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'Bringing forth this abundance for us': Amherst journal highlights workers behind US food system

A literary journal based at Amherst College is highlighting the experiences of migrant farmworkers in its latest issue.

Managing editor of The Common, Emily Everett, and guest co-editor, Miguel Morales, spoke about how the failings of the American food system affect farmworkers.

Morales begins by reading part of a poem he wrote for the collection. It's called “Sisters."

I grew up in a farmworking family.
No, that’s not accurate—it’s incomplete.
I grew up in a family of farmworking women.
The hands of our sisters, tías, cousins, mothers,
and abuelas have worked the fields, worked to feed us,
worked to raise us, worked to protect and provide for us.
I love my mom but the truth is that my sisters raised me.
Farmwork would not survive without women,
nor would farmworker families.

Nirvani Williams, NEPM: That's beautiful.

Miguel Morales, guest co-editor: I always tell people the hardest working women I know are farmworking women. Those women are working and those guys aren't, you know?

The Common's latest issue has stories detailing decades of immigrant farmwork in the United States. The literary journal is run out of Amherst College.
Emily Everett
The Common's latest issue has stories detailing decades of immigrant farmwork in the United States. The literary journal is run out of Amherst College.

And they're working and they're using really dangerous clippers and shears and stuff, and they do it with such skill, it amazes me. I don't know where the energy comes from. Maybe it's just love or, like, they have to provide for the family and this is what it's going to take for now. But I know that is not sustainable. You can't keep drawing that much energy and time out of people without it taking a toll on them.

Emily, you grew up on a family farm here in western Massachusetts. How did your experience growing up impact this project? And did your family hire migrant farmworkers?

Emily Everett, managing editor: Yeah, I grew up on a very small farm. My parents had a small dairy farm, maybe 30 milking cows. So most of the labor we had was my sisters and I doing a lot of chores. We didn't hire migrant or seasonal workers, but certainly there are lots of farms around here that do.

So I think my interest in doing this portfolio was sort of getting at that part of the local agriculture that I hadn't experienced myself, and that I think a lot of people here don't experience at all. They go to farmers markets, they meet the farmer, they're excited. But there is this whole, food system that we're a part of here, and people don't see it very much.

But I also wanted to show how beautiful farming is and how hard and difficult and what a physical toll it takes on you, the long hours, the hard work, but that there's still something beautiful about doing that and often doing it with your family. And I think that the farmworkers here have sort of had that similar experience. But obviously there's a lot of difference between working with your family when your family owns the farm and working with your family when you're the farmworkers.

Certainly, the recent spike in migration here in Massachusetts and across the country has put a renewed spotlight on the failings of our immigration system. But farmworkers have long been embedded in the US economy. So do either of you have any hope your collection here will impact public policy?

Miguel Morales: The political times are so turbulent right now that you just hope anything you do affects the system positively. But then you also fear that what you're doing could have a negative effect. So there's that trepidation where I want to do enough to help, but I don't want to do enough that causes people to be deported or to, you know, have immigration or threats of immigration by people who employ them.

I don't know what it's going to take for the political system to change. It might be just a total collapse of the food system, because really, nothing motivates politicians more than their constituents. And when constituents can't find food on the shelves or they can't have fresh water or organic milk, they're going to say stuff, you know, so that's how it goes, unfortunately.

The Weed Sprayer (2020). Ink, gouache, and charcoal on found produce box (82 x 56 in) by Narsiso Martinez.
Yubo Dong
The Common journal issue no. 26
The Weed Sprayer (2020). Ink, gouache, and charcoal on found produce box (82 x 56 in) by Narsiso Martinez.

When you sit down to eat a meal, do you think about the labor that went into the food and its complexity? And do you want readers to think about that when they're eating?

Miguel Morales: I do. Because I mentor some migrant farmworker youth. Sometimes we do writing workshops or craft workshops, and they work in the apple orchards around Missouri. So when I'm in the grocery store, I look to see, is that apple from Missouri? Is it from Waverly or Lexington or any of the cities that they're from? And I'm like, their parents — or even they — could have been the ones to pick this apple.

So I try and be mindful of it. But then I also realize the food that's being picked, they probably can't afford. You know, that's just so cruel that they're bringing forth this abundance for us to have and to pick over the prettiest fruit. And maybe they get the ugly pieces, or maybe they don't even get it at all.

Emily, what about you?

Emily Everett: Yeah, working on this portfolio has really made me think a lot more about the process. I mean, we have pieces in the portfolio that aren't just about picking the food, but someone whose mother was really proud of what a great job she did wrapping the heads of lettuce. Like, she could do it perfectly and it always looked great.

There's just so many steps of that process. And I think that most of those jobs are done by by immigrants and by farmworkers. And, like Miguel was saying, during the pandemic, there were a lot of problems in the food systems that farmworkers got the worst of in terms of protections for disease and that kind of thing.

So, yeah, I hope that people will think more about who's picking their food and just what kind of life they hope that person has, because I think there are things that we can all be doing if we want to get involved in that side of the agriculture industry.

It’s Hunger Awareness Week on 88.5 NEPM, exploring stories about hunger in our region to better understand this crisis and what’s being done to combat it. Learn more about hunger in western Massachusetts at nepm.org/hunger.

Nirvani Williams covers socioeconomic disparities for New England Public Media, joining the news team in June 2021 through Report for America.