COALINGA, Calif.—It’s taken the better part of my life, but I’ve come to acknowledge the soil in my veins. Despite living in a half dozen major cities over the years, I’m a country boy—born and raised in the farmland of Central California.
I don’t speak for farmers and ranchers. I just listen carefully when they speak to me, as a group of them did recently in a gathering at a cattle ranch in this rural town.
The farmers tell me that not many journalists venture out into the fields to see for themselves how farming works. Farmers don’t get many visitors. What they do get is plenty of free advice from the uninformed about how to do their jobs, treat their workers, bring in their crops, sell their products and provide for their families.
Speaking of the uninformed, there are these days more than a few of them hosting primetime shows on Fox News.
Last week, Laura Ingraham let loose with a screed in which she essentially said that America—this country of immigrants—has been ruined by immigration.
“In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people. And they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like. From Virginia to California, we see stark examples of how radically in some ways the country has changed. Now much of this is related to both illegal, and in some cases, legal immigration that, of course, progressives love.”
Sorry Laura, it's not only “progressives.” In the most recent Gallup poll, 84 percent of Americans said that legal immigration is a good thing; only 13 percent said it is a bad thing.
For years, anti-immigrant liberals and conservatives (they come in both varieties) have claimed they have no problem with legal immigrants, only illegal ones, and they’ve scolded the pro-immigrant camp for conflating the two.
Now, thanks to Ingraham, the cat is out of the bag. For nativists, it doesn’t really matter if someone comes legally, on a visa, or with a letter of recommendation from the Queen of England. What matters is that they’re here, they’re different, and they’re changing everything.
The problem isn’t just poor, low-skilled, Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico. It’s also the middle-class, high-skilled, English-speaking immigrants from India.
Still, as a child of the farmland, what I found most offensive about Ingraham’s monologue is something that no one else seems to have caught. When she’s talking about “massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people” that “none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like,” over her shoulder, we see a video of farm workers toiling in the fields.
Is this who Ingraham thinks is ruining America, hard-working people who do back-breaking jobs that Americans won’t go anywhere near?
We vote for that every time we buy a piece of fresh produce at one-third the cost that it would set us back if not for illegal immigrant labor. We vote for that when we ourselves hire illegal immigrants as nannies, gardeners, housekeepers—or turn a blind eye when our neighbors, friends and relatives do. And we vote for that when we raise our kids to be soft and unable to work at any job more strenuous than making lattes.
On the farm, they know better than to swallow what Ingraham is selling from her perch on the Potomac.
Such nonsense is not limited to Fox News, of course. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation about farming, and the record needs to be set straight, the farmers tell me.
Near as I can tell, here are five lies told about farming and the people who heed that calling:
Farm work is “unskilled” labor
No one who has ever watched farm workers in action could believe this elitist whopper. “Skilled” doesn’t just mean educated or specially-trained. In an avocado grove, it means keeping your balance on a ladder, planted on an incline 12-ft off the ground, with a burlap sack around your neck while you reach for fruit.
There is no labor shortage because American workers will do even the most grueling field work if the pay is high enough
Good luck with that. Farmers openly scoff at the idea that these jobs are something Americans could do, or would want to do. Many of them report that—in 20 years—they’ve never had an American approach them for field work.
Farmers and farm workers are in an adversarial relationship
This throwback to the '70s—created by the propaganda arm of the United Farm Workers—sets up a paradigm where, in order for farmers to prosper, farm workers must suffer and vice versa. In reality, the relationship is co-dependent. Both parties succeed or fail together.
Farm jobs can be done by machine
The folks who cling to this assumption have already accepted that Mexican farm workers aren’t going to be replaced by American kids whose exposure to produce is a trip to the salad bar. So, they insist, the replacements will be robots. But many crops must be picked by hand, and even machines are run by humans.
Farmers take more from society than they give back
Anyone making this argument shouldn’t do it with their mouth full. U.S. farmers are so efficient at feeding the country, that now they’ve moved on to feeding much of the world. They also pay taxes, employ people, pump money into local economies, and support charities.
Farmers are generally soft-spoken and not comfortable bragging about their accomplishments. They’re good at singing the praises of their crops but not always at telling their own stories. They have thick skins and don’t suffer fools lightly, which means they don’t waste time worrying about those people who don’t like them, respect them, or understand them. They believe in family, hard work, and Mother Earth.
One thing they don’t believe in—or have much experience with—is a united front. They’re like separate tribes who all pursue their own separate interests, which are defined by where they live, what they grow, and what they need to bring in the harvest.
Those who grow water-intensive crops in a drought-stricken state like California are naturally going to worry more about the availability and cost of water than those who grow crops that are easy on water and live in states where there is plenty of it.
When it comes to trade, farmers who grow soy, cherries, avocados, almonds, and other crops that are on the list of products on which China has imposed retaliatory tariffs are naturally going to worry more about the closing of foreign markets than those whose crops are not being targeted.
On immigration, those who grow crops that are picked by hand—oranges, strawberries, avocados, table grapes, etc.—will be more concerned about the Trump administration's crackdown on the undocumented than those in the Midwest who grow corn and grain that can be harvested by machines.
What all these groups of farmers have in common is being underappreciated—and these days, under fire from multiple sides. They shouldn’t be abandoned. Those who feed the nation need our support.
They’d have more of it if the public discourse about farming had more truth and common sense. As it stands, the only thing it has more than its share of is manure.