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Comestible is about celebrating the one thing that sustains us and brings us together, no matter who we are or where we are in the world.

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Farm to Table:  Immigrant Labor in California’s Central Valley

Farm to Table: Immigrant Labor in California’s Central Valley


By Elaine Lander

From Alice Waters’s pivotal Chez Panisse restaurant to Barbara Kingsolver’s award-winning memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the last five decades have revolutionized the way we think about food in America.

What began as a reaction to canned, jarred, and frozen foods of the mid-twentieth century, California cuisine emerged as a chef-driven movement highlighting fresh seasonal produce. In conjunction, the farm-to-table movement focused on locally sourced ingredients through direct acquisition from farmers. Both of these food trends have profoundly influenced how we eat as Americans today.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of operating farmers markets has more than tripled in the last decade. Among the many options for meal-kit delivery services, San Francisco–based Sun Basket emphasizes locally sourced, organic ingredients. On Instagram, #farmtotable has more than a million and a half posts. From NYC’s Blue Hill to Northern California’s Manresa, Americans are paying attention to what’s on their plates.

Yet the average American remains largely disconnected from where their food comes from. And much of the fanfare has been focused on the “table” part of farm-to-table. While chefs are praised for their creative dishes, farms where the ingredients are grown are rarely identified by name or location. Furthermore, farmers and farmworkers, the individuals responsible for the actual growing of the ingredients, are almost never acknowledged. 

But where would our food and our food culture be without the men and women who toil in the sun harvesting our fruits and vegetables? How do we expect farm-to-table to grow and take hold within American cuisine when we only recognize the second half of those involved? Without farmers and farmworkers, there is no farm-to-table. And no food.

Of all the farmworkers in fruit and vegetable production employed in the United States, nearly 70 percent are employed in California. Cultivating more than four hundred different crops, the state is the largest supplier of specialty crops in the country, exporting more than one-third of America’s vegetables and two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts. Among the top value crops are grapes, almonds, lettuces, and berries. In fact, California leads the nation in the production of these specialty crops, with a monopoly on the production of almonds, raisins, and honeydew melons.

As the nation’s largest agricultural producer and exporter, California’s specialty crop industry is supported by approximately 220,000 farmworkers (excluding contractors and crew leaders), a mere fraction of the state’s nearly 40 million residents. The hub of agricultural activity is centered in California’s Central Valley, fed by the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta.

With some of the most fertile soils in the nation, California has a productive history dating back to the 1860s, when farming first became a large-scale industry. But while the numbers today are many times greater, the foundational elements of California’s agricultural industry have changed little in the last century and a half. In fact, issues of race, labor, and exploitation continue to dominate the agrarian landscape.

Establishing California’s Agricultural Industry

California’s population exploded with the discovery of gold in 1849. People came from across the country and the globe in vast numbers, looking for ways to strike it rich. Of the 300,000 people who came to California, approximately 10 percent were Chinese migrants seeking the promise of Gold Mountain. As many an immigrant story can attest, there were social, economic, and political forces at work pushing Cantonese residents out of China’s southernmost province, Guangdong, and across the Pacific in hopes of a brighter future.

Once they arrived in California, however, few Chinese immigrants struck it rich panning gold, and most turned to other ways to make a living. They settled throughout the state, establishing restaurants and laundromats, while others were recruited to work on the First Transcontinental Railroad, and upon completion, as farm laborers.

By 1860, agriculture was well on its way to becoming California’s largest industry. Unlike the traditional family farms of the Midwest, California’s farms were established commercially, with large acreage and a significant demand for human labor in fruit and vegetable cultivation. Even from the beginning, the establishment of agriculture in California provided ripe conditions for intensive work environments and lasting exploitation.

As white landowners began converting farmland from wheat to fruits and vegetables, they recruited the Chinese as both tenants and laborers. Throughout the California Delta, Chinese laborers helped reclaim swampland and overflowed land, bringing thousands of acres of new land under cultivation. While not the only ethnic group employed in the industry, the Chinese were nevertheless essential to building the levee system in the Central Valley. Compared to their white counterparts, the Chinese were paid less per day and provided their own board, making them appealing as a labor source.

Tenancy quickly followed reclamation as a result of positive interactions between white landowners and Chinese laborers and the desire to bring land into cultivation. However, leasing to the Chinese instead of hiring them for labor directly led to problematic practices of labor relations and inequalities still present today. As tenants, the Chinese were responsible for all necessary labor required to bring land into cultivation, transforming the raw land to arable fields. Chinese tenants often hired other Chinese, establishing cooperatives that functioned similarly to labor contractors and unions. However, they had limited bargaining power. 

Additionally, landowners and landlords tended to lease land in smaller tracts to transform them into cultivated fields. Often, they required the Chinese to plant perennial crops such as grapes and establish fruit orchards that would continue to produce long after the Chinese departed. These practices were so successful economically that they contributed to the establishment of California’s specialty crop industry that is still booming today.

While the Chinese made up a significant portion of farm laborers between the 1860s and 1880s, they were never the majority in any agricultural region in California. Other farmworkers included established Californians, migrants that hailed from various parts of the United States, and immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Mexico, and other countries. Nevertheless, grower preference for cheap Chinese labor contributed to negative perceptions among their white counterparts. Anti-Chinese sentiment continued to grow, resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first federal legislation of its kind to prohibit immigration of a particular ethnic group.

Although Chinese laborers were now prohibited from immigrating, they were nevertheless still present and persistent in the agricultural landscape of California for many years. However, because so few women came to the U.S. in the initial waves of immigration following the gold rush, many of the existing Chinese communities faded as the years continued. The declining population of Chinese fieldworkers led to a labor shortage within the agricultural industry that would subsequently be filled by other minority immigrant groups in a revolving system of exploitative labor.

Immigrant Labor in the Twentieth Century

Following Chinese Exclusion, the Japanese were recruited to come to California to work in the fields. Many of the Japanese immigrants were proficient field workers because they were experienced farmers, having been recruited for labor on Hawaiian plantations. They were initially subjected to less anti-Asian sentiment than the Chinese because they did not replace jobs of white workers. In fact, they arrived as a result of a labor shortage in California and were willing to do some of the most undesirable work in the fields. Nevertheless, they established new, flourishing crop industries that expanded the demand for farm labor. The Japanese were responsible for establishing a successful rice crop, and subsequently the prosperous rice industry within California, now a $600 million industry.

The Japanese, like the Chinese before them, were well organized. Under the leadership of keiyaku-nin, or contractors, the Japanese were competitive in the workforce, often underbidding other farm labor groups or showing up to work as disagreements arose between other crews and employers. By 1910, Japanese workers made up nearly 42 percent of the farm labor force in California. 

Around this time, the transition from a grain-dominated industry to one that specialized in fruit and vegetable farming had been firmly established. The intensive nature of agriculture demanded continuous albeit seasonal labor that could only be filled by a ready supply of workers from outside the state.

While the majority of farmworkers were Japanese, a diversity of individuals began to answer the call of employment. South Asians from the Punjab region of northern India settled in the northern Sacramento Valley, quickly undermining Japanese workers and keiyaku-nin. Greek immigrants began settling farther south, supplying significant labor in the Fresno raisin industry. Mexican field hands were most prominent in the southern parts of the state, concentrated in cotton fields in the Imperial Valley. A significant number of Korean and Filipino immigrants were also part of the migratory labor force within California. Bindlemen, single white male transients from the eastern United States, made up the remaining demographic of farmworkers.

Following World War I, a large influx of Mexican migrants began to supply labor to California farms. Several acts of federal legislation, including the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924, encouraged the recruitment of labor from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Migrants were imported for harvest needs, creating a blueprint of migratory labor in the coming decades. In 1942, the Bracero Program was established, with the U.S. government allowing “guest workers” from Mexico to supply labor for the American agricultural industry due to World War II–era labor shortages. 

Unlike their unionized counterparts, braceros (“manual laborers”) could not organize to demand reform, as such action would threaten their contracts and potentially lead to deportation. As a result, wages were consistently lowered given the supply of available labor. The program essentially allowed for California’s economy (and that of the United States) to flourish “on the backs of cheap Mexican labor,” as author and professor Lori Flores states in her award-winning book Grounds for Dreaming. Nevertheless, despite horrendous working conditions and continued segregation and racism, men continued to migrate from Mexico under the Bracero Program, and simultaneously without documentation, in search of better economic opportunity.

At the height of the program, 445,197 braceros were contracted in 1956. These workers made up 52 percent of all U.S. farmworkers. In Monterey County, braceros made up 63 percent of all seasonal farm labor. The huge influx of workers strained small farming communities and fueled racial tension and class divide. Despite common ethnic origins, Mexican Americans, braceros, and undocumented migrants were forced apart and pitted against each other, leaving all groups socially, economically, and politically vulnerable.

The 1960s and the civil rights movement of the American South eventually brought to light the plight of farmworkers out west under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Filipino activist Larry Itliong. Their respective labor unions eventually merged into the United Farm Workers of America, or UFW. Successful grassroots organizing helped unite farmworkers throughout the Central Valley and spurred long-awaited collaboration among U.S.-born Mexican Americans, ex-bracero, and immigrant Mexican workers. Finally, after a long history of undercutting, disparate groups came together to focus on changing labor for all farmworkers.

The outcomes of successful strikes and boycotts to improve wages and workers’ rights through the 1970s were, unfortunately, short lived. Then, as today, California agribusinesses often found loopholes and ways to evade labor contracts. Additionally, the UFW suffered a rapid decline in the early 1980s as a result of organizational instability. Though there has been much work done by other organizations, farmworker rights and wages remain fraught with inequity.

Repetitive Histories and Agricultural Labor Today

Most farmworkers today suffer from a legislative history of agricultural exceptionalism, a practice of excluding farm work from major federal labor protection laws. As a result, farmworkers are often exempt from minimum wage and hour guarantees, they’re not entitled to overtime pay or mandatory breaks, and the minimum age for employment is twelve instead of sixteen, as in other industries. Heat-related illness and death are not uncommon, despite requirements that farmers provide water and shade for their employees.

California employs approximately one-quarter of all farmworkers nationwide. For many, farm work is the only employment opportunity. “Some farmworkers enter the field with little to no knowledge of other skills, making it hard to attain alternative jobs. This increases their dependence on agricultural employment,” says Kimberly Prado, a UC Davis graduate student studying social disparities and health inequities among workers in the Central Valley.

In recent years, there have been major legislative coups in the area of farmworkers’ labor conditions. In 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Agricultural Workers Act, which removed the exception for farmworkers and phased in overtime compensation for eight-hour days/forty-hour workweeks like that of other industries. However, there remain many challenges at the legislative level and in the fields.

Over the last several years, California has been experiencing a labor shortage during harvest, largely as a result of increased immigration enforcement. While the United States has guest worker programs in place, many critique these programs for their similarity to Bracero-era injustices. Now, as then, temporary guest workers are typically subject to greater workplace abuses. Due to the nature of the program, and the power of employers participating in the program, guest workers are often unable or unwilling to file complaints for fear of losing their jobs. Additionally, evidence points toward a changing gender diversity.

“Farmworker demographics have shifted from a young, mostly single male group to an older group with individuals that are parents and an increasing minority of women,” says Prado. This shift in demographics echoes the changing dynamics of the Mexican Americans, bracero, and immigrant Mexican workers of yesteryear. Additionally, as the need for labor continues, women may play a more significant role in farm work in the future. But as gender diversity in the industry increases, there are greater instances and increased reports of sexual harassment and assault, something Prado is working to address. 

Connecting Producers and Consumers

John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was a monumental revelation of exploitative labor policies in the industrial landscape of California during the Great Depression. But the American public remained largely stoic to the plight of labor inequities. Today, we see a continued disconnect between us, the consumers of food, and them, the producers of food.

Food is trendy in 2018, with organic and local food movements on the rise; increased interest in vegan and vegetarian diets; the cult of celebrity chefs; and food-obsessed social media accounts posting over-the-top, aesthetically pleasing Instagram-worthy photos. Yet despite the national food fetish, there remains a significant lack of engagement with the food system and those who are a part of it.

J&J Ramos Farms is a family-owned operation just outside of Modesto, California, established more than twenty years ago. They grow a number of different crops including stone fruit, grapes, nuts, berries, and melons. “I used to help pick in the fields when I was in high school,” recalls Oscar Ramirez, whose uncle owns the farm. “It was hard work and always really hot.” After he graduated, he started looking for a job outside of farming, but consistent work was hard to come by. So he went back to his uncle’s farm.

“For me, farming is family. So many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins are involved in the farm. Even if I got a job elsewhere, I’d always be a part of it somehow,” he says. Today, instead of helping with harvest, Ramirez helps out with daily farmers markets. While he prefers the market job to harvesting, “I don’t like having to wake up at 3:30 in the morning!”

At Full Belly Farm, a 400-acre certified organic operation north of Sacramento, farm owners have made a commitment to supporting field workers through year-round employment. Full Belly produces a diversity of vegetables, herbs, nuts, fruits, and flowers. A permanent crew of about sixty employees assist in different roles, from working in fields and packing sheds to office work and wreath making in winter. Additionally, the farm has a year-round community-supported agriculture (CSA) program that provides demand for harvest crews in winter. Some of these workers have been employed with Full Belly for more than three decades. 

Bonifacio Jacobo grew up in the agricultural state of Sinaloa, Mexico. His older brother Sergio began working at Full Belly Farm as the farm was just getting started. Over the years, Sergio brought nine of his brothers, including Bonifacio, and his father to work alongside him in the quiet Capay Valley. Since then, many of the brothers and their wives have moved to the valley, raising their families in the region and working at Full Belly and other farms. Three decades later, Bonifacio still works at Full Belly, taking on additional responsibilities in recent years including his role as harvest manager for melons and winter squash.

From a business perspective, continuous employment makes economic sense. “Seasonal hires are a lot of work, between training seasonal workers and providing appropriate health and safety measures,” says Full Belly Farm co-owner Judith Redmond. Agriculture is seasonal by nature, and when the busy season picks up around April, “We have to be at 150 percent capacity and run as fast as we can until October,” Redmond says. She and her co-owners prefer to have people on year-round, supporting them and building relationships with them. “It’s just better and easier on us as a business,” she says. “Especially when labor and personnel expenses like workers’ compensation account for 60 percent of our operating budget.”

Additionally, Redmond has been very vocal about supporting legislation that provides work visas for immigrants. “Immigrants are very much needed in this industry, and current guest worker programs are very expensive and problematic for businesses,” she says. “We need people for at least six months, whereas current programs assume they’ll only be here for two to three months.” Additionally, as the Mexican economy has improved over the last several years, fewer people are coming across the border, making it harder to find workers.

Farmers throughout California worry that a crackdown on immigration will further contribute to the labor shortage. There are approximately three million undocumented immigrants living in California. In the agricultural industry, it is estimated that up to 70 percent of workers are undocumented. Immigration reform, therefore, is essential to the production of food within our borders. The past is very much an indication of our present and the future.

“In the eyes of the [Immigration and Naturalization Service], ‘Mexican’ had become synonymous with ‘illegal,’” says author Flores, recalling the rounding up of undocumented Mexicans in the Salinas Valley in the 1950s. This mind-set seems to permeate U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement today, often to the detriment of fifteen million Latinas and Latinos who call California home. A history of othering and exclusion, both at the state and national level, prompts immigration legislation under the guise of national safety yet fails to address the substantial labor needs of the nation as well as the significant contributions of both legal and illegal migrant residents.

If the labor issue goes unresolved, fresh fruits and vegetables grown in California will cease to exist as we know them. Instead, we will resort to importing our fruits and vegetables from other countries. We’ve already seen a dramatic rise in imports from other countries, now accounting for more than half of the fresh fruit and nearly one-third of fresh vegetables. 

But there is hope.

Flores suggests asking about the workers, not just the conditions under which food is grown, when you’re at the farmers market. Redmond recommends contacting state and national representatives to advocate for fair and equitable labor solutions. In her work, Prado advocates for better worker housing to improve worker retention as well as opportunities for leadership positions within field crews. While there are numerous organizations working on behalf of farmworkers, as consumers, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to use our influence and our wallets to change the food system. While we ogle over locally grown heirloom tomatoes, it is imperative to not forget about who is growing those tomatoes.

Highlighting exquisite regional produce makes for an exceptional dining experience, often documented across social media on Instagram or Snapchat. But should farm-to-table food be a privilege? While some eaters gorge themselves on eleven-dollar avocado toast, others criticize the absurdity of the cost. Yet most eaters don’t consider the other costs associated with operating a restaurant. Aside from food costs, elements like rent, utilities, and labor are among the largest expenses for an eatery, whether fine dining or fast casual. Nor do restaurant-goers often consider who is in the back of the house chopping onions or washing dishes.

All of these issues are a part of our national food culture, our expression of American cuisine, whether we recognize it or not. Our collective food history is one of incorporating immigrant cuisine and making it our own, transforming traditional food into decidedly American food. Through this process, some flavors and elements may be lost while catering to American palates, but the food becomes authentically American.

Furthermore, the growth in retail sales of international foods and cooking products as well as the rapid increase in internationally inspired dishes on restaurant menus points to a growing embrace of international cuisine. And why not? Food is communal, whether you’re surrounded by friends eating brunch on a leisurely Saturday morning or making a beloved family recipe that nostalgically transports you to your childhood kitchen. It’s not just immigrants who scour farmers markets and international groceries for the hard-to-find ingredients of their homes abroad. It’s their children, their neighbors, their communities that they nourish by extension who also seek out these foods.

Eating food is simultaneously a connection to personal stories and to someone else’s story. The food we eat comes from somewhere, where many someones’ hands have tended, harvested, shipped, chopped, and cooked it. Let’s dig into their stories and recognize the power and privilege that exist in agriculture and the food we eat so we can dismantle the institutions that prevent us from fully embracing our food culture. Vote with your dollars and join or support organizations that represent the views and values you hold. We need to make space for the thousands who go unacknowledged for their contributions to the food we eat. Because without them, the variety and diversity of our celebrated American cuisine is likely to all but disappear.


For more reading and to get involved:

The article “Is There Such a Thing as ‘American’ Food?” by Ruth Tobias

The book Feed the Resistance: Recipes + Ideas for Getting Involved by Julia Turshen

The website Civil Eats, an independent journalism platform devoted to news and stories about the American food system.

Originally published in Comestible Issue 8

Illustration by Laurence Deschamps-Léger (Laucolo)

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