When we got to the ‘careers’ unit in the English course that I taught in Colombia, I would ask the kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. We were studying workplace vocabulary like office, hospital, grocery store, mechanic shop, nurse, firefighter, farmer, doctor, lawyer…. When I would point to the picture of the farmer on his tractor and ask, “Do you want to be a farmer?” their face would say, Are you kidding me? and their lips would pronounce, “No! I do not want to be a farmer.”
Growing up in the western U.S., I often dreamed of being a farmer. I kept hens to sell eggs and tended the family garden plot. As a teenager, I joined my peers at the famous Klicker’s Strawberry Acres as a summer picker. That job left an indelible imprint on my character, to say nothing of my jeans. I also learned that it’s hard, stressful work to be a farmer, and the temporary worker’s lot isn’t any better than the farmer’s.
Migrant and domestic shortages
We have felt the rumblings of migrant farm labor in the United States for centuries, which rumblings have once again grown to thunder pitch in the present governmental climate. But I was surprised to learn that farm labor shortages are plaguing Latin American farmers as well. I guess my English students were more perceptive than I at first thought.
Since the beginning of the year, several news outlets have mentioned agricultural labor shortages in places like Mexico and Colombia, where farm wages are not high enough in some sectors to draw the workforce needed to get the fruits and vegetables off the vines and into the supermarkets. North and South American young people agree on the topic of farm labor: we’re not interested. Peso and dollar incentives are just not big enough.
Technology has, in some instances, stepped up to fill the gap. For example, researchers at Washington State University have been developing mechanization solutions for apples and cherries, two crops with notoriously labor-intensive harvests. Unconventional workforces have also sprung up; labor shortages in Washington State in past years have seen prisoners out in the orchards on work release. The alternative—rotting apples on the ground—turns my stomach.
In the end, while technology may be able to step in and fill the labor gap (I was intrigued by the idea of mechanical asparagus harvest as shown in this video), we will eventually pay higher prices for our food, not only in the U.S., but around the world. Food spending made up a mere 6.4% of U.S. consumer costs in 2015, the lowest value on Earth; in contrast, Colombians and Mexicans spent 17.4% and 23.1%, respectively, of their annual cost of living on food (USDA-ERS).
We have a wide margin yet before we can start complaining about food prices.