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.