seed to table is people power, and it gets expensive. This holds especially true for specialty crops like fruits and vegetables. Across all types of farming, hired farm wages represented about 14% of total expenditures in 2016. For farms specializing in fruit and/or vegetable production, this cost was closer to 39% [1].

Why is there such a big difference? Well, a lot of hands are involved in the process of planting, growing, harvesting, and selling produce. In general, fruits and vegetables are more delicate and require more careful handling than, say, any of the five commodity crops. Because of this, calorie-for-calorie more industrial crops can be produced per acre - with less effort. As one article on the mechanization of agriculture puts it, we're way better at producing corn than lettuce[2].

Foods produced as part of the industrial agriculture system, like commodity crops, are often grown in what's known as a mono-culture or duo-culture, meaning that just one or two crops are grown on a vast acreage of land. Additionally, crops grown in this way are usually planted in evenly spaced rows.

All this makes it easier for producers to rely on machines (instead of human labor) for many of the necessary steps in the production process. Contrast this with the labor involved on a smaller, diverse, mixed-crop farm, like those who attend farmers' markets. Last year, Gathering Together Farm published the Life of a GTF Tomato which outlines the lifecycle of the tomato crop. It is a great example of the hard work required to bring us produce each week. (Read the blog as soon as possible, it's truly eye-opening.) The short version? Every step of the process - from seed selection, to planting, to maintenance, to delivery, to sale - is done, meticulously, by hand. This takes a level of skilled labor unmatched by anything you'd see on an industrial farm operation. It also take A LOT of time.

It's not impossible to increase efficiency by incorporating technology into growing produce, and even most small farms rely on machines to some extent, but the applications are fewer and further between. One reason for this is the delicate and methodical nature of produce production.  But another reason is a lack of investment in technological research on the part of the federal government.

Even though specialty crops make up a quarter of the value of farm products in the U.S., less than 15% of federal research and development funding has been directed to this sector over the past several decades[2]. As a result, the efficiency of growing grains has increased much faster than for vegetables. More research could help vegetable farmers build better infrastructure and increase production of the foods we're told we should eat. Starting with the 2008 Farm Bill, the government has made strides to close the research investment gap - now $400M of the $3B annual agriculture research budget is dedicated for specialty crops2. This could pay off in reduced labor cost for farmers. Current USDA research projects include testing robots to harvest, select, and package apples; flavor improvements for commercial tomatoes; and changes to packaged lettuces and spinach[2].

It's unlikely that any of our farmers will be using apple-picking robots to harvest, but technological advances do have a way of trickling down.

And, the need for alternatives to people-power may soon reach its peak. About half of all U.S. farm labor is legally authorized to work here, and hired crop workers are even most likely to have been born outside of the U.S.[1]. "Enforcement only" immigration policies, such as those being practiced by the current administration, put pressure on an already shrinking workforce. One 2014 study estimated that the lack of a skilled workforce could lead to up to 40% revenue loss for fruit and vegetable farmers[3]. In the short term, this has already been brought to bear. Since 2016, farmers have experienced a net income loss of 9%[4]. Many producers are unable to expand acreage, or even meet the yield of previous seasons, because they can't replace the skilled labor that has traditionally been done by undocumented immigrants. It is not uncommon for farmers to leave 15-20% of their product unharvested, and this number could go even higher if these trends continue[4]. A smaller supply of produce could lead to higher prices for consumers.


Even so, this pales in comparison to the human cost of such policies. In Oregon, 87,000 people are employed within the agricultural system - and much of the workforce is made up of families who have been living undocumented in our state since the 1990s or early 2000s[5]. Last spring, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began a series of raids in farming regions that led to the detainment and deportation of immigrants with children and spouses that are U.S. citizens5. This means that families have been separated and entire communities have been living in fear.


By shopping at farmers' markets and supporting small, local agriculture we are somewhat removed from these challenges. But, we don't exist in a vacuum. Try as we might to build a better food system, the truth is that farmers' markets and small family farms remain a tiny portion of our larger food environment and are therefore affected by the larger forces and policies at work. We're affected by changes in technology that enable to further mechanization of industrial agriculture, widening the price gap between commercial and locally produced foods. Similarly, we're affected when immigration policies change the shape and size of the overall agricultural workforce. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we're affected when those who the put food on our tables are being forced, en masse, to leave homes, families, and communities that they've built over decades.

[1]USDA Economic Research Service (2016)


[2] Politico (2017)


[3] Modern Farmer (2017)


[4] Food & Wine (2017)


[5] The Oregonian (2017)