by Mike Schut, Program Director, Farm Table Foundation
Gerardo Reyes Chavez is a leader and representative of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a large community of agricultural workers in Immokalee, Florida. I recently heard him interviewed–he put three words together in a way I will likely never forget: “indispensable but expendable.”
The workers he represents are indispensable such as doctors and nurses, but also grocery store workers and farmers, too. We the people, as represented by our government, have deemed them as such. After all, the farmers are growing our food. But they, the Guatemalans and Mexicans and Haitians in Immokalee, are also expendable.
Not, mind you, in Gerardo’s eyes, my eyes, or likely your eyes. But when it comes to putting all of us together—all the decisions and brains and policies represented by those eyes—we do consider agricultural workers expendable.
While I personally hope that our country remembers that the very people we deemed essential to our food supply in the midst of a grave pandemic are the same people we often castigate and treat inhumanely as a matter of policy, this is not a reflection on the politics of immigration. I’m taking a longer historical perspective here. Not that long ago the Democratic platform on immigration, under Clinton for example, read essentially the same as Trump’s . And, at least since the 1970s—when the US Department of Agriculture’s Secretary Earl Butz famously declared to farmers, “Get big or get out”—farming, farmers, and rural communities have been devalued. Whether referring to a Haitian immigrant farmworker, or a fourth-generation Iowa farmer, the message isn’t all that fundamentally different: your labor is essential—but you are not.
In the case of the Haitian farmworker, you can be replaced by hiring another expendable worker. In the case of the Iowa farmer, you can be replaced by applying more chemicals to the fields, plowing fence row to fence row, and employing ever larger farm machinery.
Frederick Buechner writes, “Compassion is that sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” For Buechner, compassion is empathy, but he also suggests that it includes justice. I call that the second half of his definition: knowing there can never really be peace and joy for any until there is peace and joy finally for all.
To tell farmworkers that they are essential but expendable is morally wrong and belies the application of what any of us would recognize as compassion.
The coronavirus pandemic certainly offers us the opportunity to reflect on who we are and what we value. It reveals much of what we have taken for granted, including food on the shelves, reliable and safe national and global food supply chains, and a healthy farm workforce.
The pandemic is clearly a grave crisis; it is therefore also pregnant with great opportunities. One of those is to move personally and societally toward valuing what is just so blatantly essential to life: the farm workers, farms, and soil capable of providing all people—all of whom are essential—with healthy food.
For more about Farm Table, see www.farmtablefoundation.org.