One topic that probably won’t be discussed during the presidential debates: farming and food.
There was a time that the rural vote mattered in national elections. Presidential candidates carefully crafted an “ag” policy agenda as they barnstormed across the nation campaigning for the farm vote. That train left long ago with the rapid decline in rural populations. But candidates still claim to be the farmer’s friend in campaign stops and serve up slogans that cater to specific audiences.
Missing from the agenda is the fact that food – from issues about nutrition, food safety and health – touches all our lives. Yet those faces behind our foods remain neglected. Who thinks of the farmer while biting into a peach or a piece of raisin bread or crunching a walnut? Lost even more in the shadows and back rooms are the farmworker and food laborers.
The public forgets about a vast network of men and women who work the fields to harvest your food. Forgotten, too, are the many hands required to bring food to your tables, including those in processing, shipping and making food. The faces of the workers at a meat processing plant or the terminal market in every large city or the kitchen crew at your favorite restaurant matter, too.
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Undeniably, a large portion of these workers are immigrants and may be undocumented. Do the presidential candidates see these faces of food when they address immigration reform?
Who is the real friend of the American farmer and those who work with food? The rhetoric scares us, especially about deportation and building a wall. There is no room for ego or bombast on a family farm; there is far too much work to be done to waste time with vitriol.
Any immigration platform that neglects the reality of the role immigrant workers play in bringing food to our table is wrong. Our agricultural industry depends on a workforce of immigrants, not only our farms in California, but across the nation. Rural economies will be crushed without the (invisible) hands that help grow the food that feeds a nation. Farmers offer them jobs and they accept positions others are unwilling to fill.
The contribution of immigrant workers (citizens, registered and unauthorized) is not confined to farms. Food processing, manufacturing, preparation and service include these neglected laborers. From fields to tables in restaurants, the food system depends on the work of millions of immigrant laborers. Their contributions must be acknowledged as essential. (Imagine including their names and stories in our food labels.)
What would happen if chants of “build a wall” came true? The true cost in productivity and efficiency with such a distorted immigration policy would unleash higher costs. Agricultural and food processing operations might relocate – even beyond our borders. Such a policy disregards the humanity of our food workers and disrupts an amazing food chain that makes us great already. It would force millions to work deeper in the shadows of exploitation. All of our foods should then leave a bad taste in our mouths.
As family farmers, we know the qualities of hard work. The sweat of hard work bonds us across generations. In order to survive, we must respect each other. We must listen to our neighbors (even when we disagree). We understand that our future depends on more than our single story alone. Our lives, work and the future of our families are dramatically shaped by policies at all levels of government. For this reason, we are compelled to lift up our voices.
So long as the debates continue to disregard the people who feed our country – small family farmers and farmworkers, especially women and immigrants – we continue to devalue these essential people behind our food. That is, until it gets harder to fill your plate at mealtime. The goal should not be a race to the bottom. We want a more humane food system; we want to work toward living wages and a more prosperous food system for all.
We want a leader who doesn’t sling dirt, but rather someone who will work with us and who appreciates the nuances, facts and perspectives of those who work with soil. We want a president whose character reflects the values of hard work, the respect that we cherish, and the humility to listen.
We need a leader to speak out boldly in support of agriculture, a candidate who goes beyond website slogans of supporting the family farmer. They need to have transparency and open conversation about the role of family farming today and in the future.
Modern agriculture already has arrived. How will each candidate greet this “new ag” – a contemporary world of technology, complex global trade, income inequality and immigration reform? We’d like to hear. We want to contribute. We need to be part of the dialogue.
The old rural farm vote is morphing into a different partnership between urban eaters and farm producers; seeds of a farm to fork community have been planted.
Family farmers struggle to maintain a place in the food chain and part of the new story of farming. This is the new battlefront for farmers to survive. We want to be recognized as who we are. And we want a president who listens and can speak for all of us.
David “Mas” Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and the award-winning author of eight books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.” His daughter, Nikiko Masumoto, an organic farmer and artist, and Craig McNamara, organic farmer and president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, contributed to the writing of this column.