Harvesting justice

Farm worker

Photo by Christiana Velasquez

One simple sign can signify the beginning of a new cycle; like how the first daffodil bloom is the symbolic kickoff to a long-awaited spring. This time of year, I look to the highway to mark the end of the harvest season in North Carolina and the beginning of the holidays.

Christmas tree trucks are the sign to me that the harvest season has come to an end.

Throughout November, one truck after another travels the eastbound lane of Hwy. 40 hauling bundles of bound-up Christmas trees. The trees are coming freshly cut from the mountains of western North Carolina to be delivered to lots across this region so families can prepare for the holiday season.

The Christmas tree trucks are the sign to me that the harvest season has come to an end.

  • The sweet potatoes were picked and are in stores or pantries ready to complete a favorite family recipe.
  • The pumpkins and gourds, long since hauled out of the fields, are decorating front steps and dining-room tables.
  • Crisp apples are sitting on kitchen counters waiting to be made into fresh, warm pies.
  • Just like the lettuce for salads, and rich, leafy greens.

85% of crops

The end of the harvest means that Thanksgiving is near and my table will be full of all of this bounty.

We live in a time when we can get nearly any fruit or vegetable almost any day of the year. We can eat fresh foods and have no idea where they’re grown, when they’re in “season” or who did the work planting, nurturing and harvesting.

It is amazing that in this age of technology, 85% of our crops in the United States are still harvested by hand.

It is amazing that in this age of technology, 85% of our crops in the United States are still harvested by hand, including every one of those listed previously.

For farm workers in North Carolina, the harvest season not only means Thanksgiving is near, it also means they’re out of work.

After the harvest

While the Christmas tree trucks head east, the last of the farm workers who are part of the H2-A guest worker program are loading up on buses headed southwest for the exhausting, three-day trip back to Mexico. They’re headed home to their families from whom they’ve been separated since the spring.

If they’re lucky, next year they’ll be requested back by a farm, be able to pay the several hundred dollars in required fees, leave their homes and families again in the spring and work in the fields of the rural United States.

For farm workers who live in the United States year round, after the harvest they’re likely looking for local, seasonal work at factories until planting begins again in the spring. In North Carolina, that may be at one of the many poultry or pork plants processing holiday turkeys and hams.

Or maybe they’re on the road following the next crop to harvest, south to Florida for tomatoes or north for sugar beets.

Harsh reality

Farm work is hard: often more than 14 hours a day when the weather allows, but no work or pay when it’s cold or rainy. It is dangerous work: extreme heat and pesticides are a daily reality.

Farm work is poorly paid, among the lowest in the country. It has the fewest protections of all U.S. jobs. Many housing conditions are decrepit and overcrowded.

Most farm workers are away from their families. Some who are fortunate enough to be together often need the entire family to work — children included —to make ends meet.

This is the harsh reality of our agricultural system.

People of faith

But, the story doesn’t end there. For decades, farm workers have been organizing in unions and associations to make changes. There have been many successes, and there will be more.

People of faith have stood alongside farm workers calling for dignified jobs, fair wages and the right to organize. But it takes us all as a community to recognize these injustices and speak out.

So when we sit down to our holiday tables overflowing with turkeys, hams, sweet potatoes, greens, pumpkin and apple pies, and when we pick out and decorate our Christmas trees, let us keep the men, women and children who harvest our crops in our hearts.

Let us give thanks for their labor, not just for the blessings of abundance, but long after our holiday meals have come and gone. The biggest thanks we can give is to work with farm workers for change.

United Methodist resolution

The General Board of Church & Society of The United Methodist Church is a partner of the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM). In fact, United Methodist Resolution #4134 commits the denomination to work in cooperation with NFWM whose primary mission is supporting farm workers organizing for justice and empowerment.

NFWM educates, equips and mobilizes people of faith and conscience to support farm worker-led efforts to improve living and working conditions.

For resources for you or your congregation to learn more about farm workers or to support our work, visit www.nfwm.org.

Join NFWM and The United Methodist Church in harvesting justice together with farm workers.

Editor's note: Alexandria Jones, a lifelong United Methodist, is a staff member of the National Farm Worker Ministry. She’s proud to be a former Mission Intern and Church & Community Worker of the General Board of Global Ministries.

United Methodist Resolution 4134

“Rights of Farm Workers in the U.S.” (#4134 in the 2012 Book of Resolutions) calls The United Methodist Church to publicly denounce any and all mistreatment of farm workers. The resolution “repents of any complicity that we hold as consumers and often-silent participants in and beneficiaries of an exploitive food production and distribution system.”

Resolution 4134 urges annual conferences, especially where farm workers live and work, to use personal and institutional resources to encourage recognition of farm workers’ rights to a voice in the agricultural industry, including representation and good faith bargaining. You can read the resolution at “Rights of Farm Workers in the US.”

Letter to the Editor