Mistake by the lake

A reader in Wayne County, New York, sent in this comment about farm labor abuses to Naked Capitalism:

Hi Yves, I didn’t feel comfortable posting a comment because it’s kind of frank/un-PC, so I thought I’d send you a note about the farmworker issue.

I grew up in a small town in Western NY on Lake Ontario. The county is the largest apple producing county outside of Washington state. Motts and other companies have factories there. During summers and falls, I’d work on local farms. Friends of ours owned them, and I was in/had been in 4H with their kids, so they’d hire me (I was one of the poors but they knew I was dependable), so I was at least able to work and earn a little bit of money. I’d bring in the apple crop with the workers in the fall. Other than the farmers/owners themselves, sometimes I was the only other one that could speak English.t

The farmers/owners prefer the illegals/undocumented however you want to term it, over blacks or other Americans. The blacks (usually migrants) were the ones that picked the fruit before the big influx from south of the border. The migrant blacks were eventually displaced. The farmers didn’t like them because they’d actually complain about stuff or would leave if they were getting a raw deal. There was nothing really keeping them there. The illegals, they can’t say a word or else ICE will be called. They know they’re under the gun, so to speak. They have to take whatever deal the farmers offer them. They can’t complain about housing, pay, injuries, working conditions, nothing.

They send their children to the local school-which has gone way downhill in recent years due to the influx of kids that are not native English speakers and need a lot of remedial help, etc. The non-farming locals get upset because they know they are driving illegally, and there are sometimes fatal accidents(drunk driving is very common during apple season), and there are fights amongst them and sometimes murders, etc. The farmers have historically held a lot of sway politically (always been a very heavily republican district) so laws pretty much were never enforced, and it’s been allowed to go on(the farmers never get in trouble for hiring them). In recent years, however, ICE has been patrolling more often, and there have been raids on the camps owned by the farmers(slums/bunkhouses, essentially, where they put up the workers). The farmers got mad about the raids because they were losing their cheap labor.

A woman I know in the town made a documentary(“After I Pick the Fruit”) a few years ago about them. It does have a slant, but it might help shed some light for you. Some background, though-Nancy Ghertner is from a well-off family and her husband is a doctor. They own a home in Sodus and a summer home on Sodus Bay, and their children were sent to Gould Academy in Maine so they wouldn’t have to go to the local public school with the rest of us deplorables. They have been trying to protect the workers from the raids and do other support work, and the non-farming locals are not big fans of them. The locals are much, much less well-off than the Ghertners, so there is friction there. Working poor, for the most part, as a lot(most- who are we kidding) of the traditional manufacturing industry pulled out some time ago(Xerox, Kodak, etc).

The farm owners around there are mostly old Dutch stock and the farms have been in their families for generations. Nearly every single one of them is a quiet millionaire/multi-millionaire. They pinch pennies like crazy and go to great lengths to not pay their workers much if they can help it/get away with it. A lot of them are very racist and hate the blacks. You’d think you were in the Jim Crow Deep South sometimes! The stuff I have heard, it’s horrible. I think some of that might play a role (they don’t like “uppity n-ggers”). They much prefer the illegals/undocumenteds for obvious reasons.

I think more Americans would want to do these jobs if they were paid decently/not getting screwed. It’s honest work and I always felt good about myself at the end of the day.

Another issue is that it is seasonal, and so you can’t really settle down. There aren’t exactly other jobs in the area to pick up when the season is over. Obviously it is different in CA and other warmer places. Maybe it does come down to greed. I don’t know. And no one wants to pay for fruit and veg what it’s really worth. Also, when I was picking, Motts was paying 2 cents(!) per pound for juice apples. The market got flooded with Chinese concentrate and drove the price down. Nobody talks about that. The bottom suddenly fell out. How can American farms compete with that? It’s a giant mess, suppose it is all interwoven.

Anyway, I hope that helps a little. It’s not something I felt I could post. I’m very sorry for the harsh language, and I don’t know what to term the workers. I just thought I’d chime in as I had been in the thick of it for a while, not that long ago, and also to suggest the documentary.

As they say around Grand Rapids, if you aren’t Dutch, you aren’t much. I’m not one to discern structural white supremacy peeking out from every hollow I spy, but that right there is some fucking white supremacy in action. One can see how the Roosevelts might have gone into politics just to rebuke their own family bigots. In the Northeast and the Midwest, coarse, unabashed racial bigotry is traditionally ascribed to modest but aspirational white ethnics who, depending on their family and community circumstances, may or may not be keeping the American Dream alive in their hearts: Irishmen, Italians, Poles, etc. It’s never ascribed to lace-curtain WASPs. Judging from our correspondent’s comments above, this looks intentional. Just as the Damn Yankees are always scapegoating Dixie’s salty crackers for America’s racism, the WASPs scapegoat their own white ethnic neighbors for whatever Northern racism they’re forced to confront. In Grand Rapids, the Dutch performed the additional putz mitzvahs of crossing picket lines to save the local furniture industry from its ungrateful Pollacks and then of founding Amway.

Going by what passes for general-interest US history, Thomas Jefferson was the only rich white bigot ever. Thing is, cracka wasn’t catfishing his homeboys as some kind of proto Warren Buffett. He was an unabashedly flaming epicure maintaining his extravagant lifestyle through the blood, sweat, and tears of his human chattels, at first guiltily, and then, as he became older and more indebted, with crackpot racial theories and vicious corporal punishments that horrified his own slaveholding contemporaries. The Dutch blue bloods in Wayne County are more pernicious because they pretend to be po’ country boys and girls, much as Warren Buffett famously takes his grandchildren out to Dairy Queen once a month.

Exceedingly few people spend their lives chasing obscene riches in the hope of continuing to live like that, but it’s a brilliant conceit in a society with a strong formal belief in meritocracy and the work ethic. I take my own white ass out to Dairy Queen whenever I feel like getting some damn cheese curds. Yeah, yeah, that’s assuming that I have a car of my own, but it’s also assuming that I’m more homeless than I am right now, when I’m crashing with my parents. Enough people fall for this shit, or at least feel some motivation not to piss off the cryptotoffs, that this catfishing earns its orchestrators net praise for being thrifty and hardworking, not net ridicule and contempt for being miserable bastards imposing an ethnic caste system over their neighbors’ objections.

Tellingly, this landed gentry makes a show of living almost shabbily while Dr. and Mrs. Ghertner, whose income is presumably derived from the former’s skilled labor, send their precious brats off to a fancy-pants New English boarding school and maintain a shore house, the more ostentatiously to summer. There is no ethically coherent explanation for this. The ethically incoherent explanation is that Americans are taught to admire doctors for getting rich and buying bitchin’ rides through their own hard work and Medicare fraud–I mean, uh; mercy, I didn’t mean to say a thing like that–and to despise the generationally landed for getting rich by milking their holdings for ongoing passive income. We aren’t supposed to admire rentiers, unless they’re on Downton Abbey. 

Wayne County sounds like a civic horror show. Its landed elites dump alien chaos into the local school and road systems while shutting the native poor out of the job market. Its professional elites dabble in cinematic celebrations of local diversity while sheltering their own children from this same diversity in very non-local, non-diverse academic cocoons. The remainder of its citizens, being poors, can go to hell. So can Rochester, with its large population of dispossessed former factory workers and their descendants, who are even worse off. Rochester is within manageable daily commuting distance of much of Wayne County’s apple belt, and very easily within weekly or semiweekly commuting distance of the entire county, but it’s full of black people. The lace curtain Dutch aren’t there to put the Community back to work, or to have the least clue what I mean by the Community. No, guys, I’m not totally insane. US Census figures show Wayne County’s overall population dropping, along with its rate of family formation. The drop isn’t explained by the elderly population, which is modest for an economically declining rural county and only a few points higher than the national average. The apple orchards would be a great place to put some brats to work seasonally, but that isn’t why God created wetbacks.

It’s too bad that land reform keeps falling into the all-thumbs hands of strongmen like Mugabe and Maduro. We could use some land reform of our own. It might improve our race relations over the current high Dutch stance of Kwesi Millington for Sheriff today, Kwesi Millington for Sheriff tomorrow, Kwesi Millington for Sheriff forever. This, friends, is how we Communicate to Create a society that transcends these shitty Dutchmen and invites Jeff Sessions, too, to do his penance in the cotton fields.

Pim Fortuyn, pray for us.

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