It is often taken as gospel that the higher prices of food that has been “sustainably” farmed is a reflection of the “true cost” of food. As for myself, I haven’t questioned this particular piece of dogma either.
Until now. Not that I am rejecting the entire proposition. But I am thinking about the implied corollary to this statement, which is that if “sustainable” food captures the “true cost” of food, then it must be paying “true value” for all of its inputs.
Which is why this article caught my eye. I applaud the initiative of the people described in the article; indeed I can see myself in their shoes. (I traded a career and a chunk of home equity to get into the farming business at age 35, the twilight of “young”.) But the article describes them earning $7 to $9 per hour, and in one instance working a month for free, since the farm could not pay them.
What is striking to me is that these wages are less then is commonly paid in my corner of California for farm labor, most of whom it is safe to say are not college educated. So is $7 to $9 per hour really the “true value” of farm labor? If that is the case, than Southern California farmers are apparently benevolent, rather than exploitative as is often charged.
The difference is that these neo-farmers are driven by passion, while for most farmworkers, the job is just a paycheck. So the question becomes, does this really mark a path toward sustainability? Like any industry, agriculture benefits from new minds and fresh energy, so this is a good thing. On the other hand, this newly found source of cheap labor, while “renewable”, is probably very finite. Will this resource last? Will the many small farms that rely on this type of labor continue to be able to attract volunteers as their model is adopted on wider scales?
In the long term, we will have to come face to face with two unpleasant truths.
Firstly, farming is not and generally has never been, aspirational. Sadly the history of mankind is the tale of people inventing ever more clever ways to get away from the farm. (A more detailed reflection on this point here.)
Secondly, much of the toil in agriculture is confined to entry level jobs that require few skills, no higher education, and in some cases, not even literacy in the prevailing language of the region. Such jobs are unlikely ever to pay very well, whether the worker holds a master’s degree or a green card.