Hearing from the front lines of local agriculture

By Anita Ashok Adalja

Grow the Growers program trainees digging a berm at the Gutiérrez-Hubbell House. Photo by Stephanie Cameron.

The coronavirus pandemic has added a new element of uncertainty to the already unpredictable and inherently risky business of farming, testing the resilience and innovation of our local foodshed. Over the course of this year, many of us have mourned for farms that had to till produce back into the soil because their markets dried up. We have celebrated the (re)birth of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs popping up all over the state and supported our local food pantries and assistance programs through emergency funding. We have also applauded our farmers markets, restaurants, and grocery stores as they adapted to curbside pickups, and we have donated to relief efforts such as mutual aid networks. Less visible, but absolutely crucial, has been the work of farmworkers, interns, delivery drivers, farmers market managers, and food hub staff. These essential workers are going above and beyond what they signed up to do as they maintain business as usual during the unusualness of a pandemic.

According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, since late July more than 47,000 frontline agriculture workers (farmworkers, food processors, and meat packers) have tested positive for COVID-19, and 189 have died. Many workers do not feel safe or supported in their work environments, are not provided with appropriate personal protective gear, have no ability to socially distance from their coworkers, and are often forced to show up to work feeling ill because they do not have sick leave available. The industrial agricultural workers are already part of a food system that is working against them, and they are now risking their lives for this work. Here in New Mexico, I spoke with a few individuals in our local food system to learn how they are faring during this time and how their experience during the pandemic compares with those in the industrial food chain.

For many workers in the agriculture sector, being deemed “essential” doesn’t mean much at the end of the day. Abel Lopez is a full-time crew member and delivery driver at Silver Leaf Farms in Corrales, midway through his second season there. He delivers produce to restaurants, grocery stores, senior centers, and other institutions twice a week, and works on the farm on non-delivery days. His delivery routine has shifted during the pandemic to include masking up, wearing disposable gloves, and wiping down door handles and his steering wheel with bleach at each stop. “As a whole, I think it’s crazy because we are frontline people working for the community,” Lopez says. “We are putting ourselves at risk every day, especially delivery drivers. And as farmers, we’re not treated as highly as we should be by society in general. We hear all this ‘essential workers this’ and ‘essential workers that,’ and we are not being [appropriately] compensated. I barely scratch the surface [on what people make on unemployment] during a whole two weeks, even putting in extra hours, and I’m putting myself at risk. I don’t necessarily feel essential even though they put us in that category. I don’t feel supported that way.”

Georgina Carvajal, a kitchen crew member at the Agri-Cultura Network food hub, agrees. “It’s funny to be called an essential worker,” she says. “I think we are made to look more important than we are treated. I have to work for low wages and risk my health, and still feel like anyone could replace us.” At the Agri-Cultura Network stationed at Albuquerque’s South Valley Economic Development Center, Carvajal processes and aggregates vegetables that come through the FDA-certified kitchen from dozens of local farms each week. While some businesses like the Agri-Cultura Network and La Montañita Co-op are offering hazard pay for their employees, many are not, and for all frontline agricultural workers, the lack of alternatives can sometimes weigh heavily. “I don’t have a choice not to work,” Lopez says. “I have to provide some sort of income for my family.” Lopez is currently the sole income provider in his home, and he and his wife recently had their vehicle stolen. “It would be nice to get more than just the label as essential. At the end of the day, we are still making the same amount of money, still in hard situations, still in places where you feel like you don’t have a choice. I wish people would recognize farm workers more, and realize that if it wasn’t for us, you wouldn’t have food on the table, you wouldn’t have food in the stores. People really forget that people grow the food, we’re really behind the scenes.”

Grow the Growers’ farmers, from left to right: Mayam Garris, Jack West, Lynn Dapo, Eli Sánchez, and Shannon Concho. Photo by Stephanie Cameron.

these frontline workers in the agricultural sector do not always feel supported by society, they do feel supported by their colleagues and crew members, especially during the pandemic. Mayam Garris is a farmer trainee at the Cultivating Bernalillo County Grow the Growers training program for new and beginning farmers. Garris farms alongside about a dozen other trainees on a field at the Gutiérrez-Hubbell House in the South Valley. They shared, “The farm feels like a [good] place to be during this time. It has been doing a lot for me in regard to my mental health, and [it’s] also a place where I can have refuge and safety. I have a lot of trust on the farm.” Garris adds that the farmers at the Grow the Growers program have ongoing conversations around safety on the farm that help foster a feeling of security. “We’ve had to build trust to farm together during the pandemic, to create areas and atmospheres of safety. If one of us gets sick, then there is a huge risk.”

Kaitlin Innis, a farm intern at Vida Verde Farm in Albuquerque’s North Valley, has had similar experiences around crew solidarity. “We share mutual respect and responsibility toward each other as we all are continuing to work in proximity with one another. I feel connected and like [how] it has brought us closer. We are seeing each other every day through this, and that feels special.” Innis says that the farm owner and crew have open and ongoing discussions about the safety and comfort of the crew and how to work together, and that has supported cohesiveness during uncertain times. “I felt heard and it felt nice to feel safe and that I did have a voice. I think it was a group decision [on how to work safely]. We all talked about it. We kept it very open to express our concerns and share our ideas about what we needed to do—working farther apart, staggering ourselves—it didn’t feel like we were being told, necessarily.”

Lopez similarly shared feelings of understanding among his farm crew at Silver Leaf Farms. “At the beginning we did have our meetings regarding COVID,” Lopez says. “We talked about how we should try and social distance and be safe outside of work. I feel trust in my coworkers. As a collective, we are pretty aware that this is not a joke.” Carvajal explains that at the Agri-Cultura Network she follows protocols and feels a sense of responsibility toward her coworkers. She has to take and record her temperature and answer a brief health survey each morning when she enters the building. She maintains a six-foot social distance with her coworkers and wears a face mask during her entire shift. She recently held a second job in the food court at a mall in Albuquerque and explains that while she had that job, she worried about exposing her coworkers at Agri-Cultura. “I feel pretty safe working here,” Carvajal says, “but you never know who other people have been around and you always think about the people you are exposing your coworkers to.”

Beyond feeling the solidarity and closeness to the crews in which they work, these frontline food system workers take immense pride in their work. Danielle Schlobohm, co-manager of  Albuquerque’s Downtown Growers’ Market, has had to develop procedures to make it possible to safely operate a farmers market during a pandemic. Along with her sister, Liz Skinner, and a small team, she instituted the Farm-to-Car market pickup operation that ran from mid-April to June 27, in addition to reopening the market at Robinson Park in July under COVID-19 restrictions. Through it all, Schlobohm has kept the bigger picture in mind. “It’s made me personally feel very dedicated to this kind of work. I have a lot of love for Albuquerque and New Mexico and the people that I work with, especially the downtown community and farming community.”

Lopez describes delivering produce to communities in Gallup and working to distribute food alongside the National Guard: “The amount of people who came to pick up this food was nuts. . . . That was one of the times when I was most scared, but it was also nice to see all these people come out who are in need. No one is out there helping these people out.” At the Agri-Cultura Network, local produce is being distributed all over the state to senior centers, Meals on Wheels, Bernalillo County Community Health Council’s Healthy Here Mobile Farmers’ Market, and local food banks, in addition to Agri-Cultura’s La Cosecha CSA, which feeds more than three hundred families every week and provides subsidized and sponsored produce to qualified low-income families. “This work makes me happy and willing to be here during a pandemic,” Carvajal explains. “It’s food that people need and that has meaning.”

Many are inspired by the innovation and feel hopeful for the future of agriculture in New Mexico. “As trainees and incubators, we are learning to farm amidst something totally new,” Garris says. “I joke, but am serious when I say we are farming for the first time during a pandemic. Just imagine the possibilities afterward.” Garris explains that a lot of collaboration has been taking place, and that among their group, they’ve talked of forming a cooperative. “There is more power in groups of people than to do this alone. Right now there are cooperatives forming . . . and people forming their own CSAs and inspiring us to do so. Marketing and moving food is changing. There are new ways that we can continue to transform the food system. People are learning to do that in their first year of farming.” Schlobohm voices a similar sentiment: “It’s pushed a lot of innovation, we have to do things in a shorter time frame, and are learning and growing a lot. I’ve witnessed a coming together of the farming/agriculture and market community. That was really cool and exciting to see. It’s been a lot of having to deal with things . . . vendors and all of us learning on the fly. It’s been one of the most stressful times of my life, and at the same time, kind of amazing.”

While demands are being made on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Congress to protect our industrial food workers on a national scale, here on a local level, these agricultural leaders are rebuilding our food system with resilience, cooperation, value for the work and each other, and a clear understanding of who is truly essential. Garris summarizes that sentiment best: “At the end of the day, ‘essential’ is termed under capitalism, and I feel like if we are talking about essential, we are talking about who is worthy and who is not. It’s a very loaded term, it’s dismissive and very dangerous, especially for folks who have been out of work since the pandemic. I don’t get down with that. Whatever work is to be done and whatever lives are to be lived, that is essential in itself.”

agri-cultura.org, eatsilverleaf.com, downtowngrowers.org

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