Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern: Racial (In)Justice, Immigration and Labor in the Food System

by Rootstock Radio

March 4, 2019

by Rootstock Radio

Today, Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern, assistant professor of food studies in Falk College at Syracuse University, digs into racial injustice, immigration and hired labor—how you really can’t (and shouldn’t) think about our food system without taking these things into account. From her research in Guatemala to her upcoming book The New American Farmer: Race, Immigration and Sustainability, Laura-Anne contextualizes food and agriculture in a way that is critically important, especially in our current political climate. 

Tune in to hear about:

  • The lowdown on guest worker programs in agriculture: what they are, why they’re gaining popularity again—and why they’re problematic.
  • How social violence and economic exclusion in the marketplace turns farmers into migrant farm workers.
  • The history of farm workers being left out of progressive labor reforms like 40-hour work weeks and the right to unionize.
  • Hope! An opportunity emerging for immigrant farm workers as (predominantly) white farmers are retiring across the country. 

Listen at the link below, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.

Rootstock Radio Interview with Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern

Air Date: March 4, 2019

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez. 

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and it is a real pleasure today to be with here with Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern, who is on the faculty of food studies in Falk College at Syracuse University. Laura has done a lot of research, she’s a teacher, she’s a writer, and her topic is so, so important: racial justice—or shall we call it injustice—immigration, and labor. Laura, what a privilege for us to be talking with you today. 

Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern: Thank you so much for having me. 

TM: Yeah, you know, with all this hilariously misplaced discussion about “The Wall” and the shutdown of government, certainly the topic of immigration, racial injustice, and of course labor in the food system seems to be a very, very important discussion that we need to have. And I think that you probably have an angle on it that we’re not hearing. So, how did you get interested in this topic?

LAMZ: Yeah, well it started probably about 20 years ago when I was an undergraduate. And I did my undergraduate in upstate New York as well. I was at Cornell, and I was really interested in food from a more sustainability standpoint. I got interested in food because I felt that it was a way to reach people in terms of environmental issues, because everyone eats, right? And food is an inherently environmental issue.

I ended up going to Guatemala and doing some work with Mayan farmers and looking at traditional food ways in Guatemala. When I came back to the States, I tried farming. I moved out to California and I thought, I want to kind of get my hands dirty and try being involved in agriculture myself. And I didn’t come from an agricultural background, and found that, while it was not my skillset, I was really interested in all the people that I was meeting on the farm. And what was most fascinating to me is that the people that I met working on farms in California were so similar to the people that I met that were farmers in Guatemala. And I saw this transition from people from Central America and Mexico that are really farming their own land and growing their own food, that, for various political and economic reasons, had moved to the United States and started working on other people’s farms. So they go from being farmers to farm workers.

So what really interested me is that they really had a lot of knowledge about agriculture. And so I became really interested in, kind of, that knowledge that they brought across the border. And so not only have I done work on labor injustices and immigration issues related to agriculture, but I also have been doing research on how that knowledge has transitioned to their work in the U.S. when they’ve both been starting gardens and also some farm workers that have started their own farms. 

TM: Well, I’m just curious—so you were in Guatemala in the 1990s?

LAMZ: Early 2000s.

TM: Early 2000s, yeah. So you probably did not get the full onslaught of the revolution that they had in that country that really devastated peasants, killed just a ton of people, and was just ugly as can be, orchestrated by our own CIA. There was a lot of evidence about that, and what a harsh environment that was. And we probably have a lot of Guatemalans in our country today—maybe you can confirm this—that really are refugees from that. 

LAMZ: Oh, absolutely. I think you have… I’ve been looking at Central America in particular, and Guatemala specifically. There was, like you’re saying, a long history of violence which the U.S. played a major role in. And you combine that violence, and you have people fleeing that violence to go to cities within Central America and Mexico and then eventually come up here, for many of them; you combine that with kind of economic policy like NAFTA and like, following that, CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and you see people are both refugees from social violence as well as economic exclusion from the market.

And so I saw a real combination of that when I was there. I saw people that were really struggling from—if they did still have their land and when were things were starting to settle down, at least in terms of violence, but not at all economically. They’ve never recovered from that experience and the loss of land that went along with that. So, so much of the war was about land. And people that were trying to survive as farmers, and many of them getting into the global market producing coffee, and then not being able to survive as coffee farmers because of competition. And then they come across the border and become workers here.

So it’s very complex, but I think it’s about understanding food and agriculture… You know, we teach in Food Studies a systems perspective, that you have to look at both politics and economics and social conditions in order to understand something like food. 

TM: So, for our listeners, Laura-Anne has a book coming up this spring that’s called The New American Farmer: Race, Immigration, and Sustainability. And it’s interesting to see that those three things are put together. So I wonder, maybe, if you could say a little bit about how these things work together—race, immigration, and sustainability?

LAMZ: Sure. Well, I think you can’t really look at any one of those things without the other in our current food system, right? So we have a global food system. That’s not something that is going to change. Even if we can move towards something that’s more localized or more regional, we are part of the global food system. And as we’re part of a global food trading system, right? But inherently, when food is traded across borders, it affects people growing food across borders.

And so immigration plays a really big role in kind of how the food system works in terms of who can afford to continue to be farmers, in terms of how farmers compete in a global market. And what I’ve found is that a lot of people that have not been able to compete with big U.S. agribusiness, whether it be for basic commodities like corn or whether they’re competing on a global scale with other specialty crop producers, like cocoa or coffee, many of them become migrants and immigrants in the global stream of immigrants. And many immigrants, the majority of them still come from agrarian backgrounds. 

And so when we talk about immigration, we’re inherently talking about food and agriculture, whether that’s up front in the conversation or not. And then, of course, when we talk about immigration we’re always talking about race, because some immigrants are considered legitimate and other immigrants are not, especially today. And so, not to say that that’s a new concept, but particularly immigrants of color and Latin-American immigrants, Mexican immigrants, Central American immigrants, have been so demonized in the past few years. And it’s not to say they had it easy before, but when we talk about immigration, I think we have to acknowledge that we’re talking about race.


TM: Well, absolutely, if we look at who are the laborers in our fields in California and in other states as well, they are Latinos mostly or they’re people of color. Some of them are actually citizens and have been here for multi generations. And then isn’t there a category of immigrants that they call the “guest workers”? And they are people get green cards so that they can work in the fields?

LAMZ: Absolutely. That’s actually the topic of my new research project. So very separate from the work I’ve been doing is actually looking at this push towards the guest worker program. And so, guest worker programs for agriculture have been around for a very long time. And the idea being that when there is a need in the labor market for farm workers, and farmers can’t find those workers in the general population, or people that are willing to do this job for the prices that the farmers will pay, that there should be some kind of program that allows workers to come in legally. But then, from a farmer perspective and a policy prospective, the idea has always been that those workers are then obligated to go back to their home countries. So it’s a very temporary visa.

And if you move up to today, what we have is the H-2A visa, which has been around for a long time but has not been used or taken advantage of very much because we’ve, for so many decades, had a flow of undocumented labor, and people coming across the border pretty easily to work in agriculture, and therefore farmers not finding a need to use this program.

So what we’ve seen—and it hasn’t only been the last two years. It’s really been the last ten years that the program has been exploding. So basically, since it became much harder to cross the border and the border has become a more dangerous place, farmers have been finding that they cannot fill the jobs. You could argue as to why farmers can’t fill the jobs, right? From a labor perspective, people would say, well, that’s the labor market, and if you can’t fill the jobs, you need to pay more. From a farmer perspective they’re saying, well, we can’t afford to pay more, and people born in the United States aren’t necessarily skilled at these jobs anymore. And for better or worse, that’s what farmers have become used to and depended upon.

And so, given that there’s such a fear of hiring undocumented workers, for farmers, because there have been an increase in raids by I.C.E.—by Immigration—and they can’t afford to lose their workers. If you lose your crew for the season, you lose your crop for the season, and that’s the farm. From the worker perspective, obviously workers are not coming over in such plentiful supply for farmers. And being in rural areas—and we see this especially where I live right in upstate New York, where farm workers from Central America and Mexico really stand out in the landscape, which is very different from the West Coast—there’s a lot of fear in taking these jobs, not just coming here, but then being in rural areas and taking these jobs. So there absolutely has been a lacking availability of workers for many reasons.

So now the farmers have really been pushing for an increase in the H-2A visa program. And while the program doesn’t have a quota per se, there is a limitation on seasonality. And in this program they’re hired by one farm—they’re contracted to one farm; they cannot change jobs, which is pretty problematic from a labor perspective. And then they go back to their home country—in this case, mostly Mexico and Jamaica. So it’s been promoted politically as a win-win because you’re solving, kind of, the labor problem for farmers without really looking at immigration reform in any real way.

TM: You know, there’s this big outcry that these immigrants are taking jobs away from people. And so they decided to take strawberries and just eliminate all the guest and immigrant workers, and it was a total failure. Maybe there is an art to picking strawberries, or not, who knows? But no one lasted and they ended up back using immigrant and people of color, Latino farmers. So don’t you think that that’s kind of incorrect to say that these workers are stealing jobs?

LAMZ: Yeah, no, it’s definitely been proven time and time again that it’s very difficult to get U.S.-born citizens to take these jobs. And not just white people, right? I mean, most people of color born in the U.S. don’t want these jobs. These are primarily immigrants, first-generation immigrants who don’t have access to the kind of education and opportunities that get them out of farm work, quite honestly. Because it’s not really desirable jobs that they’re taking on. There’s also the argument, hey, if you paid $20 an hour, people might actually get it together and do these jobs.

TM: Or even $15 an hour!

LAMZ: Yeah, they’re definitely not making $15 an hour in most positions; certainly, in some management positions. 

TM: So that brings up a really big question, and that is: If we are going to a minimum wage of $15 an hour, will that also apply to the farm workers and even the guest farm workers? 

LAMZ: So, that is a good question. There’s been a long history, since labor reform happened in the 1930s in the United States, of leaving farm workers out of these changes. And that’s been incredibly unfortunate. The New Deal regulations allowing for things like a weekend—a 40-hour work week, and then you’d have to pay overtime on the weekend—farm workers were explicitly left out of those reforms. The requirement that workers have the legal protection to form a union: farm workers were left out of that reform. Lobbying by the agrarian industry at the time saying, no, agriculture is different and farm workers should be treated differently. 

While some states have made advances, particularly California, Washington State, there’s just a handful of them, at least reforming things like the right to form a union, most states have never reformed that. So while farm workers do have to be paid whatever the state minimum wage is, they don’t have the right to form a union in most states. They don’t have the right to overtime at the 40-hour work week. And a lot of these concessions were made because farmers have always argued, “Well, it’s a family business, we need our kids to do the work.” And while that might be the case for some farms, majority of the time this is being applied to non-family members. And so, when we’ve seen any progress in labor being made, usually farm workers are left out of that progress.

Laura Anne Minkoff Zern
Laura Anne Minkoff Zern


TM: Well, if you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio and I’m Theresa Marquez. And it’s a very, an honor today to be talking with Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern, who is a professor, a researcher, and a writer, and who is working on a book which will be out this spring, called The New American Farmer: Race, Immigration, and Sustainability

Laura-Anne, part of what you’re doing—and you actually pointed out, I believe, in some of the research you’ve done and things you’ve written about—is that white farmers in the United States are retiring like crazy. And of course, we’re in Wisconsin, and in the dairy industry, we’ve lost 600 midsize and small farmers just in two years. And of course, since the 1960s the United States has lost 4.6 or almost 5 million farmers. That doesn’t mean that there’s less acreage, of course, or less animals. It just means that we now have high-industrial agriculture. 

But you have pointed out that because white farmers in the United States are retiring, we have an opportunity now for workers who have been here, sometimes three and four generations, to potentially take up the mantle of being a farmer instead of a farm worker. I wonder if you could say a little about what’s happening with that now in the United States?

LAMZ: Thanks. Well, yeah, that’s a great lead-in to talk about my book, The New American Farmer, which is going to come out in the fall, and where I looked at that exact situation that’s going on. And I should preface it with, I have not seen this happen on dairy farms!

But what I’m seeing in fruit and agriculture and what I saw across the country is that, as we know, what’s considered traditional, native-born white farmer in the U.S., as people are retiring—because it’s just so hard economically and people, their kids don’t want to take on the farm—there’s this kind of up-and-coming movement of Latino, Latina immigrant farmers. Which, in a way, makes a lot of sense, because, as I was speaking about before, immigrants that come here to work on farms typically have a ton of their own farming experience, whether it be on their own farmland that they owned in their home country or rented or their family owned. So they’re not just coming here as workers—they’re coming here as really experienced farmers.

And what’s also really interesting is a lot of them come here with experience farming in what we might term alternative or sustainable. So while they might not be experienced at the whole process of organic certification, they certainly have experience with multi-crop farming, low chemical input, growing a food in way that feeds their family and community—[a] more subsistence type of agriculture, which is kind of where the alternative food movement overlaps with what they know how to do already.

So what I found when I was doing this research is that a lot of farm workers, if they do decide to persist and go into farming on their own farm, renting or owning land in the United States—which has so many barriers and boundaries for them—if they do commit to it and do it and succeed in starting their own farm business, they tend to do it in a way that we would consider alternative farming, right? Very diverse, selling to local markets, feeding their community. While they are commercial farmers that are trying to have a business, they certainly fit the mold of a more alternative farmer and sometimes an actual certified organic farmer too.

So they’re kind of taking up this mantle of small-scale farming, just as a lot of farmers are moving out. And some of them do end up purchasing the business or the land from the people that they worked for. And I think that we see it much more in fruit and vegetable production because the capital input is a lot lower than something like dairy. They don’t have to buy the machinery, the animals. As long as they have some land, they really know how to do a lot with a little. And so, while they might need a tractor, it’s something they potentially could borrow, or a truck they could share. So it has a lot less capital input to be a fruit and vegetable farmer, quite honestly, than a dairy farmer.

TM: And certainly farmers know all about sweat equity. So I’m just curious then, are you being able to find statistics that show an increase, potentially anyway, of people of color getting in, women, of course, getting into farming?

LAMZ: Yeah, well, I think that the statistics that are coming out of the U.S. agricultural census are showing this. And so, while I think there’s a lot of flaws in the way that the agricultural census has been collected, and in fact I think most of the people I interviewed didn’t even answer it, which I think shows that their, if anything, their numbers are very, very low for this type of farmer. And so while I think that—and as part of this research I interviewed people that do the agricultural census, and I talked to the USDA workers that are supposed to be doing the outreach, and the people that are involved in making sure that really under-the-radar farmers do answer. The reality is that most immigrants, especially a lot of the people I talked to, are not literate. They haven’t been in schools for most of their life. They’ve maybe been through elementary school or middle school. And then if they are literate, it’s in Spanish, and so not in English. So for them to fill out the type of form that would get them counted is very unlikely. And especially in this current political environment, they’re not necessarily jumping to fill out government forms.

But, despite the fact that I don’t that it fully captures the number of immigrant and Latino farmers out there, it shows that there’s an increase. It shows that there’s a dramatic increase in Latino farmers and other farmers of color—so Native American and black and Asian-American farmers and women are all going up slowly, but Latino farmers are going up quicker than any of those other groups. And we’re just about to kind of see the results of the next agricultural census, but this has been based on looking at the last two agricultural censuses. So as we see the number of farmers overall go down, we see the numbers of people identifying as Latino or Hispanic going up.

Migrant workers harvesting sweet potatoes in field
Migrant workers harvesting sweet potatoes in field


TM: Well I think that what you just said about some of the language barriers, et cetera, makes me understand then why they are so excluded from the U.S. Department of Ag’s programs. Or are there other reasons why they’re excluded from the U.S. Department of Ag, which has numerous kinds of programs to help small farmers?

LAMZ: Sure, yeah, and that definitely was a big part of what I looked at. In every region that I was doing research, I also met with people in the local FSA offices or natural resource offices and tried to get a sense of, kind of, were immigrant farmers coming in? Were they getting loans? Were they taking part in these programs as well? Because I think most farmers know that those programs are really essential to getting started. Things like being able to get some assistance with building a hoop house is really helpful for a small-scale fruit or vegetable grower. 

And what I found was that overwhelmingly the answer was no. And in some cases, I’d go into the office and I’d talk to the person that was supposed to be doing this kind of outreach, and I’d say, “Do you work with Latino farmers or immigrant farmers in the region?” And they’d say, “Oh, we don’t work with farm workers.” And I’d say, “No, I’m talking about the farmers. And actually, I met a bunch of farmers in your region that are immigrants that actually have their own businesses.” And they’d say, “Wow, I didn’t even know that.” And part of the reason would be language, if no one in the office spoke Spanish. And I think that that really depends on the region.

So when I was in Washington State, in the Yakima Valley region, there were two really incredible people working in the local USDA office who had come up in agriculture and were both fluent and grew up in immigrant families, and did an amazing amount of outreach on their own. And I think it was about those individuals doing that. I think it’s not the same in a place like Virginia, where there might be a large group of immigrant, particularly Mexican farmers, but there’s not a multigeneration history of people doing that there, and they’re a newer immigrant group, really, since the ’80s. And there’s no one working in those offices that can speak Spanish and do that kind of outreach. So it depends on the geographic region.

But what I found overall was that when I talked to farmers—“Do you go into the offices? Do you ever use these resources that are available to you? Do you go to extension offices at the university?”—either they didn’t know about it at all, or they’d say, “That’s not for me.” One farmer said to me, “I’ve walked in there before and it’s not a place for me. I’m not welcome there.” They feel that kind of fear that this is not a place where—you know, even if it’s not an overt kind of racism… One woman said, “They don’t speak my language,” and she’s someone that speaks decent English. She meant culturally, right? “They don’t get me.” And the amount, and certainly the language barrier and the literacy barrier to the types of forms you need to fill out to get assistance, for someone that has a fourth-grade education level in only Spanish, that barrier is enormous.

And then further what I found with institutional resources, like the USDA or even organic certification, having to organize and quantify their farming is not something that they’ve been trained to do. It’s not something they grew up doing when they learned about farming. And so being able to, say, be very specific and manage their farm through paperwork and through kind of a quantification and very specific types of counting what they’ve grown and when they did it, and that type of record keeping, is just not familiar to so many immigrant farmers. And that is an additional barrier in so many ways. Yeah, there’s a lot of barriers.

TM: I was taken with something that I saw in the literature about your book, saying that you actually had some critiques of the alternative food movement, and that just because something is an alternative food movement, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily doing a good job by their farm workers. I wonder if you could say something about that.

LAMZ: Yeah, and I do think that there’s a growing awareness and has been. And I think it’s tough to… What is the alternative farm movement? What is the sustainable farm movement? Different people identify it in different ways. So the push towards kind of looking at racial and economic justice within the food system has been taken on by the Food Justice Movement. So this has been changing for a long time.

But I think labor has been a particularly hard topic for even the Food Justice Movement, right? Because there’s kind of a bias towards the small-scale farmer. And small-scale farmers are struggling, right? And if you’re struggling and labor is your biggest cost, being able to pay workers more and give them benefits that you might not even be able to give yourself, like health insurance, is a really tricky and tough topic. So I’m not putting blame on small-scale farmers here, but I do think that consumers have to understand that we can’t assume, just because someone’s selling at a farmers’ market or is certified organic, that that means that better labor practices are implied in that.

And I think when farmers do actually take labor into account and work on How do I afford to pay workers a living wage and give them benefits, it’s like we have to give those farmers a lot of credit. So certainly, labor justice and racial justice has not been the primary part of the food sustainability conversation, but I do think that’s changing. I mean, I think the success of the Coalition of Immokalee workers in Florida, the success of many farmers of color that are getting recognition, the work of Leah Penniman, who just came out with a book called Farming While Black… You know, kind of this more detailed attention to racial justice in the food system, with labor being part of that discussion, I think it is really happening. But I think we need to keep pushing on it, for sure. 

TM: Well, I’m so excited that you’re working on it and others are working on it. I know Leah’s work too, and I’m so proud of what she’s doing as well—pretty exciting. So thank you so much for that and for your time today. It’s been really a pleasure talking with you. 

LAMZ: Thanks, you too!

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