Imperialism for breakfast

In 1978, Ernest Feder published “Strawberry Imperialism”, a study of the transformation of Mexico from corn and beans grown by subsistence farmers to feed local markets, to corporate farms producing strawberries and other fresh produce for export to the United States. The book was originally published in 1977 as “El Imperialismo Fresa: Una Investigación Sobre Los Mecanismos de la Dependencia en la Agricultura Mexicana” and, as a Spanish Language Learner in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico in 1982, it was the first important work I read in my new language. I re-read it for this post.

In 2022, Ruth Conniff published “Milked: How an American Crisis Brought together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers”, an examination of rampant consolidation in the dairy industry and how that industry meets its labor needs. Reading it inspired me to re-read Feder.

So what does it mean about your strawberries and milk for breakfast?

Image from Lolly Jane

America’s Dairyland was home to nearly 16,000 dairy farms in 2004. Fifteen years later, ⅔ of those farms were gone. In 1993 there were 30,000 dairy farms, so nearly half of those were already gone in 2004. A 1998 paper “The Changing Face of Wisconsin Dairy Farms: A Summary of PATS’ Research on Structural Change in the 1990s” looked at the size of herds broken down into five categories, with the largest being 200+. By 2022, Conniff was looking at 1000 as the cut point for large herds. While she may focus on the last 15 years, the crisis has been decades in the making.

America’s Dairyland still leads the US in cheese production, but California produces more fluid milk. California has almost 50% more cows on 1/10 as many farms.

To match the US farm labor crisis, Mexico had a farming crisis of its own. In the aftermath of NAFTA, corn prices plummeted as the US flooded Mexico with cheap corn. While Wisconsin had many small dairy farms, Mexico had many small corn, bean, and squash farms. 900,000 farming jobs were lost in Mexico in the decade after NAFTA was signed. The US shipped cheap corn to Mexico and Mexico shipped cheap labor to the US, sometimes in the same containers, according to John Peck of Family Farm Defenders.

One might argue that this is a win-win, but one would have to ignore the growing dependence on chemical farming and depletion of topsoil, the exploitation of undocumented workers, increasing need for antibiotics on farms, and the problem of what do with tons of manure. Cows in concentrated farming operations (CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – note that they don’t even call them farms) produce too much manure to spread on fields safely – it ends up stored on site (where it can wash away in heavy rains) or spread too thickly on fields, where runoff causes contamination of both ground and surface water.

Conniff traveled to meet Wisconsin dairy farmers and their undocumented workers, then spent a year living in Mexico, where she met with the families of those workers. [Interviews conducted in Spanish were translated by the author. The native language of some of the workers is Nahuatl, but they all spoke some Spanish.] Oftentimes, once one person is established in Wisconsin, other family members and neighbors migrate to the same farm, sending money back home to support families, build houses, and start businesses. Wisconsin gets the labor it needs to run large dairy operations and Mexico gets capital to build houses and start small businesses. Sounds good, eh? Just one problem – it is all illegal.

Conniff touches on the irony of Trump-supporting farmers who rely exclusively on undocumented immigrant workers to run their operations. While US law allows temporary work visas to migrant workers to come for a harvest season, there is no legal means for a farmworker to immigrate here to work year-round on a dairy farm. The stereotype is that these undocumented workers “steal” jobs from US-born workers. The reality is that farmers can’t find US-born workers to work the long hours at low wages that the dairy industry relies upon. Milking used to be done twice daily and is now routinely a 3 times/day chore. That means long hours and/or multiple shifts. Even the children of dairy farmers tend to eschew the work of their parents.

My personal involvement in this world was treating many farm workers for on-the-job injuries, from things such as being stomped, kicked or thrown by bovines, to slipping and falling into the large fans that move air through a dairy barn. Most are not insured and don’t qualify for Medicare or Medicaid. Few of them spoke English, making the process of being hospitalized scarier, especially when one lacks documents to be here. Their bills are written off as “charity cases”, but that doesn’t mean that hospital billing departments don’t try to squeeze blood from a turnip to collect. (One of the best parts of my job was I didn’t care whether or not the hospital got paid – I only cared if people got better and went home.)

I also found that, when I spoke with farmers about their work, those who worked their own farms had almost universally given up milking cows and switched to beef or cash crops. A dairy farmer cannot take a vacation, even a day off. Unless you are big enough to hire others to do much of the work, it has become too much. Farmers of my generation want to slow down, and most don’t have kids who want to go into the business.

Forty years earlier, Ernest Feder looked at the forerunner of this problem – a pre-NAFTA world, but one where US capital was already taking over Mexican agriculture. He begins by saying he isn’t “interested in the strawberry industry as such. It serves as an example of the domination of the agricultural sector by capital and foreign technology”. He quotes an unnamed businessman about a world in which “everyone is fucking over everyone else, with the objective that none of this enters the public consciousness”. [All translations by hfcc.]

By this time, Mexican agriculture was already well on the way from an indigenous agriculture to meet local needs to an export-oriented agriculture to meet luxury wants in the US. He notes that US capital controlled:

  1. all factors of production (what to grow, how to grow it)
  2. the prices of those factors
  3. production processes
  4. marketing processes
  5. return on investment and how those returns are distributed.

As a result, the Mexican agricultural system was already developing into an arm of the US agricultural system, with essential decisions made outside of the country’s borders, for the benefit of others. Thus, the way was already being paved for the post-NAFTA invasion of US corn to further disrupt the Mexican farming economy. Feder rightly refers to the process as the “colonization of Mexican agriculture”.

Communally-controlled lands (ejidos) were taken over by industrial agricultural firms under foreign control under the guise of increasing efficiency. Feder notes “the myth”, perpetrated by these controlling interests, that “big business is more efficient than small farms”. He notes that “numerous economic studies have shown that small producers in Mexico are as efficient, if not more so, than large producers.”

Feder notes that prices were controlled by the processors so, when harvest was in full swing, processors would tell small producers that they had more product than they could handle, so they offered a reduced price. The farmer had the choice of taking less money or dumping the crop. Even when farmers had a contract with the packing house, the contract contained an out where the packinghouse could reject a crop at their sole judgement. (While this can be reasonable, in that poor quality and unsellable crops could be rejected, he quotes a local observer that “the packers robbed the farmers without modesty”.)

Mexico was the testing ground for the “green revolution” – a movement sold as a means to end world hunger, but actually a means to extend US agricultural dominance to the world – by selling patented seeds that required further inputs (fertilizers, pesticides) also purchased from the same large US-based firms. This ultimately led to Monsanto suing midwestern farmers for “stealing” their patented GMOs when Monsanto seed invaded neighboring fields. Monsanto has since agreed not to sue if farmers can prove that their possession of Monsanto seed is inadvertent and minimal. That doesn’t change the fact that said farmer cannot sell a crop as organic if it contains GMOs.

Image from Civil Eats

I must admit that, after decades of reading scientific papers, I read Feder’s work with a more jaundiced eye than I did 40 years ago. He raises questions and casts doubt, but makes unsupported claims. In discussing price fixing, he shows statistics demonstrating that prices paid to farmers were discounted at the peak of harvest, but adds “in reality, the official statistics underestimate the real discounts…” (How do we know this reality? Because he said so.)

This is not to say that Feder’s analysis is wrong – just that it is difficult to prove. His long history of scholarship in this arena lends him the benefit of the doubt. His evidence fits an established pattern.

Any analysis of fresh produce is made difficult by the nature of the product – it is highly perishable and relies on appearance for sales. Thus, a product may be nutritionally fine but unsellable to a market trained for visual perfection. When prices are set by supply and demand, they will go down at the peak of the harvest, when supplies are plentiful. To prove abuse of the system is difficult and requires analysis of trends over time and accounting for qualitative variables.

He makes a good case regarding the overestimation of the benefits to Mexico of the strawberry industry, noting that job creation is wildly overestimated by ignoring the short season. He also notes that the pay to strawberry pickers and packinghouse workers is much lower in Mexico than in the US, so even this benefit accrues more to the industry than to the workers. Feder quotes a local observer that “the strawberry is a poverty magnet”. People relocate for short-term jobs and end up living in the streets or spending their pay on transportation back home every night. Cities swell with short-term residents and services can’t keep up.

Those short-term workers take jobs without knowing the pay or benefits, as asking results in the response “We don’t have work for you today”. When there is work, it is under dangerous conditions. The Zamora Herald noted that “a high percentage of farmworkers suffer pesticide poisoning. Symptoms include fainting, vomiting, headache…after using insecticides without adequate protection…often with fatal results.”

While Feder’s information is not current, I use it to illustrate the continuing pattern of the abuse of Mexican farmworkers in both Mexico and the United States (just as he uses strawberries as an illustration of a larger pattern). He notes that “foreign capitalists like to argue that the transfer of capital and technologies to underdeveloped nations improves the working conditions. The processing of strawberries is an example of the falsity of that argument.” He reports 18 hour days (standing at a large table in a cold packinghouse with 80 others and not being allowed to talk) are common during peak times. While the specific abuses may be different, the pattern is unchanging.

So what is the future of agriculture and how do we feed the world? Is the family farm just a colorful relic of America’s past? Is industrial farming the only way to feed 8 or 10 billion people? Or can a return to a locally-based, chemical-free agrarian system save our soil before we deplete it completely, and provide us with enough nutritious food to sustain us? Stay tuned.

1830 the world’s population was One billion
1930  2 billion. (doubled in 100 years)
1960 3 billion
1975  4 billion. (doubled in 45 years)
1987  5 billion
1998  6 billion
2011 7 billion
2022 8 billion (doubled in 47 years).

About the authors: While you know the half-fast cycling club blogger as a half-fast bicyclist and retired health care worker, he worked with Young World Development under the auspices of the American Freedom from Hunger Foundation half a century ago (okay, a little more than that, but who’s counting?), so food and land use issues have been on his mind for a while. At the time “Strawberry Imperialism” was published, he was Produce Manager of the largest grocery coop in the midwestern United States and worked with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. He has lived in America’s Dairyland for 60 of the last 70 years. So while he may be full of hot air, he came by that hot air honestly. He is currently home sick, which makes reading and writing a better use of his time than going out in 36º (2º C) drizzle to ride a bike.

Ruth Conniff is a journalist in Madison, Wisconsin. Former editor of The Progressive magazine, she is now editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. Her work has also appeared in the Nation, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Isthmus of Madison.

Ernest Feder was a rural economist from Germany who wrote extensively on land use in Latin America. His books include Feudalism and Agricultural Development: The Role of Controlled Credit in Chile’s Agriculture, Perverse Development, Dairy Dilemma, Social Opposition to Peasant Movements and Its Effects in Latin America, Lean Cows–fat Ranchers: The International Ramifications of Mexico’s Beef Cattle Industry, and The Rape of the Peasantry: Latin America’s Landholding System. The titles alone make me want to read more of his work.

Author: halffastcyclingclub

We are a group of friends who ride bikes. Some of us are fast, some of us are slow, all of us are half-fast. In 2018, one of us rode coast to coast across the US. It was so much fun, he's doing it again in 2022! If we meet Sal Paradise, we'll let you know.

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