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American Farming Runs on Exploitation

Climate change isn't the only reality the USDA's been slow to grapple with.

Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Politico published a feature on the Department of Agriculture’s failure to prepare the nation’s farmers for climate change. Of the USDA’s $144 billion budget, Politico reported, just 0.3 percent is dedicated to helping farmers adapt to the increasingly volatile climate conditions.

The devastating truth that permeated the piece—that the most powerful government in the world is actively turning a blind eye to those situated on the economic front lines of the encroaching disaster—prompts a number of questions. How has pervasive top-down climate denial persisted in the USDA for this long? Could Democrats in 2020 capitalize on this moment to retake the agriculture vote they so painfully bled over the last half-century? 

But there are other urgent questions one could also ask about modern American agriculture. While Politico’s piece offered an insightful analysis of the future of farmers, it focused on business owners. The viewpoint was that of the employers charged with balancing and capitalizing on their annual budgets, who are now worried because their politicians of choice continue to refuse to take proactive measures. As is typical in mainstream coverage of agriculture, there was not a single line about the effects on the workers and laborers that fill the fields, or how climate change will affect the places they hail from. 

As farming in the U.S. continues its decades-long descent into an industrialized system rife with inequality, Americans are still focusing on the American farmer of old. Here’s another question one could ask: When are conversations about American farming going to start worrying about the exploitative house of cards the entire agricultural industry currently teeters on? 

Sixty years ago, if you were a farmer, there was one thing you needed more than a tractor or fertilizer: kids. 

Family farms—real family farms—were buoyed by free labor. Families often consisted of six to twelve kids, all of whom worked various tasks from the time they could walk. My father, raised on my grandparents’ North Carolina tobacco farm, was Kid Number Nine out of eleven; like most farming families, he grew up next door to his cousins, who worked the fields alongside him and his brothers until they graduated high school. 

In 1935, when Congress passed the relatively ground-breaking National Labor Relations Act of 1935, workers everywhere felt like for the first time in their lives, the government was working for them. But there was a catch. While employers across nearly every industry were forbidden from firing workers for joining or organizing a union, farmworkers and domestic workers—positions largely occupied by African Americans at the time—were not covered by this law.  Three years later, with the passing of the Fair Labor Standards Act, farmworkers were again denied the promise of a minimum wage and overtime pay. 

The reason for the carve-outs is fairly clear: Farming, for the entire existence of the profession, has been an unstable field of work. With so many external factors affecting the potential cash-in come harvesting time, the government sought to protect the (mostly white) farm owners—protecting field workers second, if at all. So subsidy measures, like government-backed crop insurance and guaranteed price floors, all flew through state legislatures and Congress, because large-scale farm owners occupied the seats in these chambers, and they knew that to remain in office they needed to earn the votes of thousands of small-scale farmers. 

As the century progressed and the 1980s arrived, a realization was washing over families, economists, and politicians. Farming, as it had existed for the last fifty years, was on the way out. With more Americans attending universities and technical colleges and leaving the homestead, fewer were choosing a life in the fields. Yet with the population still growing and the human species not yet mastering photosynthesis, the federal government was faced with the question of how to keep American farms afloat. Rather than help farms offer an adequate increase in wages and working conditions to buoy the American field workers, the government instead passed policies to help outsource field work to foreign laborers who might be happy to pocket any money at all. 

With the passing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, Congress introduced a subcategory for agricultural workers to the H2 visa program, a vehicle for businesses to import cheap, temporary labor that had been around since 1952. The 1986 legislation marked the creation of the H-2A worker, and fundamentally shifted how farms in the United States operate. 

Three decades removed from the rollout of H-2A workers, the American agricultural system is a completely different beast than one might believe from the archaic messaging that is regularly peddled. President Donald Trump bombasts supporters with messages about America reaching some imagined, racist carrying capacity (“What can we do? We can’t handle any more,” Trump told a group in April. “Our country’s full. You can’t come in, I’m sorry.”). Meanwhile, farms across the country continue to apply for, and receive, more and more temporary seasonal workers—the overwhelming majority of them hail from Mexico, that dreaded land of “rapists” and drug dealers, according to right-wing rhetoric.

In the past decade alone, the H-2A program has tripled the number of workers being flown and bussed in to work American fields, with more than half landing in five agriculture-heavy states: Georgia, Florida, Washington, North Carolina, and California. Looking outside of the H-2A system, which farm owners have described as burdensome due to the program’s required paperwork and few existing labor requirements, undocumented workers have been estimated by the USDA to constitute nearly half of the industry’s entire workforce. In North Carolina, Latino workers make up roughly 90 percent of all farmworkers. And despite—or, more likely, because of—the fact that the entire industry would instantly crumble if this workforce was cut off, these workers are allotted even fewer rights than those who walked into the fields nearly a century ago. 

The living conditions for many of these workers are unsafe and overcrowded. Their wages, while potentially reaching high hourly rates depending on their individual production rates, ultimately amount to paltry annual salaries when compared to the strenuous nature of their work. Agriculture easily owns the highest fatality rate among all American industries. And while groups like the Farm Labor Organizing Committee work diligently to provide union services and protections for these marginalized workers, even states with Democratic governors, like North Carolina’s Roy Cooper, continue to sign union-busting laws into effect in order to stifle these efforts. As a result of an entire industry and government being lined up against them, just 2.1 percent of agricultural workers are part of a union—a shame given this nation’s history of grassroots-led fieldworkers unions, like the Farmer’s Alliance or the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. And in the absence of effective advocacy, workers remain at the mercy of employers’ attempts to squeeze out a higher profit margin: In March, a federal judge rejected an attempt by an agricultural employers association to further lower the wages of thousands of H-2A workers. 

The USDA is currently run by Sonny Perdue, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Agriculture. The former Republican governor of Georgia is openly hostile to accepting human-caused climate change as a fact. In 2014, writing in the National Review, he called it a “running joke.” When pressed on this by Harvest Public Media in 2017, he doubled down on his stance, saying “we don’t know definitively in my opinion what is causing climate change.” So it should have come to nobody’s surprise in June 2019 when Politico revealed that the USDA, under Perdue’s command, buried dozens of in-house, peer-reviewed studies that sounded the alarm bells on the effects of rising carbon emissions. (The Senate cleared his nomination in 2017 by a vote of 87-11.)

If Sonny Perdue doesn’t care about climate change as it wrecks the livelihood of white male American farm owners—per USDA, there were 3.2 million white farmers and just 45,508 black farmers in 2017—it’s unlikely that he spends much time considering how climate change will affect Mexico or the Central American countries, where the industry he oversees get its labor.

A big part of understanding the American farmer is not confusing them with the ever-coveted American Rural Voter™.

To get a grasp on modern American farmers as a voting bloc requires a grounding in the complex history of New Deal federal subsidy programs, the racism that defined those programs, the trade deals of the ’80s and ’90s that delivered a death blow to the once-dominant family-run business model, and the whiplash of consolidation that has defined farming the past 20 years. Of course, for politicians looking to cash in on low-hanging nostalgic talking points, none of that really matters. 

If the idea is to make Americans feel empathetic toward the profession that once, but no longer, propped up the nation’s economy, one needs only to invoke sepia-toned memories of grandma and grandad sweating in the fields to make an honest living, of simpler times. Once that time is invoked, it’s fairly easy to convince voters of all leanings and backgrounds that such a reality still exists on a nationwide scale and that the government should be giving it billions of dollars. The actual numbers, however, present a more jarring reality.

American employees in the agricultural industries make up just 1.4 percent of the U.S. workforce, and those numbers don’t appear to be jumping anytime soon. A 2019 economic forecast study from the USDA showed that farm incomes, when adjusted for inflation, have dipped 33.5 percent since 2013; meanwhile, the government’s direct subsidies (run through what is called the market facilitation program, which pays out taxpayer money to farmers to offset losses caused by Trump’s tariffs) will have increased in 2019 from 2018 by 42.5 percent, to $19.5 billion. And because more land is being worked by fewer farmers, these government payouts are increasingly landing in the pockets of the wealthy—on Thursday, the AP reported that the farms of West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a Republican billionaire, received $125,000 in trade-war subsidies.

The days of New Deal Democrats extending good-faith payments to Midwestern and Southern families in hopes of building a strong working class and political coalition are gone. In their place is an industry that is increasingly being built atop exploited foreign labor, that ignores basic science, and which continues to absorb tremendous subsidy money distributed to relatively few people, and rarely the ones actually working the fields. This is how the USDA and American agriculture works. In order for farm owners and field workers to reform the business model and have a chance of confronting climate change challenges, someone—voters, policymakers, the media, maybe even a president—has to cut through the organized nostalgia and start dealing with today’s farms as they actually are.