As the Republican National Convention descended upon Charlotte, North Carolina, this week, Donald Trump (along with daughter Ivanka and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue) stopped by Flavor First Growers and Packers in Mills River, North Carolina. The event was livestreamed from WSPA 7 News and included co-owner of the farm Kirby Johnson as well as farmers from Homestead, Florida, where the company has other partnered growers. Trump and his posse spoke about the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, an initiative under the Coronavirus Food Assistance program which is supposed to funnel $19 billion in order to redistribute product to food banks, but has faced some criticism for mostly bailing out large agribusiness firms. In reality, for the White House, the visit served as an all-American photo-op that had nothing to do with agriculture or feeding the hungry.
In the hour-long livestream there was little information on the food box program itself, such as pickup sites or where to sign up to receive a box. Instead, the event began with tables of farmers displaying ripe bell peppers, cartons of juicy red tomatoes from South Florida, and the like. All of them were masked, except Trump, donning all the Trump and American flag regalia they could, signaling with starry-eyed wonder, “Yes, we will vote for four more years.”
The missing piece in this scene of boxes of produce stacked high above the white faces of the presidential entourage, farmers and office secretaries, are the people who do the physical farming — farmworkers, who are, more often than not, nonwhite immigrants. The people who pick, pack and handle those boxes are nowhere to be found in any of the livestream footage.
In fact, the only times people of color were mentioned at all during Trump’s event were during a discussion of “foreign competition” between U.S. and international farms, or in relation to the government’s COVID-19 response (though Trump never referred to COVID by any scientific names in his speech, only using the term “China virus”).
Following the initial meet-and-greet, Trump spoke to a crowd touting his renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which predictably went over well among this part of his base. Historically, agricultural communities like the ones in North Carolina and South Florida have experienced growing inequality and job loss under NAFTA. However, Trump’s “victory” in renegotiating NAFTA does little to actually alleviate these burdens.
“We didn’t deserve this and they could’ve stopped it,” Trump said in reference to COVID-19, insinuating China perpetrated some kind of biological-economic warfare on the U.S., while in fact it’s his administration’s continued botched response to the pandemic that continues to escalate the spread of the virus across the country.
“We’re going to have a tremendous year economically,” Trump promised the crowd, “… and you see even the employment numbers coming in. In the last quarter, more people hired … over 9 million jobs. More than any quarter ever before.” But the ongoing pandemic economy says otherwise as unemployment claims skyrocket and job growth is expected to be slow to rebound after losing over 12 million jobs since February, mostly among the lowest-paying jobs.
In his congratulatory remarks (not just to the farmers in his presence but also himself), there were no thanks to the farmworkers risking their health to feed the U.S. at its most food insecure, which is to be expected.
The dominant vision of the American farmer has never been of the migrant workers brought in by the busload to fields. It has been of the “solemn and humble” white man standing over his field in his jeans and hat. It’s that vision Trump relies on in this speech because it supersedes any form of class solidarity in that base’s mind.
And as I listened to him speak, citing trillions of dollars in pandemic relief and slashed regulations (which Republicans frame as good for farmers), I was sad. I was sad because these farmers bought it. They see a moneyed, powerful white man and think “I wanna be in that guy’s club.” It harkens them back to pre-NAFTA riches that I, as a 28-year-old, have only been told whisperings of since birth.
I spent my childhood in the dirty seats of a pickup truck beside my father as he rode through the fields, inhaling the air hot, stale and heavy with the same Florida dust that caked the interior of the truck. I am a third generation in a legacy of South Florida farming.
Once upon a time, the white farm family experienced bounty and wealth, made possible by enslaved Black people and, later, poor immigrants, while white farmers drove down rows of legumes to survey. That wealth collapsed beneath the weight of unsustainable white supremacy, lack of regard for the land and greed.
Agriculture should be about feeding our communities sustainably. We should be paying farmworkers living wages. Instead, many white farmers sit at the GOP’s feet as if its members are speaking the true gospel and not lies to deflect blame onto the foreign, nonwhite other. They listen as if, in a few short years, they too could be making millions again.
The facts are these: Donald Trump has never been down on his knees in the South Florida sun pulling potatoes from the dirt, or picking beans, or okra. The white farming communities of the South are yearning for a return to something that will never come back. The “leadership” of Trump and his ilk will never aid them because it’s not in their capitalist interest to do so. Class ascendance will likely not come for these white family farmers.
Many comments on the livestream and on my personal Facebook feed the day after Trump’s speech echoed pride for our farmers and their advocacy of their community. But I am a farmer’s daughter and I see this speech for what it is — a reelection strategy filled with nothing but blusterous lies.
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