Limits of the Locavore

Union Square farmers' market, New York City (Boortz47/Flickr)

Labor and the Locavore:
The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic
by Margaret Gray
University of California Press, 2013, 240 pp.

In 2011 Barry Estabrook published Tomatoland, a harrowing exposé of the labor conditions of tomato pickers in South Florida. Estabrook described squalid labor camps, paltry wages, and violent managers. The harvesters he profiled toiled in the fields for long hours but received neither overtime nor medical benefits (and in some extreme cases, received no wages at all). Mostly undocumented immigrants or guest workers in desperate need of money, they feared reporting their working conditions to government authorities.

Estabrook’s muckraking helped generate public support for the Campaign for Fair Food by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, one of the most successful labor campaigns of the twenty-first century. Earlier this year, Walmart, the country’s biggest food retailer, signed an agreement with the CIW to pay more for its tomatoes and to audit its suppliers to prevent labor abuses. The victory of the CIW has been seen as a major success for the food movement, a loose-knit coalition of foodies, environmentalists, and social justice advocates who seek local and independent alternatives to the industrial food system.

Of course, it is a relatively small victory given the scope of exploitative agricultural practices in America and around the world. In the Hudson Valley of New York, undocumented and guest workers from Mexico endure conditions similar to those in Immokalee, Florida. They earn $8 to $10 an hour toiling in apple orchards and cabbage fields, live with their coworkers in cramped trailers on their bosses’ properties, and live in fear of getting fired or deported if they so much as ask for a raise. But these workers aren’t packing fruits and vegetables for shipment to Walmart; their goods are destined for farmers’ markets, CSA (community-supported agriculture) boxes, and upscale restaurants that pride themselves on their sustainability. As Margaret Gray chronicles in her remarkable new book, Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic, the small- and medium-sized family farms that the food movement has championed are often sites of appalling labor abuses. Gray shows that the locavore ethic espoused by Michael Pollan and countless imitators not only renders these abuses invisible, it actively enables them by lionizing independent farmers and romanticizing small-scale food production.

Gray acknowledges the similarity between her subjects and Estabrook’s, but she quickly dispatches with the notion that Labor and the Locavore will be a sensational account. Gray is an associate professor of political science at Adelphi University, and her book, based on ten years of field research, is an unmistakably academic text. Her writing is dry, her judgments measured, and her research evenhanded. A locavore herself, she takes special care to present farmers’ perspectives on their low-wage employees. As a consequence, Labor and the Locavore contains exceptional insight into the systemic conditions that give rise to exploitative labor practices on Hudson Valley family farms. Gray’s sympathies clearly lie with farmworkers, not their bosses, but her willingness to engage with farmers’ ideas helps us understand that they are not the only villains here. The government and consumers actively and passively contribute to the oppressive status quo.

Our society’s tendency to idealize local food allows small farmers to pay workers substandard wages, house them in shoddy labor camps, and quash their ability to unionize to demand better working conditions.

Labor and the Locavore shows that our society’s tendency to idealize local food allows small farmers to pay workers substandard wages, house them in shoddy labor camps, and quash their ability to unionize to demand better working conditions. “The agrarian ideal . . . encompasses three main beliefs: farmers are economically independent and self-sufficient; farming is intrinsically a natural and moral activity; and farming is the fundamental industry of society,” writes Gray. These beliefs are not only perpetuated by foodies but are also codified in the law. The New Deal laws that guaranteed the right to collective bargaining, a minimum wage, and overtime pay excluded farmworkers, because empowered farmworkers might jeopardize both farmers’ autonomy and the nation’s supply of affordable food. Gray recounts how the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, which would have mandated overtime pay, mandatory rest periods, and collective bargaining protections for farmworkers, was defeated in the New York State Senate in 2010. When the bill was up for debate, savvy and well-organized farmers exploited politicians’ romantic ideals of farming by stoking fears that the act would “decimate the ‘personal touch’ of farming.” Meanwhile, farmworkers, fearful for their jobs, were unable to leverage public support for the moderate protections the legislation would have provided. (Gray recounts that a state senator’s aide once told a farmworkers’ advocate, “The Senator doesn’t care about farmworkers—they have no political voice.”) Foodies often decry governmental food policies, but these policies often stem from a belief that foodies hold dear: that farmers provide a crucial service and therefore deserve deference and public support. Locavorism and farm subsidies are two sides of the same agrarianist coin.

Gray explores how agrarian beliefs play out not only at a governmental level but also at a personal level, in the relationships between farmers and farmworkers. In an effort to understand why Hudson Valley farmworkers typically don’t protest conditions that most Americans would find unacceptable, Gray looks at the paternalistic practices that farmers substitute for structural protections. Farmers provide free (if ramshackle) housing for farmworkers—a practice that not only creates farmworker dependency on farmers but also conveniently keeps Spanish-speaking immigrant farmworkers out of the public eye. Bosses also often reward workers who work hard and keep their heads down with advances on their paychecks, airfare to their home countries during family emergencies, and help securing green cards. Such favors make farmworkers feel indebted to their bosses and thereby less inclined to complain or ask for raises. It is worth noting that these favors, spun in a different light, might appear praiseworthy to consumers—more proof that local farmers have a “personal touch” lacking on factory farms and industrial agricultural operations. “But,” Gray writes, “this species of benevolence is inseparable from the exercise of labor control by nature of the employment relationship, and, when all is said and done, paternalism serves to benefit the farmers’ businesses.”

There are other reasons, in addition to the feeling of indebtedness created by paternalism, that Hudson Valley farmworkers do not typically object to their labor conditions. Gray explains that undocumented and guest workers don’t compare their wages to those of other American workers but to workers in their home countries. Farmers, too, claim that they are helping farmworkers escape crushing poverty in Mexico, Guatemala, and Jamaica. But Gray rightly notes that “the persistent and mostly cyclical migration of Mexicans to the United States over the course of the twentieth century has resulted in a durable poverty.” Assimilation into American culture is, for legal and economic reasons, out of the cards for many immigrants.

What’s more, farmers are explicit about not wanting their farmworkers to assimilate. One farmer tells Gray that when Latinos spend too long in America, “they get a little too Americanized. That’s what I call it; they get Americanized, and then they get lazy.” Another opines, “You don’t want Mexicans speaking English, because as soon as they start speaking English they start working like Americans” (in other words, expecting reasonable hours and pay). Labor and the Locavore is particularly valuable as a chronicle of the “ethnic succession” of farmworkers in New York farms: before 1970 they were mostly African Americans from the South; Jamaicans began supplanting black Americans in the 1970s; and Mexicans became the overwhelming majority of farmworkers beginning in the mid-1980s. Gray highlights farmers’ cognitive dissonance when they’re asked questions about their workers’ countries of origin: they claim that they simply cannot find Americans who want jobs on farms, but Gray reports that “[s]everal sources informed me that farmers . . . consider it a problem when native-born workers (including Puerto Ricans) apply for jobs.” Similarly, farmers acknowledge that their Mexican workers are in dire straits and often have few or no options other than farmwork—but they also claim that Mexicans like working long hours and living in cramped quarters.

Such racial stereotyping helps farmers justify their hiring decisions. But, for the most part, farmers aren’t asked to justify their hiring decisions to anyone. Consumers, who are used to asking farmers about breeds, pesticides, and animal welfare, don’t make a practice of asking about labor. Gray recalls an exchange with a butcher who reports that “in his experience, his consumers’ primary concern is with what they put in their bodies, and so the labor standards of farmworkers simply do not register as a priority.” I would add that ignorance—willful ignorance, perhaps—also plays a role in consumer indifference to farmworkers. Most food writers who cover local and sustainable agriculture do not discuss the immigrant labor that makes farmers’ markets possible. The image of undocumented, non-English-speaking immigrants living in labor camps interferes with the tidy narrative that foodies buy into about the virtues of traditional agriculture. Foodies are eager to decry abusive labor practices when they play a role in the industrial food system—the pesticide-ridden agricultural operations that send tomatoes to Walmart and fast-food restaurants, for instance—but they assume that such practices could not possibly play a role in their beloved local farms.

Gray’s book is the latest piece of evidence that local food advocates have sold us a false bill of goods. She writes, “Food advocates and their organizations display a tendency to conflate local, alternative, sustainable, and fair as a compendium of virtues against the factory farm that they so vigorously demonize.” Indeed, the foodie party line holds that local, organic food is better in every conceivable way than “industrial food.” To hear Pollan—or Alice Waters, or Mark Bittman, or Marion Nestle—tell it, local, organic food is healthier than industrial food because it hasn’t been processed. It is better for the environment because it’s grown without chemical pesticides. Local produce tastes better because it comes from heirloom species that were bred for their flavor rather than for their hardiness, and because it’s picked when it’s ripe and sold soon after. Buying local meat is better for animals because they are spared the torture of factory farms and cared for by handlers who respect them. Locally produced food is better for workers because they work for themselves instead of for a nameless, faceless corporation. Finally, buying local is supposed to be better for communities because it forges relationships between producers and consumers—being able to look your farmer in the eye is of the utmost importance.

Upon closer examination, most of these platitudes fall apart. Organic produce contains no more nutrients than conventional produce, and locally produced butter and maple syrup contain just as many empty calories as soybean oil and corn syrup. Whether local, unprocessed food tastes better is obviously subjective—and foodies’ insistence that eating fresh local produce is an unparalleled flavor experience may hurt their cause more than it helps. (Anyone who is not transported by the flavor of a local tomato, who prefers the Campbell’s Soup he grew up on, may conclude that there is no place for him in the food movement.) Traditional animal husbandry is no doubt kinder than the despicable methods that produce abundant, cheap meat, but omnivores who think meat can be produced without brutality are kidding themselves. And, of course, as Labor and the Locavore shows, the dignified work that local food markets supposedly enable is the province of (mostly) white landowners—to marginalized, vulnerable, and desperate farmworkers, life on an organic family farm looks a lot like life on a conventional farm.

The notion that changing where you shop for groceries can eradicate evil and maximize pleasure always was, and always will be, a pipe dream.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the promises of the food movement have failed to materialize. How could they? The notion that changing where you shop for groceries can eradicate evil and maximize pleasure always was, and always will be, a pipe dream. It’s an appealing pipe dream, for sure, and it stems from good intentions. But, as Gray writes, “for the most part, ‘alternative’ is used to describe a different means of offering high-quality farm products—in other words, an alternative market mechanism—as opposed to describing a truly different moral relationship to the process of agricultural production. What Marx called ‘the relations of production’ have not been fully called into question in alternative agriculture.”

In fact, the gospel espoused by locavores is—despite the left-leaning tendencies of most foodies—an inherently conservative one. Locavorism is characterized by mistrust of the government. The subsidies distributed to large-scale farmers, USDA and FDA labeling regulations, and the inspection and certification burdens placed on small farmers are seen as misguided or corrupt. Locavorism also espouses the belief that buying is the key to social change—“vote with your dollar” is a common refrain. Elitism is a charge that’s been levied, rightly, at an ideology that encourages followers to spend more money on food and that venerates small producers who are, by virtue of their smallness, inaccessible to all but the savvy and affluent. The agrarian ideal is not so different from any capitalist ideal, the archetypal small farmer not so different from the archetypal small business owner: with self-determination, independent thinking, and hard work, the story goes, he outsmarts his competitors and makes a good life for himself. A food movement that sees the marketplace as an instrument of change will always be subject to the exigencies of the marketplace.

By teasing out the complications of a single sliver of the “alternative” food system, Labor and the Locavore points the way forward for foodies. It is time to disentangle the questions of taste, sustainability, animal welfare, labor, and community and tackle each one separately. Buying organic vegetables and free-range meat at the farmers’ market will do absolutely nothing for immigrant farmworkers making minimum wage. And the belief that growers who sell at farmers’ markets are the last bastion of agricultural purity simply gives them more license to continue exploiting their employees. Locavorism’s labor problem will get better only when all farmworkers—whether they’re picking unripe tomatoes destined for Walmart or harvesting organic mâche destined for $15 salads in fancy Manhattan restaurants—are guaranteed a livable minimum wage, reliable health insurance, and collective bargaining protections. For that to happen, they’ll need allies who understand that local and moral are not synonyms, and who are willing to stand in solidarity with farmworkers—and against the farmers they are so used to idolizing—not just in food markets, but also in voting booths and in the streets.


L.V. Anderson is Slate’s food and drink editor.