The American Cluckservative

Another right-libertarian moral panic article about crops rotting in the fields because there aren’t enough Mexicans to pick them recently crossed my transom, so it’s time for an agsplainer about farming and crop wastage.

The Wow Much fruits Such ripe Omg need pik None wetbax Very alarm thing is never what it’s made out to be. These ranches that supposedly get caught short at harvest due to clashes with Congress or the immigration authorities are huge concerns run by specialized professionals who know damn well how to get a field crew in place when they need one. If they’re worried about the bottom line, they won’t leave their staffing levels at the whims of H-2A bureaucrats. These are not the sort of people to get thrown off balance more than once by the fickleness of immigration law. Their almost perennial clashes with the feds over migrant worker admissions or immigration sweeps don’t actually harm their businesses. If they had any reason to believe that these circumstances threatened the profitability of their businesses, they’d have help wanted ads on Craigslist the same day, in English. These are not people who leave to chance anything that they can control.

These complaints about field labor shortages are, depending on the particulars, either publicity stunts or low-risk games of chicken with the feds for purposes of long-term labor arbitrage. Nobody so competent and organized would bluff officials who can shut off their labor supply without having a backup plan ready to go.

The complaints about produce rotting in the fields are totally bogus. They’re a canned moral panic designed to shame and alarm people who know fuck-all about agribusiness. Produce is allowed to go to waste all the time in these operations. Del Monte doesn’t sent chasers after its tomato trucks to pick up spilled fruit. That wouldn’t be worth the cost. Management knows that fruit routinely spills from its trucks; that’s what happens when an open hopper is loaded beyond the brim and shaken in transit. This fruit is allowed to spill because it’s cheaper to overload the truck and keep driving than to keep the loads contained or pick up the company’s litter.

Nobody in agribusiness lives by a waste not, want not ethos. For better or for worse, that’s an awfully quaint worldview. Agribusiness concerns would have us believe that our food is grown by family farmers, not by ADM. It’s something of a moot point, though, because many of the actual family farmers still in business in the United States are hardly distinguishable from ADM. Quite a bit of Midwestern and High Plains acreage is full sections owned by established multimillionaire families who are the last ones standing in the aftermath of the farm foreclosure bloodbath of the 1980’s. We’re lucky if these people have discernible stewardship ethics. They certainly don’t care about crop spoilage that doesn’t lose them money. Philosophically, they’re with Monsanto, not Ebenezer over there in Intercourse with a dozen Holsteins and five acres of devil’s cabbage. The big milk producers have no compunction about opening a valve on a ten-thousand-gallon holding tank and letting it flood into a floor drain if the spot price falls below their target. If enough dairymen collude on tank valve settings, or if a single megaproducer decides to play hardball, all the precious milk can be set free for the purpose of nudging the price up. This is an ethically dubious waste, but it’s no tragedy; there will be plenty more milk in another twelve hours. Only a deracinated n00b would cry over this spillage. If spot prices on field crops drop below what a grower is seeking, or if the yield per acre makes machine-harvesting financially dicey, you can bet the farm that food will be left to rot on the plant. This is not because Ernesto and Juanita had trouble securing their work visas. If the market isn’t paying a grower what he wants or needs, he’ll plow a half-picked quarter section of tomatoes into the ground, and if he’s crying about anything, it won’t be about that.

Your food isn’t being grown by some down-home family with grandma in an apron telling the little ones to make sure they get all the peppers out of the garden so she can lay up a pantry full of pepper jelly. Most people who talk about getting their food at farmer’s markets actually get maybe a tenth of their food at farmer’s markets and spend 100% of their time not talking about the other 90% that they get from Kroger. Foster Farms isn’t a family farm; it’ll fuck up an entire county’s hydrology to water its chickens during a drought if doing so will turn a profit. American Gothic it ain’t; it’s the American Cluckservative. Or maybe the rest of us are, since it’s our water that’s being jacked.

Big ag would like for us to feel bad about growers who don’t give a shit cryptostrategically allowing some of their produce to go to waste. This is because it’s run by moral parasites. Of course most of us don’t know what the fuck is going on out on the range; we don’t even speak the same language. They only refer to their producers as “farmers” in publications for city folk. We might think of them as country slickers and of ourselves as the city slicked. If we take a look at the embarrassingly lavish suite of farm subsidies that are available mainly to the biggest, least exposed operators, we can see that they’re financial parasites, too. I hear it pays better than the berry piece rate I earned last summer.

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