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raceAhead: The True Cost of Cheap Food

The agriculture sector has long relied on cheap, reliable labor, mostly from Mexican-born workers. What happens when they're gone?The agriculture sector has long relied on cheap, reliable labor, mostly from Mexican-born workers. What happens when they're gone?
The agriculture sector has long relied on cheap, reliable labor, mostly from Mexican-born workers. What happens when they're gone?Dan Winters for Fortune Magazine

There was a time when we tried to do this work ourselves.

It was 1965, and the U.S. government needed to solve two problems at once. The first was to get the nation’s crops picked. The second was to replace the thousands of Mexican migrant workers who had been brought in to do the job through a joint agreement with Mexico called the Bracero program. The agreement was signed during World War II to fill a labor shortage in agriculture, and it promised the workers a decent wage and living conditions, and guaranteed freedom from discrimination—“whites only” areas, for example, wouldn’t apply to them. It lasted in some form until 1964, hence the rush.

I was reminded of this program when I read this extraordinary story, written by Fortune’s Beth Kowitt and photographed by Dan Winters.

The pair traveled to the growing fields of the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas, to meet the human links in the ag-food chain, the people who pick the food we put on our tables. For myriad reasons, that food has been getting cheaper. “Americans now spend less than 10% of their disposable income on what they eat,” explains Kowitt. “When researchers first began tracking this figure some 90 years ago, it was closer to 25%.”

This was a tough season for the Valley. Long before President Trump showed up last week to lobby for his border wall and put their livelihoods in further jeopardy, a fall flood and an early frost meant that the pickers, who work for pennies-per-pick, were looking at a particularly lean year.

From the story:

It’s a global phenomenon that the farming workforce comes from “poorer, foreign soils,” as labor experts describe it. In the U.S., Mexico has been a major supplier of agricultural workers since the middle of the 20th century, and today Mexican-born immigrants make up the vast majority of the farming labor force.

Late fall in the Rio Grande Valley was no different. Many of the men working in the fields said they had crossed the border in search of better wages, sending home $200 of the $300 they might make in a good week to their families in Mexico. Most of the women, some of whom said they had come north to escape gang violence, are here with their children… Some workers mentioned their constant back pain—watermelons universally seemed to be the least favorite crop to harvest—and all talked about laboring in the fields so their kids, who they desperately wanted to stay in school, wouldn’t have to.

But in 1965, we tried to do the work ourselves.

The new program was called the A-TEAM: Athletes in Temporary Employment as Agricultural Manpower. It made similar promises to the American pickers (except for the discrimination part) which included decent accommodations, good pay, and character-building work. But the 20,000 or so hardy white California high school and college boys who were recruited to do the work didn’t last long.

“Dealing with crops which grow close to the ground requires a good deal stronger motive” than money or the prospects of a good workout, said a skeptical Detroit Free Press editorial. “Like, for instance, gnawing hunger.”

Hunger certainly motivates the current generation of Mexican-born farm workers, who believe that this work is an investment in their families. Their optimism is not unfounded: Children of farm workers typically don’t become farm workers because they’d literally rather do anything else, explains Kowitt.

Cheap, plentiful labor is essential for the agricultural sector to function. But thanks to the downward pressure on food prices, and yes, the wall, and all the immigration turmoil it represents, that pool of workers is going to dry up. There’s no A-TEAM as a plan B, either.

Click through and meet the people who picked your produce while you still can.

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Quote

You have to be fast. If you’re not, they scold you. ‘Move it, hurry up.’ You drink water when you can but they don’t always let you. You can smell [the fertilizer]. I get dizzy and vomit sometimes.
Veronica Villano, a raspberry picker, then, 8 months pregnant