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President's message: It’s time to retire the myth of the uncaring farmer

Issue Date: August 5, 2020
Jamie Johansson

No farmer I know considers his or her employees expendable. Yet that charge has been made, explicitly or implicitly, in media reports about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on California agriculture.

As farmers, ranchers and their employees have worked to maintain the essential business of agriculture while maintaining the health and safety of the people who make it happen, they have also faced a steady stream of criticism from activists, academics and others who are quick to judge but slow to offer constructive solutions. Reporters have quoted those activists and academics frequently, and their influence has shown in themes that recur in stories about the pandemic.

Theme No. 1: Farmers care more about profits than people, and consider their employees expendable.


Farmers and ranchers are saddened by illnesses among farm employees, and we are doing all we can to prevent further illnesses from occurring.

California farmers and ranchers rely on skilled, experienced people who they trust to bring their crops and livestock to market. Many farmers have longtime relationships with their employees, and their employees' families.

All of us who work on the farm want to stay healthy and safe.

Individual farmers, farm organizations and local agencies have distributed millions of masks to employees. Farms and ranches have changed operations to assure social distancing and enhance hygiene and sanitation. Packinghouses and processing plants have installed Plexiglas and vinyl curtains as safety barriers. Farm groups have advocated with government agencies for additional, faster, affordable COVID-19 testing for farm employees.

Some activists have charged that farmers don't care if their employees become ill because employees are easily replaced. We know that's not true.

For years, farmers and ranchers have coped with shortages of experienced agricultural employees, and have increased wages and benefits and taken other steps to attract and keep good people. Farm employees are not easy to replace. They are not expendable.

Theme No. 2: Farm employees are more vulnerable to exploitation, and less willing to seek medical help, because so many lack proper documentation.

Farm Bureau and other organizations have worked for years to reform federal immigration laws to allow farm employees from other countries to work legally in the U.S. and to assist those already here.

The California Farm Bureau was a leading supporter of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would improve agricultural visa programs and accommodate immigrant farm employees already in the United States, while enhancing border security. The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives last December. We will continue to advocate for laws that recognize the contribution immigrant farm employees make to our nation.

Theme No. 3: Farm employees are more vulnerable because of cramped living conditions.

There's no question: Regulations in California communities make building any new housing difficult—especially employee housing. Farm Bureau policy supports laws and regulations to encourage construction of adequate employee housing. Housing that has been built is closely monitored by federal, state and local regulators.

When the state Legislature did act on farm employee housing last year, it took the form of a bill called Assembly Bill 1783 that was aimed more at derailing the H-2A temporary agricultural visa program in California than at building new housing. AB 1783 actually added roadblocks to the creation of farm employee housing in an effort to score political points.

The Housing for the Harvest program announced by Gov. Newsom last month will help farm employees who need to isolate due to COVID-19, fulfilling a request CFBF and other organizations made several weeks earlier. In the meantime, farmers have been renting hotel rooms to address this potential need for their employees.

The long-term inability of public institutions to improve immigration and housing policies has contributed to the illnesses among California farm employees. Public officials must accept responsibility for laws and regulations that have left farm employees unable to obtain legal status and unable to find adequate, affordable housing.

One recent media story contained a quote from a local public-health official who said the majority of COVID-19 illnesses among farm employees came from exposure at home or in social situations—not at work. That's one reason Farm Bureau launched a second campaign of Spanish-language public-service announcements, encouraging safe behavior away from work as well as on the job.

All spring and summer, family farmers and ranchers, and their employees, have been accomplishing something remarkable: keeping food supplies safe and plentiful during a global pandemic. It hasn't been easy or without problems. Jobs and markets have been lost. Some people have become ill or died.

As we mourn for them, we resolve to continue to do our best, every day, to assure the health and safety of our employees, our families and our communities.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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