How can we think outside the box for transforming the role of migrant laborers in our agricultural system? Coming up with creative solutions is not the forte of the USDA. But when I saw an announcement of a new USDA program that benefits small farming groups, I thought of a missed opportunity for migrant laborers.
Last week, Kathleen Merrigan (Agriculture Deputy Secretary) announced the continuation of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP). Established in 2008, the BFRDP is meant to incorporate new farmers into an aging agricultural system. When the majority of farmers are over reaching retirement age, it is important for the government to find a means of drawing youngsters into the farming business. Therefore, this $18 million program creates monetary incentives for youth to head to agriculture.
In order to apply for a grant through the program, you must represent be a “Socially disadvantaged, beginning, and limited resource farmer.” The “socially disadvantaged” clause essentially just translates as “minority.” “Beginning” farmers are those who have never operated an independent farming operation, and intend to take a large role in the day to day operations of this new farm. And someone of “limited resources” has a household income below the poverty line for a family of four.
These three conditions apply perfectly to the vast majority of migrant workers currently invested in the agricultural system. Even discounting undocumented immigrants, who applicability would immediately be null, there is a present population in the states of young, willing, and able minority applicants who would fit this bill perfectly. However, one is only able to apply for this funding if one is affiliated with a larger work group or agricultural agency – such as a university, independent organization, or the like. Independent farmers, even in larger groups, would be lost without an official title designation.
While the USDA is surely not targeting migrant laborers for these grants, it is interesting to consider the consequences if they had. And what if an organization like the CIW or UFW applied for grants on behalf of migrant workers? Could a farming operation come into being that is run solely by those escaping an oppressive existence working some of our country’s most exploitative jobs? Some questions to consider as we look towards a future of reforming worker’s conditions in the fields.