Rotten Peaches, Rotting In the Sun

From this morning’s A Word A Day:

The best way to be more free is to grant more freedom to others.
-Carlo Dossi, author and diplomat (1849-1910)

Today’s New York Times Online:
Immigration Issues End a Pennsylvania Grower’s Season

Let’s stop for a second and gaze into our crystal ball. Ours is a special crystal ball, in that it lets us look back and forward without fear or regret. We will simply observe. This time, we see what minstrel told us a year and a half ago:

This post was inspired by a family farmer out near Show Low. He had a gorgeous crop of peaches. Beautiful, inspired fruit. He was unable to find labor to pick this crop. Thank you all you border crawling sons of bitches. You’re down here on my border screaming your racist, isolationist bullshit and a decent 4th generation farmer is going broke because you are off on some fool’s errand to take focus away from Iraq, which your side fucked up beyond all repair, from the economy, which your side is selling to the Chinese for fucking counterfit yuan they are printing by the bale, from Katrina and the overall incompetence of their policies.

The farmer who grew these peaches got so frustrated and depressed that he put a box for donations by the side of the road and a sign that said “I’d rather you pick everything you can carry off than watch it rot.”

I canned 30 quarts of peaches and made 8 pies. The pie recipe will come later. And, in case anyone might ask. I did leave a donation. I left what I thought was a fair market price for the fruit my son and I picked. Then I dug a little deeper and left some more.

That would be infuriating and heartbreaking if we weren’t gazing matter-of-factly into our factful crystal factinator – for facts. Now let’s cast our eyes again on that New York Times Online article.

Finding and keeping the field hands who can pick 10,000 tomatoes a day during the hot months of August and September is no less a test of organizational traction than any get-out-the-vote drive.

For 35 years, Keith Eckel, 61, one of the largest tomato growers in the Northeast, had the workers and the timing down to a T: seven weeks, 120 men, 125 trailer loads of tomatoes picked, packed and shipped.

This year, however, the new politics of immigration — very much on the mind of many of Pennsylvania’s voters, even if overlooked by the presidential candidates campaigning in this state and around the nation — has put him out of business.

State, local and federal crackdowns on illegal immigration have broken his supply chain of laborers. Most of those were Hispanic men who had come every year for decades, and whose immigration status Mr. Eckel recorded with the documents they provided to him. He kept them all in the file cabinets at his neat farm office — the Migrant Seasonal Farm Worker Protection Act forms, the Labor Department’s I-9 forms, the H-2A agricultural visa privilege forms — though he knew that, for the most part, it was a charade.

“It’s a ludicrous system,” he said the other day, sitting behind his desk in a light brown windbreaker that matched the fallow hillside beyond his office window here, 10 miles north of Scranton. “If the national statistics are correct, 70 percent of the documents in those cabinets are fraudulent.”

A year ago, my brother Todd and I discussed the mania surrounding immigration, legal or otherwise. I maintained it was a political red herring and Republicans would regret the strategy of villainizing the very same Latin demographic they were courting and would need to remain relevant in an increasingly non-white America. Todd, who lives in Los Angeles, had a different take on the matter, which changed abruptly when immigrants decided that, peacefully, they’d had enough.

They swept onto the Mall by the tens of thousands, waving American flags and chanting, in Spanish, “Here we are, and we’re not leaving.”

With voices raised in protest, with placards in English and in the language of their homelands and with slogans scrawled across white T-shirts worn to symbolize their peaceful intent, the assembled mass delivered a simple message: We are Americans now, too.

Demonstrators swept onto the Mall by the tens of thousands on Monday; Ranks of young men who listened in respectful silence, high-school students taking advantage of their spring break, immigrant mothers arriving with young children and day laborers who live in fear of deportation turned out in force.

Todd wasn’t the only person who saw seas of faces in every city, crowds teeming with peaceful protestors in white shirts, and said, “Holy shit, what’s going on here?” Conservative pundits crapped their pants when they realized that not only were they surrounded by the offended but that they hadn’t the first clue that the offended could effectively organize in the big Conservative blind spot: Latin mass media in the United States.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the English-speaking mainstream media forgot about this almost immediately, and legislators resumed legislating most Draconian. Once again, the crystal ball clears and we see that Pennsylvania farmer today.

For years Mr. Eckel went along. “But in the current political climate,” he said, “I just can’t take the risk of planting two million tomato plants and watching them rot in the field.”

This is the crux of a tense, if largely unspoken, conflict between politics and reality in a state with 40,000 commercial farms. On many of those farms, crops requiring hand-picking are either not being put in this year, or are being planted by farmers who cannot be sure they will have the workers to harvest them, farm experts say.

Yet, in more than a half dozen state legislative races, getting tough on illegal immigration has become the premier issue in this state, as it has in many others.

In the 10th Congressional District, where Mr. Eckel’s 700-acre farm is located, the incumbent Democrat, Representative Christopher Carney, has made the enforcement of strong penalties for illegal immigrants and their employers a signature issue in a tough re-election campaign; Mr. Carney is one of two dozen incumbent Democrats singled out for defeat by the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.

“Over the last couple of growing seasons, farmers have been feeling a tremendous amount of stress over the way this issue has been playing out,” said Gary Swann, governmental relations director for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. “And if people think all we have to do is raise wages and hire local workers, they are simply mistaken.”

Local workers will not do the job, Mr. Swann said.

The gentleman who sent me this URL spent his early years as a migrant farm worker. Today, he is a famous mycologist. Sometimes, I see him on television. His only comment is, “Expect food prices to skyrocket.”

After newspapers and television stations in the Scranton area publicized Mr. Eckel’s decision to forgo planting tomatoes, he received a phone call from Senator Barack Obama’s agriculture adviser, Marshall Matz, who arranged a meeting for later this month.

But firestorms of protest have greeted nearly every proposal to regularize and temporarily legalize the supply of workers, like the immigrants who harvested Mr. Eckel’s crops. He said he did not expect anything to change until there was a broad new consensus about immigrant labor, which might never happen.

“I’m going to wait until February to decide whether I’ve planted my last tomato crop,” he said. By then, there will be a new president and a new Congress. But the tractors and seeding equipment in his warehouse will not wait forever. Their resale value is good for another year at most.

“This is all about economics,” added Mr. Eckel, who served as president of the state farm bureau for more than a decade until the mid-1990s, and whose office walls are decorated with photos of himself shaking hands with Ronald Reagan and the two presidents Bush. “I’m not trying to make some political statement.”

If one were to want to, though, three weeks before a state presidential primary would be good timing.

How delightful it is, when the sky is falling, to make jokes at the expense of the frightened. That shows real character. I wrote the snarky reporter a bon mot of my own.

“If one were to want to, though, three weeks before a state presidential primary would be good timing.”

Cleverness is neither wit nor wisdom. You wrote a story about the consequences of xenophobia in real life and the future of food security for the country, and the most important observation you can come up with is “D’OH! Obama on Line 1”?

Maybe you could sit down, re-read what you wrote and recognize the horrors it predicts. I feel sure a different final paragraph will come to you. Eventually.

The crystal ball, however, has more to show us.

Driven by a painful mix of layoffs and rising food and fuel prices, the number of Americans receiving food stamps is projected to reach 28 million in the coming year, the highest level since the aid program began in the 1960s.

The number of recipients, who must have near-poverty incomes to qualify for benefits averaging $100 a month per family member, has fluctuated over the years along with economic conditions, eligibility rules, enlistment drives and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, which led to a spike in the South.

But recent rises in many states appear to be resulting mainly from the economic slowdown, officials and experts say, as well as inflation in prices of basic goods that leave more families feeling pinched. Citing expected growth in unemployment, the Congressional Budget Office this month projected a continued increase in the monthly number of recipients in the next fiscal year, starting Oct. 1 — to 28 million, up from 27.8 million in 2008, and 26.5 million in 2007.

The percentage of Americans receiving food stamps was higher after a recession in the 1990s, but actual numbers are expected to be higher this year.

U.S. government benefit costs are projected to rise to $36 billion in the 2009 fiscal year from $34 billion this year.

“People sign up for food stamps when they lose their jobs, or their wages go down because their hours are cut,” said Stacy Dean, director of food stamp policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, who noted that 14 states saw their rolls reach record numbers by last December.

One example is Michigan, where one in eight residents now receives food stamps. “Our caseload has more than doubled since 2000, and we’re at an all-time record level,” said Maureen Sorbet, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Human Services.

One hundred dollars a month…and food prices on the rise. Hmm. The cost of our mania run amok may be the starving in the street. Once a person cannot feed his or her children what more is there to lose?

Common decency would have cost us a great deal less.

Crossposted at Blanton’s & Ashton’s.

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