A better rural voice for immigration

By Tony Schultz and Kat Becker | Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 2:59 pm As immigration reform moves forward nationally, the voices from rural communities appear to be dominated by conservative farm organizations rather than based on a community's needs and values. It is also based around premises that will continue to perpetuate the farm crisis — benefiting a few over the many in rural areas.

The current monologue tied to rural areas is one created to serve large agricultural employers and agribusiness. As a headline in the Vegetable Growers News puts forth the policy "farmers want" is simply "more workers." 

The Farm Bureau is part of a coalition of agribusiness groups that is saying "laws should be amended so that farms could legally employ foreign workers year-round in addition to seasonal jobs." Both voices frame immigrants as a needed input into the agricultural system — not as people who care for their families or those who go to our churches. 

This rural viewpoint is also not based on policies for small and midsized farmers, small rural businesses or community vitality. It seems odd to us that in a sluggish economy with a 7.9 percent formal unemployment rate that there should be a perilous lack of workers. Don't conservative economists tell us that markets will respond and wages will rise to attract workers to this sector? In reference to a supposed farm labor shortage, factory farmers and racist conservative politicians say "no white people will do these jobs." 

We absolutely disagree with that absurd stereotype that there is something about agricultural work that makes it not good enough for the rest of us.  

First, on our farm we do monotonous physically difficult work regularly. We shovel manure, toss hay bales and spend 40 percent of summer days on our hands and knees pulling weeds and harvesting vegetables, and we love doing it. But it is not just the labor that matters here but rather our own relationship to our work. We love it because we get to make decisions about what we do and when we do it. We get to determine a price that provides for our family and allows us to make investments into our farm. We get to spend time with our young children. It is empowering work that we have a lot of control over. 

Small farms like our own have no labor shortage and are approached by many people wanting to work for us as a step toward their own farm ownership, as a training place where they can be treated as valuable partners in work.  

Our county's own grazing apprenticeship program, designed to help beginning farmers get trained and onto their own farms, has been so popular that they have a waiting list of more than 50 individuals waiting to be placed on small and midsized farms and paid $10 an hour for two years.

 It seems like lots of people want to do farm work but they also want to someday own their own farm — within the immigration policies set forth by agribusiness, farm workers should be low-wage farm workers forever. What the conservative agribusiness lobby means when they say no one wants these jobs is really "no native worker wants jobs where they are paid poorly for hours of repetitive work with no chance for promotion or a path to entrepreneurship." They want a pool of desperate workers, with no legal access to state support, who don't speak the language and can be isolated by the larger culture.

Imagine the host of larger conversations we would need to have about the direction of our agricultural system if the basic assumption that large farms are efficient was looked at in a real light — large farms in most fruit and vegetable crops and livestock production are economically dependent on exploiting people — that means not economically profitable. 

If living wages were paid and there were no racial hierarchy in this industry, factory farms wouldn't exist. So what is our take on immigration reform? In rural communities we are very vocal about our values. And a reasonable immigration policy seems like one based around these. We value hard work, independence, small businesses, family, community support, and the overarching idea that we should love thy neighbor as ourselves. We need policy that is based on real possibility — not exploitation — and allows immigrants old and new to build their own businesses as we have been able to do historically. 

We also need to understand the ways in which racism has been used to keep all of us down, to pit rural people ravaged by international trade policies and agribusiness farm policies against people of color and immigrants who have been ravaged by the same policies. Working and middle-class family farmers, entrepreneurs and all citizens must not be fooled into blaming people with even less social, political and economic power than themselves; people who have almost nothing and are doing whatever work they can to make a better life for their family. We must ask who is responsible for creating these conditions. Who receives the power and capital and benefit from this?

That is where the problem lies.

We need to be clear about what actually benefits us. Broad democratic ownership rather than concentration has been shown in many economic studies to best serve rural communities, so why do we keep shooting ourselves in the foot and siding with the few at the expense of many?

We are for immigration reform featuring amnesty and a clear path to citizenship for people who are giving their lives to make this country work because it is the fair, decent and just thing to do, not so some factory farmer can keep the sweatshop going. 

We need a better immigration policy because of the opportunity it provides for America's economy and culture, not to fill the needs of a caste system of factory farms. A real path to American citizenship is one that includes a living wage for work and the opportunity to own a business. If America is going to be great, America must be shared. 

Tony Schultz and Kat Becker own Stoney Acres Farm in Athens.