Paying food's costs
I congratulate you on publishing "Slapping the Hands that Feed Us: Migrant Farm Workers Fight for Basic Rights," by Joseph Sorrentino. The article presents an honest picture of the realities of farm workers in New York State. While noting farmer resistance to improving the legal and financial status of farm workers, Sorrentino does not get into the angry accusations that farm-worker advocates sometimes make against farmers, nor the equally angry responses. The author, however, fails to mention a critical point that helps explain the current situation: the cheap food policy of the US government.
Farmers who depend on selling basic commodities --- corn, soybeans, wheat, potatoes, milk, and even apples --- do not receive enough for their crops to cover the costs of the reproduction of their farms. By reproduction, I mean not just the annual costs of production, but also the costs of farm maintenance, the full ownership costs of capital replacement, operating capital, land, unpaid family labor, and money towards retirement. So even when they sell their entire crop, they are falling farther and farther behind.
Eventually, it catches up and there's another farm auction. The government subsidies offset the low market prices and thus keep some farms in business: The big winners in this arrangement are the middle men, the milk processors and grain traders like Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland.
Until this country rearranges the priorities of our food system, farmers will resist paying farm workers decent wages because working family farmers are struggling for their own existence. Food should be more expensive and a larger portion of the food dollar has to go to the people who produce that food.
Most farmers do not want government payments. They would like the market price of food to cover the cost of producing the food, plus a modest return on investment. Taxpayers could spend the same amount of money on farm subsidies by shifting the payments from farmers to low income citizens.
Elizabeth Henderson, Peacework Organic Farm, Welcher Road, Newark
I just read Joseph Sorrentino's article, "Slapping the Hands that Feed Us," and I have to agree that it's appalling that these people are treated so poorly. However, in many cases, they're the lucky ones.
Here in Arizona, summer has already begun, and soon the first immigrants of the season will die in the desert. Often unscrupulous smugglers will bring them across the border, then abandon them in the desert. Sometimes they will make it to civilization and water, but more often than not, one or two of a group of a dozen or more will be found near a highway, near death from dehydration. By the time they're revived enough to give some clue as to the location of their companions, it's too late for their companions, who end up dying in the desert.
For the last two or three years, some church groups have been placing containers of water in the desert along routes commonly used by the smugglers. The sad thing about this is that the border patrol will start watching those water stations. The smugglers will react by bringing their people across in locations without water, and the whole cycle will begin again.
I can't help but wonder how much longer this will go on and how many more will die before this is ended.
Jim Nantz, Phoenix, Arizona
Thank you "Slapping the Hands that Feed Us" by Joseph Sorrentino (June 4). The article, written with sensitivity and balance, provided an in-depth look into a system to which we all, as consumers, are directly linked.
Barbara Deming, Redman Road, Brockport
Vets slapped, too
"Slapping the Hands that Feed Us" (June 4), regarding migrant workers' low wages, has a counterpart: "Slapping the Hands of Those Who Have Borne the Battle."
The Department of Veterans Affairs pays only from 50 cents an hour to a maximum of one-half minimum wage to patient-workers in VA institutions. A 1973 federal court decision ruled that the Fair Labor Standards Act covered patient-workers, but the VA claimed an exemption for a work program that paid "nominal remuneration" and put all patient-workers in that rather than comply with the ruling. (The Department of Labor disagreed with the VA, but the Office of Personnel Management is responsible for the federal sector by law and hasn't effected compliance provisions.)
And so, while non-VA programs under the FLSA are required to pay fair wages (even to veterans), the VA "slaps the hands" of those who do work for them. The irony grows when the VA patient-worker does work for contract companies; the VA requires them to pay the FLSA wages that it denies, even if it is the same type of work.
Abraham Lincoln would moan in his grave, "No, no, no; I never meant for that to happen." Where are the veterans organizations? Don't they care?
Ross W. Brown, Baker Drive, Canandaigua
On behalf of Musica Spei, I want to thank Josh Mailman for the item about our concert (Short Takes, June 4). We are very, very grateful for the coverage, and for the opportunity to reach as many people as possible to give them the opportunity to either explore this rather specialized music for the first time, or to enjoy music they already appreciate. The number of people who show up at our concerts --- and the enthusiasm they exhibit --- never, ever ceases to amaze and astonish me.
City has a terrific tradition of supporting community groups struggling to survive and flourish in a difficult economic environment that favors larger, institutional entities with larger and more varied resources. I hope you know how much your support means to those of us trying to expand our audiences' horizons beyond the mainstream repertoire.
For example, it is worth noting that it is Madrigalia that just devoted an entire concert to composers based in Rochester (a decision made for artistic reasons and because it was important, rather than the usual financial reasons).
It was Opera Rochester that commissioned, performed, and recorded the world premiere of an opera by Rochester composer Paul Stuart and that has performed operas by other Rochester composers.
And many of the choral groups that belong to the Greater Rochester Choral Consortium have been promoting either contemporary music by Rochester and other composers from around the world, or other unusual works outside the mainstream --- despite the risk of reduced concert attendance. (Many of us have found, however, that audiences have responded very favorably to this approach.)
The nonprofit, nonprofessional musical community in Rochester is quite extraordinary, and City Newspaper has played an important part in firing this creativity while letting audiences know of its existence.
Thanks to Josh Mailman for continuing the tradition.
Steve Marcus, Musica Spei, East Avenue, Rochester
I read with interest John Cook's letter, "Defending the War" (The Mail, May 28). Cook states that the UN Charter allows for self-defense. If that is the case, why did we attack Iraq? It never posed a threat against the US, notwithstanding the ballyhoo that Weapons of Mass Destruction were in Saddam's hands.
What kind of victory is George W. Bush claiming? Each day, our troops are being killed or wounded, and the Iraqis are without water, electricity, health care, and government.
Europeans and other foreigners continue to think that the US sent Army Humvees to control Iraq so we could drive more GM Humvees in America. I still personally feel that's the rationale.
I now hear that the US is planning to supply arms to Algeria (a terrorist state probably worse than Saddam's Iraq). Algeria has the fifth largest reservoir of fuel deposits. How about that!
And we are hearing threats against Iran. Who is next on the agenda?
Dave Saltzburg, New Wickham Drive, Penfield
I can't imagine how anyone in their right mind could think that folks who object to George W's war could change their minds just because the shooting stopped. Everyone knew who was going to win. The price in American and Iraqi lives has been paid and paid and paid.
The heads of our government are waving our flag and celebrating their "victory." Some victory! The United States rolling over Iraq like a steamroller rolling over a dozen eggs. The French, Germans, and Russians should be thankful they weren't part of that fiasco. Aside from the grief that all the families of the dead service people are going through, our government has created chaos for the people of Iraq.
Don Franklin, Chelmsford Road, Brighton
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