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Agricultural Workers Have Struggled for Decades. They Need COVID-19 Relief Now.

Amid the pandemic, those essential workers who grow our food and pick it are treated as if they are disposable.

Farmworkers harvest zucchini on the Sam S. Accursio and Sons Farms on April 1, 2020, in Florida City, Florida.

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My grandfather, who was a dairy farmer all his life, cried when he dumped his milk. It’s downright painful to watch your hard work literally go down the drain.

That was in the late 1960s, when my family and many others dumped their milk out of protest — they did so with hope that keeping product off the market would grant them power to later negotiate a fair price from buyers.

Now, farmers around the country are also dumping their milk, but not out of protest. This time, it’s a global pandemic that has decreased demand for food, as schools, hotels and restaurants have closed. Meanwhile, as unemployment claims rise by the week, millions around the country have to flock to food banks in search of their next meal.

It’s not just the dairy industry that’s been negatively affected. According to the Farm Bureau, the prices for nearly every commodity have fallen dramatically over the last few weeks. The coercive law of supply and demand is forcing down prices for cattle ranchers and vegetable growers. From coast to coast, farmers are letting their crops rot in the fields or making them into mulch because prices are too low.

This is awful news for an already struggling rural economy. Farm incomes for the past six years have been stagnant or falling, showing a slight improvement in 2019 that now has been erased by the pandemic’s effects.

What’s been one of the government’s responses in these hard times for farmers? Pay farmworkers less.

Talk about the wrong way to confront our current agricultural crisis.

Before the virus hit, the close to 3 million farmworkers who don’t own land and who labor on some of the larger operations in this country already lived in extreme poverty — earning between $15,000 to $18,000 a year. That around 75 percent of farmworkers lack documented status only adds insult to injury, as these farmworkers are in constant fear of deportation.

As the pandemic continues, what have farmworkers been demanding? At a time when it looks like they could leverage their position to request, say, citizenship, farm labor organizations are asking for sick pay, safety gear and basic information about the disease.

If that’s not humbling, then I don’t know what is — some of the most vulnerable people in this country just want to keep working, with a modicum of safety. Yet these most essential workers, the people who grow our food and pick it, are treated as if they are disposable.

Fortunately, grassroots groups are stepping in where official leadership is not. For instance, fundraising efforts being organized by groups such as Justice for Migrant Women seek donations to cover medical expenses for farmworkers if they get sick, as well as protective gear for the others who continue to labor in the fields.

For our politicians, it seems as if there’s no problem that farmers receive nothing for their work, and farmworkers get even less than the miserly wages that they were already being paid.

This reality is unacceptable, and now is the time for Americans to demand that our politicians make serious reforms to the food system.

Everyone – including those who work in agriculture — deserves a stable income. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s Small Farmer Relief Act, which would forgive loans of certain farms, is a step in the right direction, but is not enough. Similarly, the recently announced $15 billion package of emergency payments and government purchases of product, such as dairy, is necessary, though not sufficient. As this relief package looks much like the previous attempts to offset the president’s costly trade war with China, which triggered retaliatory tariffs that hurt farmers particularly hard, then it is also likely that large-scale producers will be favored over small-scale ones. For this reason, emergency payments need to be tailored to small- and medium-size farmers. Furthermore, there also needs to be a national moratorium on foreclosures.

Moreover, farmworkers need not just improved salaries (and not further cuts to pay), but also safe working conditions. Before this global pandemic, women farmworkers suffered from routine sexual harassment, while exposure to pesticides and excessive heat made the work of harvesting much of this country’s fruits and vegetables detrimental to the health of everyone in the fields. Working with the risk of contracting COVID-19 only adds to the perilous health conditions that farmworkers already had to endure.

For these reasons, we should take this moment to improve our food system for the future. This means that the next stimulus package needs to include agriculture in a big way.

Farmworkers need more than face masks — they should have the right to organize without fear of employer retaliation so that they can demand safe work conditions and pay increases. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act — a bill that would provide undocumented workers in agriculture with citizenship — should get another look now, as it passed in the House last December but later stalled in the Senate.

Let’s also make farm income stable by fixing a floor price — a minimum wage, in a sense — for what farmers sell and instituting a supply management system that would allow producers the power to negotiate with buyers the amount of product that goes on the market.

My grandfather, if he were alive today, would be upset at still seeing farmers having to work tirelessly, then having to throw away what they worked so hard to make. He would also hate to see farmworkers having to sacrifice their health for next to nothing in pay.

Still, what should really cause concern for most everyone is that the struggle of people who are employed in agriculture is not new, but has been going on for years, if not decades.

We can strengthen our food system by investing in agriculture now, while also preparing the conditions for the next generation.

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