John Steinbeck’s novel Grapes of Wrath. Woody Guthrie’s ballad “Deportee.” Edward R. Murrow’s documentary Harvest of Shame. Every decade or so, the public is shocked by yet another discovery that migrant farmworkers are being horribly abused by the wealthy masters of the corporate food system. And here we go again.
Last November, the New York Times reported that the workers who grow and harvest the cornucopia of fruit and veggies in the rich fields of California’s Salinas Valley live in a constant crisis of poverty, malnutrition, and homelessness. Toiling in “America’s salad bowl,” they literally cannot afford to eat the fresh, nutritious edibles they produce.
The Valley is a gold mine of groceries, generating billions of dollars in sales that have enriched landowners and corporate executives and turned Salinas Valley into farm country with Silicon Valley prices. Unable to afford good food, the workers eat poorly — 85 percent are overweight or obese, and nearly six out of 10 have been diagnosed with diabetes (while many more, uninsured and unable to afford testing, go undiagnosed). Especially appalling, about a third of elementary school children in the Salinas City district are homeless. They sleep with their families in tents, abandoned buildings, tool sheds, chicken coops, or on the ground, next to the rows of crops they tend.
Allowing such abject poverty in our fields of abundance is more than shameful — it’s an oozing sore on our national soul, made even more immoral by the fact that our society throws 40 percent of our food into the garbage. But outrageous treatment of farmworkers is not limited to Salinas — you can likely find it down some rural road near you. When we find it, let’s act on it. Yes, donate money and time to food banks, but it’s even more important for us to join with farmworkers in local, state, and national political actions to STOP this gross, un-American inequity.
Adding to the inequality that has affected so many farm workers is the fact that Wall Street has our nation’s farmland.
Our nation’s farms conjure up Americana, the old homeplace, and our rich, rural culture.
Less bucolic, however, is the assortment of financial trusts and hedge fund hucksters that are buying up these farms and converting them into fast-buck investment packages for super-rich global speculators. One of these Wall Street investment scheme is called Farmland Partners, Inc. It’s run by a couple of slicks trained in mergers and acquisitions as executives at the investment powerhouse, Merrill Lynch. Rather than sodbusters, Farmland Partners are tax busters, using a legalistic plow called Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) to get enormous tax breaks to subsidize their scheme. With this special subsidy, the Partners have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars from investors to buy up farms and ranches — they now own 295 agricultural properties covering 144,000 acres in 16 states including California’s Salinas Valley.
Of course, the Wall Street plowboys don’t soil their own soft hands by actually farming, they’ve figured out how to “work” the land without touching it — and how to harvest a sweet profit. The syndicate hires tenant farmers to do the sweaty work of plowing, planting, and nurturing the crops. This tenant system produces a double-line cash flow for the faraway owners — Farmland Partners charges the tenants rent for tilling the corporate soil, then the Partners harvest a sweet share of any profits from the sale of crops the tenants produce. “It’s like gold,” says the founder of one such scheme, “but better, because there’s cash flow.”
Meanwhile, the young farmers America desperately needs — those who actually want to, you know, farm — are having a hard time finding affordable land to get started. These new generation farmers can easily be out-bid for good land by Wall Street speculators who have the cash flow from tenants and the subsidy from taxpayers to underwrite their financial contrivance.
To prevent the money schemers from literally walling off young farmers, and to fight this insidious Wall Street takeover of agriculture, connect with www.YoungFarmers.org.
To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.
IMAGE: Vegetables are seen at a farmers market in Los Angeles, California, United States May 10, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson