Consider the people whose sweat and tears have washed your plump, red Honeycrisp, before taking that next juicy bite. In the United States, from August to November, Apples are harvested and sent to packinghouses where they are sorted, cleaned, and waxed then placed in storage for up to an additional year before reaching consumers across the globe. Much of the labor involved in the pruning, thinning, picking, and packing processes of America’s $7 billion apple industry is provided by non-resident workers from countries where the GDP barely exceeds that number.
Earl Edwards was a Jamaican man who had been working at Gebbers Farms in Brewster, WA, every summer for over ten years. He was exhibiting respiratory symptoms after having been reassigned at work and died in isolation on July 31. He was posthumously confirmed to have had COVID-19. Edwards was the second person to die at the farm in the same month; he would not make it home to work on his own farm where he grew ginger during the tropical winter. My brother was among several workers who lost confidence in the farm’s concern for their well-being and decided they wouldn’t be the third fatality. They resolved that being 3,000 miles away from home, in the epicenter of Washington’s COVID-19 outbreak, and at the mercy of an uncaring employer was untenable. Amy Philpott, the farm’s spokesperson, dismissing the gravity of the situation, has said that workers choose to leave early every year. I know that workers have not left the farm without having an emergency at home before 2020.
Migrant farmworkers under the H-2A visa program have faced slavery-like conditions in the United States since its inception in 1986. The 1990 documentary H2 Worker, exposed how Florida’s sugar industry consistently took advantage of Caribbean migrant labor. As the descendant of enslaved Africans and the child of subsistent farmers, I have a deep ancestral connection to agriculture. My father, in his youth, was a migrant farmworker in Canada. For the past seven years, my brother has been a migrant farmworker at Gebbers Farms in eastern Washington. He and dozens of other Jamaican and Mexican migrant workers made the difficult choice to return home. Hundreds of workers remain at the camp who cannot leave due to the dire socio-economic situation in their home countries and fear of being blacklisted from the program in future years. Gebbers Farms knows this, so they have not bothered to improve their workers’ safety. They have made workers responsible for testing and cost of care, even while they are quarantined and not being paid. They have encouraged sick laborers to keep working because replacements were unavailable.
This heartbreaking issue is at the intersection of my identities. I am a black, Jamaican immigrant woman launching a small farm on the opposite side of the Cascades with the mission of decolonizing the food system. Corporate monoculture giants such as Gebbers benefit disproportionately from the H-2A visa program and most subsidies and tax breaks available to farmers. At the same time, I struggle to find skilled labor, financing, and a competent USDA employee willing to address my needs as a small-scale, diverse farmer.
“They have us under slavery, and the money is the whip,” is the first thing my brother said to me when he called, distraught, after Edwards’ death. Infamously disrespectful of human rights, Donald Trump has limited every avenue of legally entering the US except for the H-2A visa program for guest agricultural workers, which remains uncapped. He has also tried to lower the migrant workers’ pay to provide “wage relief” to farm owners amid the current pandemic. 15,000 Jamaicans have come to the US for seasonal farm work, close to 700 were working at Gebbers Farms. These workers are known to be desperate for any money and already earn far less than they deserve ($12.96/hr is the national average). They do not qualify for paid time off or unemployment benefits, yet we have built a food system that relies upon them as a source of cheap, abundant labor. This must end.
In 1855, George Washington Bush, a black farmer and Washington state’s first non-indigenous settler, was awarded his land by congressional decree. This happened a full five years after his companions, who were white, were freely granted theirs by merely existing. Bush was lauded as being “exemplary and industrious,” so a special Act of Congress was passed, giving him the 640 acres he had successfully farmed for ten years. Today, black farmers in Washington are still fighting for our humanity- our right to exist as equals.
White Americans are not less capable of performing the backbreaking work that migrant farmworkers do. We must stop perpetuating the myth of Americans being lazy and immigrants being hard workers. If the conditions on these farms were to change, more workers with options, i.e., American nationals, would be doing the work. Pushing people to their physical limits for the least possible pay is akin to slavery. If amid record unemployment, these farms cannot find enough workers, they need to reexamine their operation and start paying a fair wage to both resident and migrant workers.
In July, when I finally decided to farm full-time, I acknowledged that I was taking on a monumental task. I knew that I was making a meaningful stride towards changing how food and farming are understood in the United States. I did not foresee that before the end of the summer, we would have such a clear example of how food systems built on the backs of marginalized people are harmful and unsustainable. We now need to take action to guarantee and enforce the equal human rights of farmworkers. We need to ensure that when farm owners violate guidelines, they are not paying a negligible fine. We also need to support small farmers who are redesigning the food system, so it no longer runs on exploitation.
Call and write your US Representative, the Secretary of Agriculture, and your Department of Health to demand better treatment of farmworkers during the pandemic and beyond. Let them know that seven people living in one bedroom is unacceptable, that having to share bathrooms and a kitchen with hundreds of men is appalling. Eat as much locally sourced food as you can, and consider the people whose sweat and tears have washed your plump, red Honeycrisp before taking that next juicy bite.