News From the Farm | January 13, 2020

During the Full Belly winter break I visited Mexico with friends and we took a bit of a road trip between Puebla and Oaxaca. Oaxaca is an amazing center of both biological and cultural diversity.  During our drives along windy mountainous roads, avoiding major highways, we enjoyed vistas of subtropical cactus forests, and in the villages and towns we enjoyed the rich cuisine based on native plants.

We often saw agricultural fields, sometimes with workers on tractors and quite often men behind oxen-drawn implements.  We saw pigs going to market, fields of corn and agave and we were able to visit gardens and cultural centers.  The culture of corn was a common theme, and in one garden we were shown a teosinte plant, the ancestor of corn, whose small cob with only a few grains, was brought into cultivation 5,000 years ago in the valleys of Oaxaca.

As a California farmer, I know that our farm shares cultural and historical ties with Mexican farmers and this is most obvious in our workers, many of whom were born in Mexico. Of course, this is the case on many California farms growing produce — lots of the workers were once farmers in Mexico, growing corn, a staple of Mexican cuisine. But when agricultural trade between Mexico and the US surged decades ago (in part because of the old-NAFTA), U.S. corn growers started sending huge amounts of corn to Mexico.  The subsidized corn was cheaper than Mexico-grown corn, and it took over the market.  American beef, pork and chickens followed.

Free trade between Mexico and the U.S. is linked to immigration patterns in complicated ways.  As Mexico became dependent on the U.S. for food staples, the U.S. became dependent on Mexico for labor. Agricultural trade liberalization has been a large contributing factor to Mexico’s job loss for two primary reasons: the pervasive effect of U.S. agricultural subsidies and the corresponding demand for low-wage workers in the U.S. Small-scale rural farmers in Mexico, like those that we saw on our mountainous trip, were forced to compete with large American agricultural companies, and when they couldn’t, many of them came here to work. 

Immigration was used as a bit of a bargaining chip in the discussions between Mexico and the U.S. around the New NAFTA (which is on its way to the Senate for ratification), but even though Canada, Mexico and the U.S. are a free-trade zone, the partnership between the three countries does not include the free flow of workers to and from member nations depending on where work is available (as is the case in the European Union).  My hope is that workers, like goods and services, will one day have the right to accept employment in any member nation, and their families will have the right to follow.

Back in 2017, then-Mexican President Peña Nieto commented, “Although Mexico recognizes the rights of any sovereign nation to guarantee its security, Mexico does not believe in walls. Our country believes in bridges, in highway and railway crossings and in the use of technology as the best allies, in order to become good neighbors. Our border should be the best space for co-existence; a space of security, prosperity and shared development.”  

If only more of us in this country shared that vision!

— Judith Redmond