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Of the Earth: Bearing witness to the food system’s human cost

  • The Vermont group Justicia Migrante (Migrant Justice) aims to empower and seek justice for the farmworker community. Contributed image

  • BLIXT



For the Recorder
Tuesday, April 10, 2018

There was one important thing absent at the PVGrows annual forum held Saturday at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke.
What was missing didn’t have anything to do with organization or focus. There was an abundance of both, as more than 100 folks — many of them activists from the worlds of community development, labor and immigration law, land use, and agricultural policy — gathered to take a hard look at who owns what and who ultimately foots the bill for our local and regional food system.

Neither was passion or commitment missing from the day-long agenda. Communities Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), which led the planning of the event, helped punctuate substantive policy discussions with searing first-person accounts from the migrant labor community, including exactly what it is like to be stopped and taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

Nor was there any shortage of new information, like data showing that Massachusetts farmers are continuing to get older and whiter, despite an influx every year of 1,000 new, young immigrant farmers eager for land that remains among the most expensive in the nation.

And there were fresh tortillas. Tortillas were not missing either.

No, the only thing missing from this mix was the presence of landowners themselves, and particularly of landowning growers or farmers. Ryan and Sarah Voiland of Red Fire Farm, along with Michael Doctor of Winter Moon Roots, appeared to be the only growers in attendance.

This should not, in any way, be seen as criticism of CISA’s organizing efforts or of any particular landowner or grower. As Ryan Voiland pointed out, it’s a really hard time of the season for farmers to get away.

Which is unfortunate, because the forum’s message was one that needs to be heard: that the system putting fresh affordable food on our tables operates on the backs of migrant laborers who often earn less than the minimum wage, go without transportation and health benefits, and can’t buy all that fresh affordable food in our cupboards; and, further, that the historic distribution of our land and its bounty is anything but accidental or arbitrary.

I remember getting together to play barefoot soccer, Marley-style, with Jamaican folks working in local orchards in the 1980s. We’d have a potluck dinner and sing rock-steady reggae standards. I didn’t realize they were earning less at the backbreaking work picking eight pails an hour than I was earning as a barista in an Amherst coffee shop. And it wasn’t until later, when I wrote a news story on their living conditions, that I realized how rough things were. I hadn’t realized how easy it is to not know or not see what is clearly begging to be known or seen.

Among those who described “how things really are” on Saturday were members of a Vermont group called Justicia Migrante (Migrant Justice), who spoke of a nine-year organizing effort that resulted in an October 2017 contract with Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream agreeing to a range of health, safety, wage and legal protections.

Following that presentation, a middle-age man approached the podium and, speaking very quietly and in Spanish, said how much he respected both the Migrant Justice approach to organizing and its ability to make real progress. At the same time, he said, progress has not extended south of the Vermont border. He went on to describe “mistreatment” of Massachusetts migrant workers, too many of whom remain in the shadows. He asked for help.

“There has been no movement in Massachusetts,” he said softy in Spanish. If only his words carried farther, beyond the room, perhaps, and out to area farms and fields.

The Cutting Board

In the spirit of The Moth storytelling platform, CISA is launching Field Notes a local food and farm storytelling event at Northampton’s Academy of Music at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 18. According to CISA’s Brian Snell, farmer’s, farm workers, chefs, servers, food processors, distributors, shoppers and eaters (meaning, well, everyone) is invited to pitch a story anytime before Friday, April 27. Visit buylocalfood.org/fieldnotes to learn how to pitch a story.

Wesley Blixt lives in Greenfield. He is a longtime reporter and is the author of SKATERS: A Novel. Send him recipes, stories and suggestions at wesleyblixt@me.com.