This article was originally published in Issue 12 of Malus. Copyright 2021 Megan Larmer. For a print version, please subscribe!
No More Masters
by Megan Larmer
The apples seemed to float more than hang in their branches. Golden Supremes. Nearly perfect in symmetry and color against a blue September sky. It was a joy to pick them. When I said so, I was reminded that what’s fun for a day loses its charm over sixty hours in a week.
I was conducting research into cider making, and that day in 2019 my research involved learning to pick apples from the professionals. The crew I worked with was kind and patient as my foot learned its place on the ladder’s rung, my wrists practiced twisting the apples so their stems stayed intact, my ear adjusted to the Jamaican cadences of their instructions and jokes. These Black men with decades of orcharding experience seemed amused by the presence of a white lady with too many questions. They teased back and forth with each other about who was the better teacher, pawning off responsibility for me in a good natured volley. Gus lost. (All the names used here are pseudonyms.) He was older, I’d guess in his seventies, and good humor twinkled from eyes deeply set within the permanent squint earned by a life working outdoors. Gus cautioned me not to overreach and risk falling, good advice generally. My apple picking skills went from abysmal to mediocre, and Gus congratulated me. I replied, “No, no, you’re the master!”
“No.” Surprised by his changed tone, I looked away from the apples and to him. “I’m no one’s master, and no one is mine,” he said. “I’m just a poor man, doing his job. No one is better than me and I am better than no one.”
I stammered, “No—of course. I just mean, you’re really good at it . . . y’know . . .” I was embarrassed. It hadn’t occurred to me that the word “master” would conjure its natural context: enslavement.
My ignorance in that moment stung, but was also an invitation to understand the scale at which the racialization of our agricultural system has shaped the development of the cider industry and circumscribes its future. I live in the Hudson Valley of New York. Here, as elsewhere in the U.S., the majority of orchard laborers are non-white migrants and immigrants. While orcharding in other parts of the world is similarly reliant on migrant labor, U.S. apple orcharding does not utilize mechanical picking and so requires that many more hands. The crew I worked with that day were all Jamaican by origin, Black, and male. Most were participants in the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program, also known as an H-2A visa.
A System Built on Insecurity
The notable precursor to the H-2A program is the Bracero program, instituted in the 1940s to increase farm labor as a temporary war-time effort. Discontinued in the 1960s, the Bracero program paved the way for today’s H-2A program. It operates on the same principle that racialized migrant laborers are preferable to white, domestic, unionized laborers. An entrenched racial hierarchy equates highly valued intellectual labor with whites and devalues the manual labor of darker skinned migrants so that it is difficult to recruit domestic, white laborers for field labor even when it pays a competitive wage. This prejudice intersects with classism to degrade people in the working class, including light-skinned people. The normalized assertion that Black and brown workers are “tougher” and “more hardworking” belies an insidious racism that values these humans for their brute force over their knowledge and skill. Further, it patronizingly asserts that migrant laborers categorically prefer annual migration to settling permanently in the U.S. This second assumption glosses over the inhumanity of the U.S.’s immigration policy towards laborers, instead forgiving its miserable state by pretending immigration is unnecessary to the continuation of our current agricultural system when the opposite is true. According to the USDA, 73% of agricultural laborers in this country are foreign born. While immigrant labor, both documented and undocumented, has historically played a large role in New York state agriculture, the number of H-2A visa workers filing those roles increased during the Trump administration as immigration became more perilous. The legal but temporary nature of the residency of migrant H-2A visa workers increases their dependence on their employer relative to other immigrant laborers, according to labor rights activists at the Worker Justice Center of New York.
The structural resemblance between the romanticized “benevolent slavery” of the Confederacy and the H-2A visa program struck me repeatedly the more time I worked with the crew and learned about the program. Under the H-2A program, the power rests with the landowner to choose the laborer each year. While the crew I worked with were managed by men who had asked them to recommend other laborers so that fathers and sons and friends lived and worked together there, it is not difficult to imagine that a farm owner, statistically likely to be a white man, could choose to disrupt rather than reinforce those social ties. Housing must be provided by the farm owners as well as transportation to shop for food and necessities, which is logical but reinforces dependency on the farm owner, leaving the workers vulnerable. Without the autonomy to choose a new home, it is difficult to complain of substandard housing. One man I worked with told me that prior to coming to this orchard he had worked on tobacco and sugarcane farms. At one of those farms the owner told the white orchard manager that the H-2A visa workers were prisoners in Jamaica and would return to prison when they left the U.S. While imagined, the system this orchard owner described bears a striking similarity to U.S. agriculture following the Civil War and into the early 20th century when Black men imprisoned by racially motivated Jim Crow laws were the cheap labor that kept the Southern plantations turning a profit with almost no discernible change to their business model. It would be reasonable to believe the specter of slavery was not far from Gus’ mind.
Cider Begins in the Orchard
If we’re honest with ourselves, nor should it be from ours. The hierarchy of labor in the cider industry lionizes the maker while keeping the orchard laborers invisible. Though there are exceptions, that maker is most likely to be white. If that maker happens also to be performing orchard labor, his/her social capital rises further. Not so for those who apply their skill solely in the orchard. Their artistry is no less profound. I am as guilty of this as anyone, of applauding the skill of the maker in coaxing the essence of the fruit into the glass while failing to celebrate the skill of the many who cultivated that fruit. While this lack of regard for the agricultural work of cidermaking is global, orchard laborers in Europe are likely to be light skinned migrants while in the U.S. they are most likely to be darker skinned. Our inattention to this inequity in representation and regard means that the U.S. cider industry replicates the racialized hierarchy of slavery and colonization, sustaining the racist legacy of U.S. agriculture.
The crew at this orchard told me repeatedly how much they liked working there. This may have been in part because I was the owner’s friend, but I observed what I believe was genuine good will between the primarily white managerial staff and the primarily darker skinned laborers. I asked Gus if he liked working there. “They don’t treat me like a slave here,” he said. “If they did, I would leave.” The white bosses would have been disappointed with this faint praise, wanting, as they told me, to provide a high quality of life and job satisfaction for the crew. At this orchard it is clear that every person is doing his/her presumed best within a structure that positions them as adversaries. This is what is meant by structural racism. Regardless of the actions and desires of the people within the system, the very structure of that system enforces a power imbalance along racial lines so that the fates of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are subject to the whim of the white people in power. This thwarts the desires of the white bosses who would do well by their crew. Racism harms everyone, if to different degrees.
The H-2A program, as with many of the systems underpinning the majority of agriculture in the U.S., is permeated with patriarchal-white-supremacist-capitalist logic developed to justify the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans. In this case, the racist belief—so normalized that for white people it is indiscernible in our day to day—is that people with darker skin do not deserve the social, political, and economic benefits of citizenship. Some of those benefits are the stability of permanent residence (if desired), participation in democratic processes, ownership of land, and the profits of their labor. If dark-skinned people deserved these things as much as white people, how could the displacement of indigenous civilizations from their territories be justified? Or removing people from their land to sell them into slavery? This racist ideology survived Emancipation by evolving throughout the Jim Crow era of sharecropping and tenant farming, eventually justifying industrialized agriculture’s unfettered expansion on the backs of a disempowered, poorly paid migrant workforce. This poison is at the heart of agriculture in the U.S., and I believe we are obligated to seek the antidote to it.
I came to cider, like many of us, through apples. I have peddled the story, like many of us, that the virtue of cider is in its agricultural nature. It is a drink of a place and a time. That place is an orchard, a haven for natural beauty and tradition. That time is a season, fecund and ephemeral autumn. It is a romantic story, but romance does not make it entirely untrue. Orchards are beautiful. The skills of cidermaking from tree to glass surely are the admirable product of generations of cultural and technological endeavor. What makes the story nefarious, what brought me into the orchard with Gus that day, is that the story we have been telling is far too simple. It is far too white.
The Whole of the Story
Paul was pointing at a stand of trees. “I’ve worked here eleven years,” he said. “We planted those trees the same time my youngest daughter was born. When I look at them, I see her and when I look at her, I see these trees.” Paul’s daughter lives in Kingston, Jamaica. So that planting is rooted in the Hudson Valley and in the Carribean. Two-thirds of the year Paul is my neighbor, and one-third he is in Kingston with his wife and children. Eleven seasons of growth mirrored in Paul’s homes, in the pattern of migration he’s followed every year for over a decade. The cider made from those trees is the product of both those places and all those years. The cider is multidimensional. Can we tell a story as prismatic as Paul’s? Not if that “we” is only white people. The rich, true story of cider cannot be told without the direct contribution of orchard laborers. Very real barriers stand in the way of this. It is dangerous for an undocumented worker to choose visibility. It is dangerous for an ill-treated H-2A visa worker to speak out. We can only begin to learn these exquisite, complex stories by admitting our ignorance of them.
One man I worked with packing apples said, “I just think the time is over for all these things, these borders and things.” Personally, I’d agree. For now, while our legal structures do not allow all humans to move about or to stay put as furthers their own pursuit of happiness and opportunity, white people, with our privilege and disproportionate power, must look for ways to support our colleagues in the orchards that increases their professional mobility, dignity, and visibility while breaking down the mutually constructed borders within the industry between citizen and non-citizen, pale and dark skinned, laborer and owner. We must leave off our pursuit of mastery and replace it with the pursuit of dignity, for all of us.
Minkoff-Zern, Laura-Anne, The New American Farmer, MIT Press, 2019
Worker Justice Center of New York
Megan Larmer is Senior Director of Regional Food Programs at the Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming and an academic. She leads projects that convene food and farming professionals to execute training, collective efforts, and creative projects that further the development of a regional food system in the Hudson Valley. Primary amongst these are the Cider Project, the Food Sovereignty Fund, the Hudson Valley CSA Coalition, and Kitchen Cultivars. She holds an MA with distinction in Anthropology from SOAS, University of London, where her research focused on seed exchange, first-generation women farmers and food heritage. Megan is currently a PhD researcher in anthropology at the University of Exeter’s Center for Rural Policy Research investigating the social dynamics of the local food movement in the Hudson Valley.