The Mad Agriculture Journal
June 19, 2023
Roberto (Bear) Guerra
For decades now, the state of California has been on the frontlines of the climate crisis, with the majority of the state’s residents having now experienced the social and environmental effects of warming firsthand. In recent history, the state has most notably struggled to cope with periodic, extended droughts, which have had a significant impact on the state’s agricultural sector (the largest in the United States). But earlier this year, in a bizarre turn of events for the average Californian, the state’s dry trend was interrupted when a series of atmospheric rivers (a type of storm that carries immense amounts of water) swept over the golden state. These storms brought in so much rain that both Los Angeles and San Diego have recorded more rainfall than Seattle so far this year, and the U.S. Drought Monitor no longer shows any part of California as being in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought.
While this season’s rains have seemingly pulled California out of its long-standing dry spell, they have also brought several extreme flooding events–decimating homes, damaging vehicles, washing away hillsides, and turning entire farms to swamps. California’s regenerative farms, in particular, have received media attention for showcasing resiliency in the face of these unprecedented rainfalls. Some farms that follow regenerative organic principles and practices (including no-till management, diverse crop rotations, regular compost application, and more) reported that they saw increased water absorption and retention during this years’ storms, thanks to all the healthy organic matter they had built up in their soils. What has received less attention is the fact that there is a key piece of farm ecosystems that has and will continue to suffer throughout these extreme weather events, no matter how healthy the soil is: the humans that work on our nation’s farms.
Farmworkers have been disproportionately and severely impacted by this years’ floods in California. In many cases, they have found themselves out of work, working fewer hours, or working in hazardous conditions–all while dealing with damage to their homes and vehicles like other Californians, albeit with far fewer rights, resources, and support networks at their disposal. Their experience–shared by workers across the planet who now harvest crops in the middle of extreme heat waves, wildfires, pandemic outbreaks, and more–invites critical consideration of what it means to achieve a truly regenerative food system. In doing so, the regenerative agriculture industry must consider the wellbeing of every living being on the farm, beyond the crops, the critters, and the soil.
The American Farmworker
The history of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United States is nearly as old as the country itself, having long played a critical role in the country’s food system. In the early stages of American agriculture, small farms relied more heavily on family members, neighbors, or locally-hired hands to meet the seasonal labor demands of the harvest–save for in the slave-dependent South, where seasonal needs were met by slaves; and after the Civil War, by former slaves, Native Americans, and the poor.
As the nation and its farming sector grew, more specialized labor was required, and government employment agencies began incentivizing immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Mexico to migrate over and join the seasonal labor force. The demand for this labor force only continued to grow as crop production intensified and migration from rural to urban communities increased. By the early 1900s, the population and industrial base had expanded to the point that commercial agriculture–and a labor force tailored to fit its needs–became an economic necessity. These changes, along with the rollout of migrant labor-centric legislation and government programming (e.g. The Bracero Agreement, The H-2A Program) contributed to the creation of today’s industrial agricultural system–a system known for its extensive extraction from both the environment and the people who grow, harvest, and transport food.
Throughout its history, the farmworker occupation has been characterized by hazardous, unsanitary working conditions, low wages, and highly limited access to education, welfare, health care, and more. The farm labor movement of the 1960s brought public and political awareness to this reality, helping the nation take major strides toward farmworker wellbeing. Under the leadership of labor and civil rights activists like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, organizations like the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) held a series of successful farmworker strikes against growers in California, demanding and ultimately receiving union recognition and living wages for the worker community. Afterwards, Chavez and Huerta became public faces of farmworker advocacy, and the farmworker movement gained national attention.
Today, while significant steps toward progress have been taken at the grassroots, state, and national levels, farmworkers continue to face a number of challenges in their daily lives.
“Farmworkers are not just impacted by one issue. They’re impacted by a multitude of issues at once that deeply affect their wellbeing,” said Alexis Guild, Vice President of Strategy and Programs at Farmworker Justice–a non-profit organization that seeks to empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions. Food security, substandard housing, geographic isolation, language barriers, low wages, chronic health problems (from pesticide exposure, overworking, lack of sanitation, etc.), limited access to health care, and dangerous working conditions are just a few of the interrelated issues that continue to permeate the farmworker existence.
The issue of food insecurity, in particular, invites a deep questioning of the logic behind the agricultural status quo. “It just blows my mind that farm workers are extremely food insecure,” said Guild. “The people who are harvesting the fruits and vegetables that keep others healthy are unable to access those fruits and vegetables for themselves.” And while a number of factors contribute to food insecurity in farmworker communities, immigration status in particular poses a significant barrier for many in getting food assistance.
According to the 2020 National Agricultural Workers Survey, approximately 68% of U.S. farmworkers are foreign-born, with the overwhelming majority being from Mexico. Additionally, approximately 44% of farmworkers are undocumented, and lack of documentation significantly bars workers’ ability to access community resources for fear of deportation. Others still are migrant workers through the H-2A program, meaning that they have obtained a visa, but their ability to remain in the country is tied to their employment. For H2-A workers, there can be a fear that asserting their rights or advocating for benefits could result in losing their job, and thus their visa. All of these conditions create a social environment that makes it highly difficult for well-intentioned food and farmworker advocacy organizations to earn farmworkers’ trust and connect them to local wellbeing services.
All told, the farmworker reality in America is a symptom of a food system that was constructed with an emphasis on transactions rather than relationships–a system that is not socially or environmentally sustainable, much less regenerative. And like many other food industry awakenings in the last decade, efforts to address this major, multifaceted challenge gained momentum at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. To illustrate the threats and opportunities that COVID-19 posed to farmworkers and their rights and protections, one need look no further than recent farmworker advocacy efforts in another climate-impacted state–Colorado–to see what is possible when a group of passionate stakeholders comes together to protect and champion the hands that feed us.
Essential, not Expendable
In March of 2020, the importance of farm and food chain workers came to the fore when everyday citizens walked into their local grocery stores and saw empty shelves, registering more fully that actual people were involved throughout the process of getting food from the fields to our tables–people who were being disproportionately being exposed to and affected by COVID-19. The government designated farmworkers as essential workers, and thus, they were expected to continue going to work as usual amidst the initial COVID panic–despite lacking the basic protections that essential workers in other industries had in place to keep them safe during this time.
“I think that what COVID did is that it really highlighted how essential farm workers are,” said Hunter Knapp, Development Director at Project Protect Food Systems Workers (Project Protect)–a group of immigrants, farmers, scholars, activists, unions, and workers in Colorado who work to identify, elevate and address the needs of food chain workers. “COVID also highlighted several inequities, including all of the challenges that these workers have been facing for decades.”
Project Protect was organized in the early stages of COVID to address several of those common challenges that farmworkers face, specifically in Colorado–another state that’s been on the frontlines of climate change, having experienced unprecedented wildfire seasons in the last few years. Through fundraising, data collection, activism, and policy action, Project Protect’s team work tirelessly to ensure that farmworkers gain access to adequate protection from COVID-19, extreme weather events, and appropriate compensation for their labor and the risks that they face each day in service to the common good.
One of Project Protect’s largest lifts to date was the successful passage of Colorado Senate Bill 21-87 (SB-87) in the summer of 2021. The bill, largely penned and influenced by Project Protect and its movement allies, made sweeping changes to the state’s labor laws concerning agricultural workers. “It was really just a comprehensive bill that brought Colorado into the 21st century, in terms of things like overtime pay, minimum wage, collective bargaining, new heat protections, and other labor protections,” said Knapp. “Rules that should hopefully further protect workers from climate change too.”
Before its passage, SB-87 faced significant contention across agricultural stakeholder groups, and its success was not always certain. “I thought that maybe if we were lucky, we’d get a minimum wage,” said Nicole Civita, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Sterling College and Co-Convener at Project Protect. “But we were going to start by putting everything we wanted on the table. When we got as much as we got passed in the first go-around, that was huge.”
There are few, if any, other examples of states moving as much and as comprehensively at once. “That was something to really celebrate, because it meant that if we could move all of these things at once, then we could make really material changes in the lives of farmworkers,” said Civita. And that they did–in the two years since the bill’s passage, Project Protect has continued in their work to advocate for and support farm workers. One of the primary ways that they do so is through their Promotora Network program–a culturally competent, community-based model for delivering services to farmworkers.
The promotora model that the program is built around has existed for several generations. It is a grassroots approach to building community capacity (usually in relation to public health work, but it can apply to other issue areas) that originated in Latine* communities. The pillars of the model are the promotoras–trusted community leaders that act as effective disseminators of information, serving as the bridge between governmental and non-governmental entities and the communities that they serve. Fulfilling several roles at once–including that of an advocate, educator, mentor, outreach worker, and translator–promotoras will visit workers in their homes or in the fields, taking the time to sit with people, listen to their experiences, and share information on where or how workers can get the services they need.
Project Protect’s promotora network for agricultural workers covers six different regions of Colorado: the Western Slope, the San Luis Valley, the Southeast, and three Northeast regions (one centered around Boulder County, another centered around Greeley, and another centered around Fort Morgan). Several promotoras work in each region and report to a Regional Director. These directors share learnings and information with each other on a regular basis to best understand and address the current needs of agricultural workers across Colorado. Each one of them, in addition to the promotoras, were trusted members of their local agricultural community before they took on their roles with Project Protect.
“We were very intentional about building this network with the community members at the core of it,” said Knapp. “So, all of our Regional Directors have lived in their communities for years, and built their teams from friends and people that they knew already cared about agricultural workers. Oftentimes, they were already volunteering their time to do outreach work.”
In fact, several of the Regional Directors have previously been agricultural workers themselves. “That was my first job, picking onions,” said Angeles Mendez, Project Protect’s Western Slopes Regional Director. “But during my time as a worker, nobody ever reached out to my family and I to help us. Now, everybody wants to help out agricultural workers because they see how essential they are.” In her current role advocating for workers on the Western Slope, Mendez is able to empathize with the experience of workers in her community, which creates a level of trust that is tough to match by organizations without a community presence or relationship in the area.
Today, Mendez and the promotoras she works with are making major differences in the lives of local community members. Last year, after a car accident death involving an agricultural worker shook her community, she advocated for more access to culturally appropriate mental health resources for local farmworkers. Conversations around mental health remain largely taboo in Latine communities, but access to and incentives for utilizing mental health resources are necessities for farmworker wellbeing, given the amount of stressors that they are under each day. So, Mendez and her community collaborators worked to get a grant to fund the creation of culturally appropriate stress relief techniques, access to bilingual therapists and medical interpreters, and more–a huge step toward empowering farmworkers in the area to receive mental health care.
Success stories like Mendez’s are popping up across all six of Project Protect’s Promotora Network regions. Since the program’s inception, their 34-member team has held over 186,000 conversations with agricultural workers, hosted over 21,000 outreach events, distributed over 45,000 food boxes, facilitated over 23,000 COVID vaccine appointments, and more since late 2020. It goes without saying that these numbers alone demonstrate significant impact, but for Betty Velasquez, Project Protect’s Southeast Regional Director, the trust and relationships that the promotoras have built within their communities is the biggest win–in her region and beyond.
“We have become the go-to entity for all of Southeast Colorado,” said Velasquez. “To me, the win here is that farmworkers are calling us whenever they have a need or concern because they feel comfortable enough. We have overcome that challenge of trust, and our promotoras are now trusted leaders within the agricultural community.” And in addition to building trust among local farmworkers, Velasquez and her team have built strong relationships with local growers too. “Some of the growers have even allowed us to go onto their properties to host things like mobile vaccine clinics in their fields. […] It’s a win-win situation–if you take care of the workers, the workers are going to take care of you.”
A model like Project Protect’s Promotora Network is rarely discussed in regenerative food systems work. But what could be more regenerative than lifting up the capacity, skills, knowledge, strength, and relationships that already exist in worker communities to make the lives of those on farms better? Dominant food system narratives largely disregard the wisdom and insights of agricultural workers and those who formerly held the occupation. As the regenerative movement works to push back on dominant narratives and the logic that underpins conventional cropping systems, perhaps it should work to push back on the logic that underpins the social impacts of these cropping systems too.
A Regenerative Approach to Labor
While a widely-accepted definition of regenerative agriculture has yet to be established, at its core, regeneration is about giving more than one takes, and doing so with the goal of improving the state of our resources, our relationships, and our world. Protecting the wellbeing of the people who work closest to the land is of utmost importance to achieving this goal, including the wellbeing of both farmers and farmworkers. Without addressing the historical and continued exploitation of farmworkers, the regenerative movement will fail to address significant gaps in the current food system, and further its extraction from marginalized communities–without whom, food would most certainly not have made it onto our tables today.
Several of the regenerative movement’s leaders have acknowledged the issues that farmworkers face and are actively working to incorporate solutions into their programming. The Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA)–one of the industry’s leading certifiers for regenerative organic food products–bases their certification process around three pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and fairness for farmers and farmworkers. Standards must be met in each of the three categories for growers or brands to be granted the use of the Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) label. ROA’s labor requirements, specifically, include standards around worker capacity building, freedom of association, living wages, good working conditions, owner transparency and accountability, and more. The Rodale Institute, another leader in the regenerative and organic industry and a member of ROA’s governing body, has also acknowledged farmworker fairness as an issue and a priority for regenerative and organic agriculture work.
These are certainly steps toward progress for farmworker advocacy in the regenerative industry. But in many cases, the movement is still leaning toward a focus on single issues, like soil carbon sequestration or ecological regeneration in general. And if work toward regeneration continues to be limited to soil or ecosystem health, this movement will miss its opportunity to address the root causes of the problems created by industrial agriculture. There are paradigms deeply embedded in the arrangement of the agricultural industry–namely, the separation of humans from nature–that are causing the degeneration of the Earth and its people, long before one ever thinks about how the soil is tended to on their farm.
“That separation [of humans and nature] is at the root of so many of our problems,” said Civita. “That separation permits cheapening and extraction. And we have been extracting from certain peoples for so long, in the same way that we’ve been extracting from the land and from the soil.” If truly holistic regeneration is what this movement is seeking to achieve, then one must reckon with both of those forms of extraction–from humans and from the land–and work to turn them around.
Existing efforts to ensure that all farmworkers are paid living wages, have good working and living conditions, and have the ability to access healthy, culturally-appropriate foods are all important steps to take in the creation of a more regenerative and just food system. However, making these changes alone will simply bring farmworkers up to the baseline conditions that workers in other industries currently enjoy. Those improvements will help farmworkers sustain their livelihoods and their ability to keep showing up to work each day, but what would it look like to truly regenerate farmworker livelihoods and communities?
Regeneration is about going beyond sustaining the current system, and instead, revitalizing every part of it. Perhaps what is most important to regenerative labor work moving forward is that movement leaders place deeper consideration on who is defined as a steward of the land, and how those involved in the food chain are able to show up and have an impact in their communities. Farmworkers often get excluded from the definition of a land steward, despite the fact they tend land day in and day out (even in the midst of floods, wildfires and pandemics) and make immensely valuable contributions to their local economies. The insights that farmworkers could provide from their experiences on the frontlines of agriculture are invaluable to the groups making decisions for the future of the food system. If farmworkers were more readily able to move up in the agricultural industry, step into leadership roles, and have a voice in industry or community-level decision-making, our food system could look radically different than it does today. The immensely positive impacts of the leadership demonstrated by Project Protect’s promotoras over the last few years is a prime example of this reality.
Food and agriculture movements have placed a lot of energy in recent years on cultivating the next generation of young and beginning farmers in the face of the aging steward population–an important bucket of work in and it of itself. But to truly regenerate the agricultural industry, one must remember to consider the stewards of the land that have been hidden in plain sight (farmworkers!), and actively work toward a system where they can be promoted from within. Agriculture is one of the only industries where promotion from the bottom of the hierarchy is not often seen, and it is incredibly important to consider how this industry got to a place where its workers are not expected to become farmers, owners, or operators–never expected to have authority, power, or control over the land that they tend.
No matter how healthy the soils become or how many birds and butterflies return to the fields, if the industry expectations listed above remain the norm, then the food system will continue to be extractive. A regenerative approach to labor requires shifting the common notions of what it means to be or look like a steward of the land and who gets to tend the Earth next. Achieving baseline protections–like fair wages, food security, and safe working conditions in the face of extreme weather–is both essential and only just the start.
* Latine is a gender-neutral alternative to the gendered identity terms “Latino” and “Latina” in the Spanish language. Latine is used in similar contexts to “Latinx,” but with the benefit of being easier to pronounce in the Spanish language. There is ongoing scholarly debate as to which term is best to use and when, and which term is most widely accepted by individuals of Latin American descent. For the purposes of this piece, I have chosen to use Latine.