California’s Frontline Agricultural Workers, Made Essential by Coronavirus and a Historic Wildfire Season, Deserve Our Gratitude and Support - American Farmland Trust

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California’s Frontline Agricultural Workers, Made Essential by Coronavirus and a Historic Wildfire Season, Deserve Our Gratitude and Support

farm workers pick strawberries in a field
USDA Photo by Lance Cheung

Do you want to know the worst kept secret in agriculture?

Our nation’s food system depends almost entirely on an army of immigrant laborers who work for wages and in conditions that most Americans could not imagine. Day after day, week after week, 365 days a year, workers head out into the fields or into processing plants to keep grocery stores and discount clubs stocked with fruits, vegetables, meat, grains, and dairy products Americans have become accustomed to having unfettered access to at affordable prices.

They are rarely thanked and even more rarely appreciated. That is why American Farmland Trust was so happy to see Governor Newsom and CA officially proclaim the month of October to be California Farmer and Farmworker Month. We must honor and respect farmworkers in this country, but we also must ask ourselves a simple yet incredibly important question: Would you go hungry without our nation’s farmworkers?

Hint: the answer should be overwhelmingly yes. In just a few generations, we’ve gone from a nation of food growers to a nation where only 1.3% of the population farms. Unless you’re part of that 1%, your family’s life depends on America’s farmworkers.

No year is easy for farmworkers, but 2020 has perhaps been one of the most horrific in recent memory.

No year is easy for farmworkers, but 2020 has perhaps been one of the most horrific in recent memory.

While many Americans had the opportunity to work from home when the coronavirus pandemic began to grip the nation in early 2020, farmworkers were not so lucky. Without federal protections, farmworkers across the nation, but particularly in California, risked coronavirus infection to harvest crops. The very nature of their job—living in tight quarters while sharing bathrooms and kitchens, riding in packed buses to and from the fields, limited access to health care and paid time off—often made them more susceptible to contracting the virus. These same issues impacted food workers in meat processing plants across the country where virus outbreaks often shined a spotlight on already precarious conditions inside slaughterhouses.

If trying to work through a global pandemic wasn’t bad enough, disaster struck again when wildfire season came early to California this year. A series of 12,000 dry lightning strikes over a 72-hour period in August set off more than 500 wildfires across California just as the harvest season in the state began to ramp up. Farmworkers raced to harvest crops before falling ash and smoke destroyed them. They did this despite short supplies of personal protective equipment, which led to many workers having to deal with the physical and emotional implications of inhaling thick wildfire smoke.

Our society must do a better job of supporting our food system’s essential workers, so they can do their jobs without jeopardizing their health or fearing harassment while earning living wages for their families.

Do you want a stronger future for agriculture in America and around the world? Then our society must do a better job of supporting our food system’s essential workers, so they can do their jobs without jeopardizing their health or fearing harassment while earning living wages for their families.

From all of us at American Farmland Trust, thank you to California’s farmworkers for helping to put food on America’s tables every day.

For more information on issues impacting farmworkers in California, please visit:

 

About the Author
Kara Heckert

Resilient Agriculture West Advisor

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