Harvest time is beginning here in the Valley. La Puente Shelter Home is getting ready for migrant season when our beds will be full and dinner lines long from the addition of many of the Valley’s migrant farm workers. Because of the United State’s labor laws and agricultural economy, many of the SLV’s field workers find themselves unable to pay for food and lodging from the wages they make.
Two hundred years ago, 90% of the US population farmed. Today, that number is less than 2%. The number of acres devoted to farming also continues to decrease, to just over 900 million acres currently. However, because of changing technologies, farmers are able to continue to increase food production for both local and international consumption. In 1950, one farmer supported the food and fiber needs of 15.5 persons. Today, one farmer supports the food and fiber needs of 155 persons.
This has come at a profit loss for many farmers, explaining why in order to be profitable, farms must work towards increasing production. Nationally, farmers and ranchers receive on average of 19 cents per dollar spent on food. For comparison, in 1952, farmers and ranchers received 47 cents on every dollar.
What does this mean locally? Two of the main crops grown in the San Luis Valley are potatoes and head lettuce. Think about the prices you pay for these products in the grocery story. On average the US consumer spends about 10% of disposable income on food. Between 1970 and 2005, this percentage has actually decreased from almost 14%. What does this mean? Incomes are rising faster than food prices.
To keep national food prices low, farm workers wages are forced down. Migrant and seasonal farm workers make an average hourly wage of $7.25. This translates to an average annual income of $10,000 to $12,500. Compare that number to Colorado’s per capita income of $24,049.
The agricultural economy is not the only link in this chain. Immigration laws also play a significant role. In 2006, the Colorado General Assembly passed tough legislation that included giving local law enforcement broader powers to check immigration status for workers without proper documentation. Because of these changes, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition estimates that a large percentage of the state’s migrant farm worker population would not return to CO. Still needing a workforce, the Colorado State Corrections Department supervised teams of low-risk inmates to harvest sweet corn, peppers, and melons. Farmers involved paid a fee to the state, about 60 cents per day per inmate. Christie Donnor, the Executive Director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition called the decision a “reinvention of the plantation, captive labor force… working for room and board in order to benefit the employer.”
There is much more to say and piece together about this issue. However, before you judge the dirty and tired physique of someone who looks like a foreigner, think about the last time you went to the grocery store, what you got, and what you paid. For better or worse, we are all linked in this chain together.
We at La Puente invite you to volunteer with us or even join us for a meal at the Shelter. In this way, you can get to know a few of the individuals who work hard every day on our local farms. To learn more about this complicated issue or how to get more involved in food issues, call 719-587-3499.