So Many of Us Are So Far from the Farm That We Miss the Obvious

Blundering in a photo of foreign farmworkers

By David North on February 23, 2023
Mexican farmworkers shown on Fox News

So many people in journalism are so far from the farms of their ancestors that they make major mistakes when covering the H-2A program for foreign farmworkers.

The reader is invited to look at this photo illustrating a recent Fox news story on the subject. It shows five Mexican farmhands weeding a field of tobacco in North Carolina, apparently with hoes.

For most Americans (apparently including Fox staff) the photo shows five men working in a field.

For those of us with at least a hair of agricultural background it shows a gross waste of the workers’ time; the guys are using a 19th century technique to weed a field that appears to be weed-free. The tobacco plants have been arrayed in neat rows, at least one way, if not both ways; a tractor-drawn weeder could easily do most of the work of the five men, thus eliminating the need for alien workers.

Fox (and its city-raised staff) selected the stock photo without making the points I have just made.

There are times in the tobacco cycle that do call for lots of workers. My late father as a teenager — and this would have been a century ago — and everyone else in the house would turn out in the middle of the night for the post-harvest task of stemming the tobacco plants. This could only be done when the weather was foggy, and thus the dried leaves were supple; “casing weather” was the term, as the de-stemmed leaves would be placed in cases before being sent to the cigar factories.

The photo also reminds me of stories I heard when I was assistant to the U.S. secretary of Labor for farm labor half a century ago. Some farmers’ “need” for labor was overstated because the farmers were obsessive about eliminating every last weed in the field, even though it was not economic to do so. If you look closely at the photo (especially at the uncropped version, from Getty Images, taken in 2005), you will see that the field is just as weed-free in the part where they worked as the rest of the field, where they had not worked. The photo looks like it was staged, and ineptly so.

Unfortunately, decisions about the “need” for farm labor are made by a largely urban group in the government, many of whom are as agriculturally clueless as those at Getty and Fox News.