(Photo from Addison Independent, part of the documentary “Hide,” released in 2013.)
Much of our nation seems to be very concerned with illegal immigrants coming to this country. I have to say, I get both sides, but I know there is a reality that most are unaware of. We need the migrant workers to come here, so we can have the food we take for granted. Some people say that the immigrants take jobs away from Americans, but I can attest that they will do the honest labor that Americans won’t do. Southwest Michigan is a center for raising fruit, and according to the Herald-Palladium out of Benton Harbor, farmers there are having trouble getting the help they need. Even back in 1999 they were seeing a shortage of workers willing to spend more than 8 hours in the field, bending over in the hot son to carry melons, berries, or pick plums, peaches or nectarines. That problem is even worse 18 years later as the Trump administration cuts down on immigrants, legal or not.
Why is this such hard work? People want cheap food, but it costs to have people who are careful with the tender crops that they harvest, such as cantaloupe, berries, lettuce, peas and other fruits and vegetables. It is back breaking work, and those who do it follow the seasons, without a permanent home of their own. If those people were paid what Americans would demand, they hourly cost of that work would dramatically raise the prices. Farmers must also provide housing, sometimes meals, hygiene facilities and ideally, schooling for the children of those migrants.
Recent outbreaks of e.coli have been blamed on careless migrants, but in reality they are often not provided proper facilities to maintain good hygiene. Children don’t often attend school, as they are in the fields as soon as they can walk, learning and helping with the harvest, yet they are not the concern of those worrying about “child labor laws.”
Dairying is really suffering from a lack of skilled labor. It is a skill to work with 800 lbs of cow, moving the herd in and out of the milking parlor. Whenever you work with livestock you will get dirty, from machines as well as from the animals themselves, and the smell of manure and cleansers are strong and can be offensive to sensitive noses.
When some children come to my farm, which is not generally filled with a strong smell, they will complain of the odor, right away. To most people, except when my bucks are in rut (breeding season) they don’t even notice much of a smell at all. However, this sensitivity carries over into adulthood and the American sense of “self,” can put many people off of farming because of their tender noses. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Bureau is going after migrant dairy workers in Vermont, which could paralyze the dairy farmers there.
Dealing with livestock is normal around the world, and used to be commonplace in this nation too, but our urban-centered country is no longer taught, or even exposed to the realities of producing milk, meat, or even vegetables. Without these hardworking people from other countries, our food costs will sky rocket, and the only ones who benefit are the ones shifting to robots in the field. But a robot can’t calm a frightened cow, or handle a ripe raspberry without bursting it. Scientists are working to make them more sensitive, but it takes a soft voice and a gentle hand to calm a nervous first freshening milk cow. It takes a tender touch to harvest a perfect strawberry, and without that we’re likely to grow less tender, tasty berries, which will be a terrible lost to tables across the country.
Would you do the work? Could you? When you are worried about the impact of illegal immigrants in the country, remember those fruit salads you love, or that milk that you enjoy every day. What will it be like without those skilled farm workers? We need to respect their efforts and support their families that make it possible for us to enjoy our life quality that we do.