Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Last week, there was a - sort of - debate on the New Society Publisher's book forum. I'd posted my, typical, we can survive in the suburbs spiel, and one commenter added that he felt there would be a mass migration out of the cities and suburbs and into our rural farmscape. His exact comment was: As the prevailing order continues its disintegration, I have this vision of tens of millions of Americans pouring out of the cities and suburbs and returning to a rural farm life.

Of course, I, initially, rejected his ideas, thinking that he was saying the suburbs would be unlivable, but that's not what he was saying, at all. I (finally) got what he was saying (although, I still maintain that we could remain in the suburbs living in close-knit, interdependent, post-industrial, homesteading, communities, and that moving to rural farms would be an option, but not a necessity :). He wasn't dissing my ideas about the future of the suburbs (Phew! Put down your sword and shield, Wendy). His point was that as we deindustrialize, we'll *need* more farmers, and more farm laborers, because without them, we won't have food - even to feed those people who work the land. Like the bumper sticker says, "No farms, no food."

An article I found today brought his argument right into the present day. The headline is Twin immigration laws create labor crisis for American farmers.

The article was a very sad commentary. It says things like: Our economists have estimated that in the U.S. economy there are 10 million-plus people who work at wages lower than what they could make in agriculture because they aren't attracted to the work. The long hours, irregular employment and physical demands of farm jobs mean Americans would rather work elsewhere for less. The Governor in Georgia, after passing his State's immigration law, claimed that with unemployment rates being what they are, people should be flocking to any place that offers work, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

Maybe it's not about the hardwork. I know a lot of very hardworking people, who would be happy to work on a farm, but can't move to Georgia for a seasonal job. Sure, they work for a couple of months, and they make great money ... and then what? They're stuck in Georgia with no job, and no way to pay the bills, and no place to go "back" to (unlike some of the immigrant farm workers who can "go home" when the work is done - trying to maintain a household in one community and work a seasonal farm job in another community would be too expensive for most Americans).

It's not that people don't want to work hard, but rather that they recognize when the farm job ends, they'll need to move on to someplace else. Pack up the car with all their stuff and go to the next job (if they're lucky enough to have a 'next job'), and when they get to that someplace else, they'll need to set-up residency, find an apartment, pay utilities deposits, sign-up the kids for school, and all of the other necessities those of us who have long-term residences don't have to deal with. And for migrant workers, it's every few months. Can you imagine moving every couple of months? Been there, done that. It sucked.

If those land owners who need farm laborers could rethink their relationship with their employees, perhaps it would be different. For instance, instead of hiring 300 temporary employees, just to get the harvest in, and then, giving them the pink slip and sending them on their way, mabye the land owners could offer their laborers some greater sense of permanance, like housing and/or year-round wages and employment.

Or, at very least, perhaps land-owners could set-up a (free) campground for RV parking. The campground could include all of those amenities that RV campers like to have, including a pool, hook-ups for utilities, and laundry facilities, and for families with children who are not school-aged, or when school is not in session, perhaps the campground could include a daycare option. There are people who would love the opportunity to live the camper life. Perhaps, with the right incentives, those interested in the RV-adventure life could be our next generation of migrant farm workers.

Perhaps (instead of paying unemployment and welfare benefits) the government could be convinced to provide an incentive like an exemption on the gasoline tax for "registered" RV-traveling migrant farm workers, and maybe, like other homeowners incentives, the government could provide some sort of rebate program for the purchase of an RV home for those interested in registering to be migrant farm workers. Or, if the government is going to be involved, maybe State and Federal parks could provide free RV/camper parking for migrant workers hired at farms in their areas.

I don't think Americans don't want to do farm work because they're lazy or "not attracted to the work." I think Americans want a steady job with a fixed income and a safe place to live, and I don't think that's too much to ask.

Unfortunately, as the article points out, without people to harvest the blueberries (or lettuce or spinach or whatever the crop), the food is rotting in the fields, and that will have a direct and dramatic impact on all of us.

In the end, maybe both Mr. Hermann and I are correct. Maybe there's room in our vision of the future for both the mass migration out into the rural farmscape and the suburban homestead, but it will definitely take some rethinking of our present state of things.

There aren't any easy choices, really, and there is no one right way, but what's very clear is that we need to have more farmers, now ... not in the future ... and that includes me, on my quarter acre, but also those people who work the fields, and we should really be considering ways to make their jobs easier and more attractive - because it's very clear that we need them a lot more than they need us.


  1. Interesting commentary. It makes me think of the tradition in England of the working class city-dwellers coming out to the countryside to help with harvesting various crops. Apparently, it was half-way to being a holiday for them. They got out of the city, earned a small wage, and often got access to fresh foods they wouldn't have otherwise. For the farmers it had its upsides and downsides. They needed the help. But the workers were very unskilled, so they often did damage to some of the plants during harvest, or just didn't know as much about how to harvest as the farmers would have preferred. They probably also didn't have an incredible work ethic, given that they didn't really depend on the income and viewed the time in the country as a holiday. I think this went on largely in the Victorian/Edwardian periods.

  2. Good point, Kate.

    Maybe we could avoid that sort of scenario by offering an education/intern program, like the WOOFers who come to your property. To get the tax-exempt gasoline, rebates and free RV parking, they would have to be registered farm workers, and perhaps to earn their registration, they could do a training course.

    I guess I'm envisioning, not people, like me, who have a home in the suburbs and decide to take an RV trip across the US, and to finance my trip, decide to earn a few dollars working part-time on a farm, but rather people, for whom, this *is* their job, and what they do is own an RV, and they travel around the country working at seasonal jobs, mostly in the farming community.

  3. Agriculture is as industrialized as "industry" is. It is massive single crop planting on a massive scale that creates the need for the influx of labor.

    But there is another issue that is a problem. England substitute fossil fuels for wood prior to the industrial revolution. This allowed them to use their marginal land as pasture (rather then as a woodlot) and gave them more horsepower to work with. It also is why there was already a market for coal prior to the industrial revolution and why Watt was buidling his steam powered pump in coal mines in the first place.

    The point is: if you do not keep some form of advanced power generation available, your farming abilities will fall a lot further back then the 19th century.

    I had a more lengthy discussion of it a while ago.


  4. Certainly, as we deindustrialize, things will look very different than they do now.

    I don't think the end of industrialized farming is such a bad thing, personally, especially in light of all of the recent food-borne illnesses, and I'd like to see something new (like small, sub-acre farms on former suburban lawns ;) emerge from the wreckage of our former civilization. We really do have an amazing opportunity, right now, to reimagine our future, because we can see it coming, and we could make some changes ... if we choose to.

    In the meantime, we still need people willing to work the farms, in the short term, and I hope we can come up with some solutions that will help keep the food in the stores, but not sacrifice human dignity in the process.

  5. Two thoughts come to mind as I read this post. First, as we de-industrialize I wonder how many folks will have the means to leave the urban and suburban regions. Also, once all those millions leave these regions don't they end up creating what they left behind, just by their sheer number?

    I also think that man migrant farmer's who work now are living in sub-standard housing on the farms that they live on. But at least they get to go home; eventually. I recently saw a news bit; I think it was on the Newshour, where a family of migrant workers were featured. The family consisted of a father and his three sons; the youngest was 13. There is no child labor law for kids doing farm work. They can be young and work long hours right alongside their parents. The crux of this families dilemma of farm labor was that the only way it was profitable for the family was if the kids worked as well. One farmer was aware that he only paid minimum wage to his workers and he wanted to pay them more. But he also commented on the fact that until the consumer was willing to pay more for food he could not afford to pay this family more.

    P.S. I also finished the book this weekend. I hope to have a review up this week! I really enjoyed it!

  6. @ Fleecenik - yep, the problems with our current system are many, which makes the whole idea of being a typical migrant worker so unpalatable. It's not that "we" (Americans) don't want to work, but we don't want to be forced to live in bad conditions either, right?

    I think a really good first step would be to change the terminology from "laborer" to "EMPLOYEE", which has a very different feel and brings to mind a very different image.

    I agree with that farmer, though, who says *we* need to be willing to pay more for our food. It never ceases to amaze me the things people don't think twice about paying HUNDREDS of dollars for, and those very same people will balk at paying a fair price for healthy, clean, sustainably grown food. Seems we have our priorities horribly skewed :).

    Thank you for your kind words. I'm really glad you enjoyed the book ;).

  7. I'd like to offer another thought. Leaving monoculture farming behind creates year round work for farm hands. That would eliminate the need for travel to a large extent. The farm hands that I know work year round on corn/ dairy farms for example. When they have finished their work in the fields, they tend to the cows, repair equipment, mow the hay, etc. But they work year round on the same farm. Imagine if farms were more diversified than even that?

  8. Wendy, the piece that you and other comments here seem to be missing is peak oil. We are now past peak, and lack of energy drives almost everything that follows. Industrial agriculture becomes impossible to maintain, so farms must become smaller, more diversified, with more animal and manual labor. Widespread homelessness and starvation is what will drive the mass migration I envisioned, as homeless people are driven away from their previous homes in the cities and suburbs, and seek food where it is created. "Will work for food" will be their motto. Housing arrangements, working conditions, quality of life - all become irrelevant in the face of a Malthusian correction.

    I recently heard someone say that we should live today as far into the future as we can see. I take this to mean that we should implement in our own lives those measures that are obviously necessary to our future as we see it. With that in mind, I am adapting my suburban lifestyle by reducing all consumerism as much as possible, getting rid of my car and TV, growing my own food to the extent possible, etc... I'm sure your book addresses some of these near-future changes. Your book is on its way to me now, and I'm looking forward to reading it.
    - Keith Hermann

  9. Hi, Keith! ;)

    I think most of the people who read my blog actually are pretty well informed with regard to Peak Oil ;). I don't think we're saying that there won't be a mass migration sometime in the future. While we all believe, as you do, that things will get much, MUCH worse as the world's energy resources deplete, like you, we're hoping to find workable solutions that could be implemented right now, in the hopes that fewer people will have to live in debris huts and wear a "will work for food" sign.

    It sounds like we're doing a lot of the same things, actually. My family tossed the television set and the clothesdryer this year. How liberating!

  10. P.S. Keith - thank you for your comments on the NSP forum, because it was you who prompted this discussion. Glad you stopped by to give your two cents ;). Welcome to the blog, by the way ;).