Episode 984: Food And Farmworkers : Planet Money To find out what's happening with our food, we talk to an economist, a farmer, and, of course, farmworkers. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
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Episode 984: Food And Farmworkers

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Episode 984: Food And Farmworkers

Episode 984: Food And Farmworkers

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING, LANDING)

AMANDA ARONCZYK, HOST:

We are recording this on Wednesday, March 25.

SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:

Getting food this week has been insane. Grocery stores are seeing a lot more customers than usual. And even though everyone is telling us not to panic buy, when you see all the garlic and onions gone...

ARONCZYK: All the leafy greens and potatoes gone.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, when the only thing left is artichokes, you can't help but feel like you should stock up on all the produce you can find - even if you have nowhere to put it.

ELIZA DEXTER COHEN: People are starting to realize there's only so much produce that you can store in your fridge...

ARONCZYK: (Laughter) Oh, it's true.

COHEN: ...So produce may be different than things like, you know, toilet paper in terms of like that kind of shopping behavior.

ARONCZYK: Eliza Dexter Cohen is a produce buyer for Tourtellot & Co. They distribute produce - peaches, lettuce, tomatoes - from farms to over a hundred supermarkets on the East Coast.

GONZALEZ: And in some supermarkets, people are buying four and five times more than they normally would, even if they're not going in looking for food.

COHEN: As more people go to the grocery store to buy toilet paper, they also pick up bananas and lettuce. So even if people aren't hoarding produce, there's just more people in the stores. And that's why you see empty shelves is really partly just the foot traffic.

ARONCZYK: Those empty shelves are signs of the system trying to catch up with all the new demand. And a lot of the problem is labor. There just aren't enough people packing our food in warehouses and getting it out the door fast enough.

COHEN: You know, people have tons and tons of yams, but they're not in boxes because they're used to packing a certain number of boxes a week. And now it's double or triple.

ARONCZYK: And finding the labor to get food to grocery stores - that may not be a long-term problem. You can hire more workers to move groceries. The bigger problem might be on farms.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

ARONCZYK: And I'm Amanda Aronczyk. Today on the show we talk to an economist, of course. And we go to the source, the farm.

GONZALEZ: We talked to a farmer and to the people who really make farms go, the farmworkers, to try to find out how this pandemic might affect our food.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MATT HARSH: My name is Matt Harsh, and I'm a fruit and vegetable farmer in Smithsburg, Md.

GONZALEZ: Matt sells his produce to Wegmans grocery stores in Maryland and Virginia and at farmers markets in Northern Virginia and D.C.

HARSH: So we grow apples, peaches, plums, cherries, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, winter squash, garlic, greens, lots and lots of different things.

ARONCZYK: And Matt says that farming tends to do the opposite of other industries.

HARSH: I've kind of noticed in my short farming career - and all the old-timers have told me over the years - that ag tends to be countercyclical to the general economy. So when the rest of the economy goes down, farming tends to go up.

GONZALEZ: For example, he's been having really great farmers market weekends - right? - 'cause everyone's panic buying. But those are kind of, like, last year's vegetables. His new farming season, the spring season - the main season - that starts April 1.

Oh, so it's here basically.

HARSH: Yeah, it's here. It's now.

GONZALEZ: It's now.

HARSH: Right now is when we start to bring more people.

ARONCZYK: Every April 1, he brings in 20 to 25 farmworkers all from Mexico on H-2A visas. It's the temporary farmworker visa. And they stay for at most 10 months to harvest all the fruit, all the vegetables. And then they go back to Mexico for two months before it all starts back up again.

HARSH: Most farmers would bring workers from Mexico because we can't find local workers; they just don't exist.

GONZALEZ: Like, during the last recession, farms in North Carolina tried to hire U.S. workers. They had 6,500 openings. A hundred and sixty-three people showed up, and only seven kept the job.

ARONCZYK: Americans don't want to pick peaches, I guess. Seventy-three percent of farmworkers in the United States are foreign-born. Half are undocumented.

GONZALEZ: And bringing seasonal workers in from other countries is a whole long process. Matt has to try to recruit farmworkers domestically and prove to the State Department of Labor that he tried. Then he has to go through the Department of Homeland Security to get visas for his farmworkers, and they have to go to interviews and appointments at the consulate in Mexico in Monterrey.

ARONCZYK: And when the U.S. started restricting travel and closing borders over coronavirus concerns, Matt started to get a little worried.

HARSH: We started thinking, OK, we need to - we need to start thinking about making a move and get these guys up here a little earlier than normal.

GONZALEZ: He calls up some of the guys in Mexico he's worked with before - calls them on March 7, a month before his farm season starts and says, get ready.

HARSH: We're going to bring you up early, basically what we said. We're going to bring you up early. Get all your stuff together.

GONZALEZ: Eight guys head north. They're making their way to the consulate in Monterrey all on buses, hours away. And on their bus right up, the U.S. announces it would no longer schedule nonemergency visa appointments.

HARSH: And that's when we hit the panic button.

ARONCZYK: Matt tells the guys just keep heading to Monterrey. Let's hope for the best, which was a good call because the U.S. decided that any farmworkers who had been to the U.S. before on this H-2A temporary farmworker visa, they don't need interviews; they'll just renew their visas. But any new H-2A farmworkers, they won't get in.

HARSH: So we had five workers that were renewals and three that were - in my mind, they were new workers because they had been here before on other people's H-2A contract but not ours. So we felt pretty good at that point that at least our five were going to get through. We weren't sure about the other three, but at least the five would get through. So...

GONZALEZ: But don't you need 20?

HARSH: We're just trying to put out the immediate fire here (laughter).

GONZALEZ: OK.

HARSH: That'll at least get things started.

GONZALEZ: Like, everyone will have onions but no apples or something like that.

HARSH: Yeah, basically. We can get the onions planted. I don't know how we're going to harvest them, but we can at least get them planted (laughter).

GONZALEZ: All right, cool.

In the end, all eight workers got their visas. And Matt has flown farmworkers to Maryland before, but this time, he decides to rent a private van. He thinks driving might be more reliable during all of this. It's a three- to four-day drive from Monterrey, Mexico, to Maryland. And we call them on their drive up north.

(Speaking Spanish).

EMILIO LUNA: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

LUNA: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

Emilio Luna (ph) crossed the border on Friday with his visa. He works on Matt's farm in the fields.

LUNA: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish). OK.

Emilio is from Guanajuato. He's 26, and he's been a farmworker since he was 14.

ARONCZYK: He'd been on the road for three days when we spoke to him.

LUNA: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALEZ: "Close to North Carolina." Ah, OK.

They all sleep sitting up in the van. And they just stop for gas and food, which Emilio says is all takeout-only now.

LUNA: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALEZ: The fact that no new farmworkers can cross the border right now for the farm season is putting pressure on farms.

ARONCZYK: Diane Charlton is a professor in the agricultural economics department at Montana State University. She specializes in labor and migration and agriculture. And she says if farmworkers don't get to a farm on schedule, that's enough to affect a whole peach harvest.

DIANE CHARLTON: For something like peaches, it's a very small window from when that peach ripens onto the tree to when you have time to actually pick it before it gets over ripe and actually get it into a refrigerated system and make sure that peach doesn't go bad. So that requires a lot of workers in a very short window.

GONZALEZ: And if, for whatever reason, the workers don't get there on time, it's not like farmers have many other options.

CHARLTON: Obviously, we don't have robots that pick peaches yet.

ARONCZYK: OK. So here's a basic picture of how our food supply chain works. Good news first - some crops, Diane says, we really don't need to worry about because they don't require a ton of labor. The robots are on it.

CHARLTON: So your field crops, like wheat, corn, those are going to be mechanized. But most of our fruits and vegetables are harvested by hand.

GONZALEZ: Most of our fruits and vegetables - pretty much everything besides some berries and grapes and wheat and corn - are picked by hand. So maybe we don't have to worry about corn and wheat right now, and we'll just focus on fresh produce.

CHARLTON: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: I'm going to say for me it's leafy greens.

CHARLTON: OK.

GONZALEZ: I feel very worried about my leafy green supply right now.

CHARLTON: OK. So walk us through the leafy green supply chain.

CHARLTON: OK. So when, say, head lettuce is ready to be harvested, head lettuce is harvested by hand. Individual workers will actually go into the field, and they'll cut the head of the lettuce off from the ground. And then they'll hand it to someone who's in, like, a tractor or a combine. And that person will actually pack it on the field.

ARONCZYK: For other vegetables and fruits, like peaches, a farmworker will pick the peach off the tree and then send the peach to a packing house.

CHARLTON: So from the field or the packing house, the packaged fruits and vegetables are going to go to a wholesaler or a warehouse where they're going to be prepared to actually ship to the grocery store shelves.

ARONCZYK: And that's it.

CHARLTON: Well, that's where the consumers actually purchase it off the shelves.

GONZALEZ: It seems like what you would think it would be.

CHARLTON: Yeah, yeah.

GONZALEZ: OK.

CHARLTON: It's not too complicated until it becomes difficult for truckers to actually go to work or if it becomes difficult for the farmworkers who harvest the fruits and vegetables to come to work.

GONZALEZ: Like, if they get sick, say, for two, three weeks.

MIGUEL ARIAS: In farming, the most vulnerable part of agriculture is not the farmer or the farm - it's the farmworker.

ARONCZYK: After the break, while the rest of the country is worried about getting sick at work, that's not where the risk is for farmworkers. It's where they live.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ARIAS: Yeah, (speaking Spanish).

GONZALEZ: OK. Will you just say your name and title for me?

ARIAS: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN HORN SOUNDING)

ARIAS: Oh, let me - hold on, a

train is going by. It's Miguel Arias. I am the Fresno City Council president.

ARONCZYK: Miguel is from Mendota, Calif.

ARIAS: The cantaloupe capital of the world.

GONZALEZ: Mendota, cantaloupe capital, is a farm town in the Central Valley, where about half of all of the fruits and nuts and vegetables in the United States are grown. It's Miguel's backyard.

ARIAS: I actually grew up as a farmworker picking crops, everything from sorting tomatoes to picking cantaloupes and watermelons, cutting onions and packing onions and cucumbers.

ARONCZYK: There are about 11,000 residents in Mendota but a lot more guest workers.

ARIAS: So I was going home for the weekend. And I made it a point to go check up on other farmworkers and the community and the businesses to assess how the coronavirus was affecting them.

ARONCZYK: And he checked in with a farmer, too, like a farm owner, not a worker.

ARIAS: And we asked him if he was concerned about his workers being infected. And he said no, I have 20 farmworkers to an acre. There's plenty of social distance between them.

GONZALEZ: Twenty farmworkers to an acre - plenty of social distance between them. And Miguel tells this farmer well, yeah, farmworkers are spread out on the fields. That's not where the risk of infection is for farmworkers. It's at home.

ARIAS: He didn't want to continue the conversation after that.

ARONCZYK: Miguel stopped by his old neighbor's house. She's a farmworker. And every farm season from about March to January in California, like 20 farmworkers move into her house. They pay $300 a bed for the season.

GONZALEZ: Did you walk into your neighbor's house that you saw...

ARIAS: Yes.

GONZALEZ: What was it like a one-room, like...

ARIAS: It's actually not a room. It's a garage. So if you can imagine a two-car garage...

GONZALEZ: Filled with beds.

ARIAS: Bed next to a bed like a kid's size bed...

GONZALEZ: And bunk beds, too.

ARIAS: ...A series of bunk beds and also a kitchen constructed and two additional bedrooms in that limited space.

GONZALEZ: And aside from having 20 people living in one garage for 10 months, which Miguel called a petri dish for infections, he said farmworkers are not washing their hands multiple times a day, not at work or at home.

ARIAS: It's a water cost. I mean, when you have a 1,100-square-foot home that's a two-bedroom house and now you have 20 people living in there....

ARONCZYK: Miguel says water is the most expensive commodity in these farmworkers' homes.

ARIAS: So it's very routine and normal that the farmworkers don't shower after every day in the job site 'cause the water bill become so expensive. That's more expensive than power and sewage and garbage costs. The restrooms itself - just the amount of toilet flushes, the amount of water needed for cooking...

GONZALEZ: Miguel says farmworkers can't afford to follow CDC guidelines on personal hygiene. And when Miguel is there in farm country, he just keeps thinking, what are we going to do if farmworkers start getting sick?

ARIAS: You know, this last week, I have slept an average of two hours a day. This scares the s*** out of me. The coronavirus has already hit farm country. The only reason we haven't seen it in drastic numbers as we have in urban centers is because we're not testing anyone.

CHARLTON: You know, as testing becomes more available, farmworkers should probably be part of the priority.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. I mean, I would think so. (Laughter) That's our food.

CHARLTON: Mm hmm, right. It should definitely be near the top of the line, absolutely.

ARONCZYK: That's agricultural economist Diane Charlton again.

GONZALEZ: And we asked Emilio, the farmworker in the van making his way up to Maryland, if he was concerned about getting the coronavirus. And he said his plan is to just not get sick.

LUNA: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALEZ: We should say that the small group of farmworkers that are in the U.S. on an H-2A visa, like Emilio, they have different rules around housing. Their employer has to pay for their housing, and it cannot be so crowded. But they could still get sick like the rest of us. And if Emilio does get sick, he says he's still going to go to work anyway.

ARONCZYK: As for Diane, the economist, she is also hoping for the best.

CHARLTON: I also think it's not really time to panic yet. You know, we'll see what happens. A lot of the fruits and vegetables that we're most concerned about are going to be harvested between June to October. So hopefully, we've made more progress in how to identify coronavirus, how to treat people who get coronavirus. If we can make a lot of good progress on that end in the next few weeks, we may have very little impact on grocery store shelves.

GONZALEZ: So stay home, everyone, and don't touch a farmer.

CHARLTON: (Laughter).

GONZALEZ: Do not get our farmers sick.

CHARLTON: Right.

GONZALEZ: That's what I'm hearing.

CHARLTON: Sounds good.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ: You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We're @planetmoney.

ARONCZYK: We also have a newsletter, and you should really sign up. We are keeping track of all of the fast-moving changes and all the news. You can go to npr.org/planetmoneynewsletter to sign up.

GONZALEZ: Today show was produced by Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer, and Bryant Urstadt edits the show. James Sneed fact-checked this episode.

ARONCZYK: If you liked this episode, please share it with a friend. I'm Amanda Aronczyk.

GONZALEZ: I'm Sarah Gonzalez. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

ARONCZYK: Now go wash your hands.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, 20. Seconds, guys.

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