farm workers

Work of Many Hands

Food-related coverage in this issue was supported by ELCA World Hunger (

“Lord, you are good to all and compassionate toward all you’ve made ... You are faithful in all your words, and gracious in all your deeds. The eyes of all look to you in hope, and you give them their food in due season” (Psalm 145:9, 13, 15).

I often reflect on this message from Psalm 145 and how each of us will interpret it differently according to the experiences we’ve had in life. This is true even for the things in life that connect and affect us all.

Take, for example, God’s gift of food. We are interconnected by this thing that was created to nourish our bodies and minds, allowing us to function in our daily lives and permitting us to live a full and healthy life. Yet how often do we think about where the food we eat comes from?

When I’m at the store, I often wonder whose hands cultivated and cared for the plants that produced the piles of neatly stacked fruit and vegetables. Was it a Lupe, a Daniel, or a Jesus? How long did they have to work under the blazing hot sun in order to get the produce to the store? What are their stories and where do they come from?

I think about these things because I grew up with people who worked long, hard hours to produce the best quality of fruit for the market. Since I was very young, my immediate family has been immersed in agricultural work. My mother was a farm worker who picked fruit and vegetables. Once we children were old enough, we joined my mom and the rest of the labor force, which was mainly comprised of immigrant farm laborers. In the 19 years I’ve been around this work, rarely have I seen a non-immigrant hand in the orchards, and if I did, it surely wasn’t to help pick the fruit in bags that weigh up to 45 pounds.

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The Agricultural 99 Percent

Dockery Farm in MIssissippi by Natalie Maynor via Wylio

It was a record year for U.S. farmers in 2011, with farm income topping $100 billion. This includes sales of $22 billion in fruits and nuts and $21 billion in vegetables and melons — crops that rely on immigrant farm labor.

But even as U.S. farmers prospered in 2011, those working on farms had less to celebrate.

The nation’s agricultural mecca — Fresno Country, California — had the state’s highest agricultural sales ($5.9 billion) and its highest poverty rate – 27 percent. More than 36 percent of the county’s children were poor, also the highest rate in the state. As one agricultural expert puts it, “High farm sales and high poverty rates often go together.”

Low wages, the seasonal nature of agricultural work, and, for many, unauthorized immigration status make it difficult for farm workers and their families to escape poverty. Farm workers’ high poverty rates aren’t totally attributable to immigration status, but it’s certainly one of the causes: 71 percent of all hired farm workers in the United States are immigrants, and about half of them are in the country illegally.