Over the years working on and around migrant workers issues, I have often felt that people in the food world remain more concerned with the providence of a rare organic mushroom than the harsh conditions farm laborers (documented and undocumented alike) face every day of their working life to cultivate that mushroom.
Though farm worker abuses occur across our country in shamefully high numbers, I bore witness to them in greatest depth over the last eight years in my home state of California, where I created a photo documentary, “The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers,” and a multimedia documentary, “Fair Food: Field to Table.” California’s leading industry is agriculture, which provides about 50 percent of the produce consumed in the United States, worth some $32 billion dollars in annual cash revenue. To put this in perspective, this state’s earthly output is well over three times the combined annual domestic box office receipts of the motion picture industry.
An estimated 1.1 million people in California are farm laborers, without whom this state’s vital agriculture economy simply could not function. This virtually invisible underclass — whose days begin in darkness and involve unending hours of stoop labor under the blinding sun for wages that rarely amount to more than $10,000 a year — quite literally feeds our country.
Whether they are families living in the dirt lots of Mecca, Calif., for months at a time during grape season, tomato pickers in Stockton who dash through muddy fields lugging 25-pound buckets in searing heat, day laborers who rise at 2 a.m. to cross the border at Calexico to be bused 50 miles to the scorching onion and melon fields of the Imperial Valley, or workers of indigenous descent who are relegated to the lowest of the low in jobs and living conditions, each and every one of these people has a story. Their stories go much deeper than any single news expose, or, for that matter, any photo-documentary project can. Theirs is the collective saga about the very human cost of putting food on America’s table.
Because of the transient, rural and isolated lifestyles of migrants and the heavy and constant flow of undocumented workers that make up these vast harvesting armies, there is little public awareness of these people’s plight. As a result, farm workers on the whole remain one of the easiest segments of our society to both cast off and exploit. For decades, though the languages they speak and their demographic makeup has changed, they have consistently endured our country’s greatest hardships in the areas of health care, unlivable housing conditions and workplace treatment and safety.
By virtue of their seasonal and transient work, few call any one place home for more than a couple of months at a time. This not only keeps farm workers on the outside of the communities in which they live, but also splinters families and prevents the growth of meaningful roots. This erodes any firm toehold they may get with which to negotiate for better conditions with the growers or the farm labor contractors.
There are glimmers of hope. This constant push for survival drives many toward inventing opportunity for themselves and their families. The emergence of grassroots organizations aimed at curtailing domestic abuse and sexual harassment, the creation of family recreation centers where social services can be accessed and the tireless work of advocates within the farm worker community — all significant strides — imbues this community with a sense of pride and possibility.
There may always be controversy about the political machinations that provide and control cheap labor, as well as about the status of farm workers — how they should be treated, naturalized, paid, housed and who is ultimately responsible for their well being. And yet while traveling nearly 4,000 miles across the state to photograph more than 40 towns where migrants live and labor, two things became incontrovertibly evident to me. First, there is no other sector in our country where people work so hard to have so little. And second, we should welcome farm workers — those who, in the inimitable words of Edward R. Murrow, “harvest the food for the best fed nation in the world” — as a meaningful part of our society.
Rick Nahmias is a photographer, writer, and filmmaker whose work has been shown across North America, Europe, and Asia. He creates special multimedia image-based projects of all sizes for foundations, nonprofits, corporations and cause-driven organizations. He also shoots freelance assignments with an emphasis on editorial, travel, medical and food subjects.