By Margaret Gray - Jacobin, August 21, 2016
We live in the shadows,” explained Javier, a Hudson Valley farmworker, while describing his life to me. “We are treated like unknown people . . . We are not paid well and cannot ask for more.” A worker on another farm said, “They treat us like nothing; they only want the work . . . Whether we like it or not, we have to like it.”
Some of today’s liveliest political conversations concern agricultural production and distribution. But these discussions are also among the most confused.
Exploitative conditions on factory farms have rightly drawn the attention of academics, activists, and journalists. Indeed, the vast majority of research on farmworkers focuses on the largest farming sites. Consumers are offered countless reasons to avoid produce from them — but few alternatives other than to “buy local.”
Much contemporary food writing argues that when we buy locally grown food directly from farms, we not only secure fresher, more seasonal produce, but we also create an intimate, trusting relationship with the farmer. This supposed bond reinforces the common understanding that the local food production process is more wholesome than the industrial agricultural system.
Food writers and scholars have highlighted the many positive aspects of local food systems: economic and social justice, the sense of community facilitated by face-to-face interactions with food producers, and the civic engagement and democracy promoted by alternative agri-systems.
For example, as Barbara Kingsolver argues in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, “‘locally grown’ is a denomination whose meaning in incorruptible.” Later in the book she addresses the poor pay and conditions of workers on factory farms, citing their average annual income of $7,500. Clearly, she intends readers to feel grateful that local farms offer a more just and well-paid alternative.
Or take another prominent example: in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a landmark in the new food literature, Michael Pollan describes two types of farming — industrial and pastoral — and offers no in-between.
In promoting local diets as healthy and righteous alternatives to the capitalist-industrial monoculture food system, such writers have sold us an idea premised on a false dichotomy.
On one hand, they demonize factory farms for poisoning the land and local waterways, for confining and mistreating animals, and for exploiting their workers in the name of earning profits. On the other hand, they promote local agriculture as the antidote to the factory farms’ corporate ills.
By shopping at the farmers market or joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, consumers support smaller (though not necessarily small) farmers, keep food dollars local, encourage limited pesticide use, and ensure animals are treated humanely.