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Soul Fire Farm’s Leah Penniman On Farming While Black

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KAYTE YOUNG: Production support for Earth Eats comes from: 

Bloomingfoods Coop Market, providing local residents with locally sourced food since 1976. Owned by over 12,000 residents in Monroe County and beyond. More at Bloomingfoods dot co-op. And Elizabeth Ruh, Enrolled Agent with personalized financial services. Assisting businesses and individuals with tax preparation and planning for over 15 years.  More at PersonalFinancialServices.net.

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From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, I'm Katye Young and this is Earth Eats. This week we're rebroadcasting one of my favorite interviews, with Leah Penniman, Cofounder of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black. Stay tuned.

It's planting season here in the U.S. and some farmers who rely on foreign guest workers are struggling due to the coronavirus pandemic. Though the immigration ban announced by President Trump this week will likely not apply to H2A visa holders, there are some other hurdles. Harvest Public Media's Dana Cronin reports from Illinois. 

DANA CRONIN: [Narrating] Usually this time of year Pete Pistorius would be hosting a crew from South Africa on his farm. 

PETE PISTORIUS: Just as anything else in our lives, you know, the pandemic has changed kind of the way we've dealt with our H2A process, our labor force. 

DANA CRONIN: [Narrating] Pistorius helps run a corn and soybean operation in central Illinois, and for the last few years he's gotten help on the farm through the H2A visa program. It allows farmers to bring over foreign nationals to fill temporary agricultural jobs. 

PETE PISTORIUS: Our plan was to be able to get three guys over here and I think that the start date that we requested was like the 25th of March.  

DANA CRONIN: [Narrating] March 25th came and went and still his team from South Africa couldn't make it over because of the lockdown order over there.  

PETE PISTORIUS: You know were kind of stuck in this limbo situation, of we really don't know when they'll be over. Or whether they'll even make it here for this year's planting season.  

DANA CRONIN: [Narrating] That's one of the busiest times on the farm, and Pistrious really relies on those guest workers for help. Other farmers who bring in workers from countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Nepal - all on lockdown, are facing similar situations.  

PETE PISTORIUS: You know your first reaction is... you know, what are you going to do?  

DANA CRONIN: [Narrating] Then it hit him. There's an entire population of people without work due to the pandemic in his community alone. People like Derek Brown, he worked full time at the local school district in the maintenance department, doing everything from cleaning to mowing. When his school closed, Brown says they called him in to help sanitize the place, but then that was it. He was no longer needed.  

DEREK BROWN: We're at a standstill right now. I mean when you don't have any kids at school... you know, the kids aren't you know getting the school dirty.  

DANA CRONIN: [Narrating] Brown used to work at Pistorius farms, and says he's happy to come back and help out.  

DEREK BROWN: It’s a busy time of year for him, and you know, so not getting those South Africans it's kind of helping him out with the situation.  

DANA CRONIN: [Narrating] This kind of partnership is playing out in other states too. In Arkansas Rick Crawford launched a program that connects farmers to those out of a job, citing the lack of H2A workers in the state. 

RICK CRAWFORD: These are people that didn't have jobs, that now do. And these are farmers who needed people on their farms, now they have them. 

DANA CRONIN: [Narrating] Derek Brown says there's no comparison between work on the farm and his job at the school. 

DEREK BROWN: I mean I enjoy it; I really do. Farming is not easy work.  

DANA CRONIN: [Narrating] That's because in addition to sheer manual labor, farming can require a lot of technical skills, like knowing how to operate a tractor or a combine. Each person Pete Pistorius had hired through the H2A program had specific training and experience. Now in addition to Derek Brown, his crew includes a laid off commercial plumber and a few high school students.  

PETE PISTORIUS: It's going to make us be better at training, maybe be a little bit more patient, spending time with these people to make sure that they can safely operate the equipment.  

DANA CRONIN: [Narrating] Pistorius training is inherent to the job. But usually he'll train someone who stays on the farm anywhere from six months to six years.  

PETE PISTORIUS: The unfortunate part is that you're training for a part time job, and you know these people will eventually go back to their regular jobs.  

DANA CRONIN: [Narrating] Once schools reopen Dereck Brown will leave the farm and go back to his regular job. And there's a chance that'll happen before it's time to harvest.  

PETE PISTORIUS: We're just trying to get the crop in to start out with. And you know just kind of trying to take it one battle at a time.  

DANA CRONIN: After all, Pistorius says, he's been farming for twenty-two years and so far, he's always managed to get the crop in and out. Dana Cronin, Harvest Public Media.  

KAYTE YOUNG: Find more at HarvestPublicMedia.org.  

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KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] This week I'm gathering stories from local food businesses about how they're coping with the COVID-19 restrictions. I'll be assembling those voices for next week's episode. This week I decided to rebroadcast a conversation with Leah Penniman about the release of her book, Farming While Black. Though this interview happened long before the coronavirus turned the food world upside down, Leah Penniman touches on some important themes that are showing up in this crisis today. I started by asking her about her land project, Soul Fire Farm. 

LEAH PENNIMAN: Soul Fire Farm was born in 2010. It's a project of the heart that started as a small family farm with my partner and I and our two children. And it's grown into a collective of about ten of us who are predominantly folks of color, black indigenous people, who are committed to ending racism in the food system. So, we steward 72 acres of rural mountain land near Albany New York, and grow food using ancestral sustainable methods and make sure that food is available to people that need it most in the community through doorstep delivery and sliding scale pricing. And then we also are a training center for the next generation of black and brown farmers and food justice activists. So, we have thousands of people who come through every year to learn about farming, and movement history, and leadership skills, and to take that knowledge... you know, out into their communities to continue this broader work for food and land sovereignty. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Interviewing] So, your new book is called Farming While Black, can you talk a little bit about the title and why you chose that title? 

LEAH PENNIMAN: So, "Farming While Black" has a lot layers of meaning. I think what's most important to me about it, comes from... you know, my early years of as a farmer. I started out when I was teen, and I would go to these organic farming conferences all across the north east. And all the books that were presented by vendors were written by white folks, most of them by white men. And so, I really was struggling as a young... you know, brown skin person to figure out if I had a place in the organic farming movement or if I was being a traitor to my people by choosing this way of life, and this life's work. And so the book was written to uplift the noble and dignified history of black agrarianism, to debunk the myth that our only relationship with the land has been in the context of enslavement and share cropping and to look at the ways that black farmers have contributed so many of the important sustainable technologies that we now maybe take for granted as a historical. You know everything from raised beds to intercropping, to the CSA itself. So, that was the most important thing was that... you know, we are farmers while black. And then of course there's also a play on words there because you talk about shopping while black, or driving while black and things that are inherently dangerous in this society and farming has been that way too. Black farmers have been dispossessed of land, you know, since 1910. We've lost almost all of our sixteen million acres of land mostly because of government discrimination in terms of USDA programs. But also because of outright white supremacist violence against black folks who were seen by white folks as really not having the right to own land, but that we should be sharecroppers and tenant farmers and taking that second-class role in society. And so, it speaks to sort of the danger of the audacity to farm historically, but also is a call to reclamation of that right to land and right to belonging. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Interviewing] I understand that you're first experience with growing food, you said you were a teenager and it was a summer job, with the food project in Boston. What initially drew you to growing food? What was the pull for you?  

LEAH PENNIMAN: I didn't grow up in a family that had a lot of money, and I was aware that I needed to start saving for college. And so, I saw this flier at my mom's church, and interviewed, and was lucky enough to get it. But as soon as I started farming it pulled me in. I remember the very first day of work, my job was to harvest the cilantro which was a herb I had never met before. And so its pungent aromas, of you know clung to the creases of my hand, and it really was, you know, smelling that as I went to sleep later on really was a remembrance and this call home to something that was greater than myself and even greater than this lifetime. And so, I was completely hooked.  

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] Leah Penniman worked on several organic farms and she and her partner Jonah started Youth Grow - an urban farming program in Western Massachusetts where they had gone to college. After building up their farming and organizing skills for a decade, they were ready to start Soul Fire Farm. They saw Soul Fire as a mission driven project to address the needs of the black community.  

LEAH PENNIMAN: The truth is that the food system is not broken. It was, you know, designed to protect the interests of a few. Namely European heritage folks, men, people with property. And so, we see the repercussions of that history today. From the consumer side of things, we live in a society under food apartheid, meaning that certain people are relegated to zip codes where you don’t have access to good food or transportation, and other people are living in zip codes where there's food opulence - you know, your Whole Foods and your Trade Joe's. And that's not because of anyone's personal fault that they are not interested in good food, or are not trying hard enough. It's because of a history of redlining and zoning that really determines people's access to foods. And as a result, black and brown folk, indigenous folks in particular, suffer from really high rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease and other diet related illnesses and not to mention hunger itself. And that's just the consumer side, that's the part most often gets talked about in terms of how can we live in such a wealthy country and have 1 in 6 children going to bed hungry at night, 1 in 3 black children going to bed hungry at night. It's really unconscionable. I think also though what's less talked about is how the landowners shift and the labor have racial bias. And so, right now in our country over 80% of the food is grown by latinx people, Spanish speaking people, many of whom are guest workers through the H2A visa. And these folks are not protected by the same set of labor laws that other workers are protected by. And so, you don't have the right to overtime pay as a farmer worker, you have a different minimum wage, different child labor laws, no right to unionize. And so there's a lot of wage theft, and poverty, and unsafe working conditions that farm workers experience while they're doing what's really noble and essential work of growing food for folks in this nation. And then land ownership is really skewed too. Depending which census you look at, you know, between 95-98% of the rural land in this country, is owned by white people which is higher than it was in 1910. So, it's been more inequality over time in terms of racial distribution of land. And again, no accident of history. You know, the original sin of this country was the theft of almost all of this land from indigenous people and of course, I mean, genocide, and that really hasn't shifted. And so, we're looking at those three factors, you know land, labor and the food itself. And how to shift the food system so that it really is one of equity and where good jobs and access to land are considered basic human rights that everyone should have access to and not privileges reserved for the few. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Interviewing] People talk about food desserts, and I noticed that you and other activists that I've read and talk to have been really naming this as food apartheid, and I just wonder if you could break that down a tiny bit more for our listeners. 

LEAH PENNIMAN: So, a food dessert according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture is a zip code that's high poverty and where grocery stores are far away. And the challenge with that word really, is that a dessert is a natural biome. That's actually biodiversity rich, and has a place, and a rightful place on this earth. Which is not the case with the system we have today. Apartheid is this human created intentional system of segregation. Right? And so when we use dessert it sort of implies that this arose naturally, out of nowhere, and it's just the way things are. Right? And apartheid means that there's systemic racism involved, and so it's really important to choose language that names where the problem actually lies.  

KAYTE YOUNG: [Interviewing] Before I was working with radio, I worked in an emergency food pantry. The organization that I worked with is doing a lot of innovative things, community gardening, gardening education, nutrition education, and advocacy work. And really working to challenge the dominate narratives around hunger, and food insecurity, and really looking at root causes, and the intersections of different issues like health care, and affordable housing, and fair wages. But there were things that stood out to me in the work that you're doing that really are so different. The first one, is the leadership of people of color. It's people from the community creating the change that they want to see in the community and not just well-meaning white liberals from outside the community coming in to save the day. So, that was one of the first things that really stood out to me. And the other thing, and these are connected, is that you're not giving food away. There's a sliding scale, but it's purchased, it's not given away, and farmers are paid for the work of growing food. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that and why that was important. 

LEAH PENNIMAN: As far as leadership by people of color, you know it almost is obvious, when you think about it, in terms of... who knows the most about racism? It's the people who are impacted by racism. You know, who knows the most about anti-Semitism? It's the Jewish community. Who knows the most about transphobia? It's folks who don't identify on the gender binary. And so, it would make sense. Right? To listen to the voices, and center the leadership of people impacted by an issue in trying to resolve the issue. So, if its hunger it's folks who experienced or are experiencing hunger. And so, that seems painfully obvious to us, even though it's not very common. And I think something too that we have to think about is, you know, in the nonprofit world, the people who often benefit most from the grants and funding who are coming in, are the folks that have the jobs with the nonprofit. It's a secure salary job, sometimes with benefits even if they're not high paying. And if we have all these people who aren't from the community who aren't experience these oppressions in those jobs, doling out services to the community, it's really perpetuating, honestly the problem that we're trying to solve. So, making sure that our staffing and boards of our organizations that are doing social service work represent the communities that they serve is providing a double benefit and also a true redistribution of resources. That's super important to us, and it doesn't mean, you know, that it's always easy. There's a lot of ways that we structure our organization to make sure that employment and leadership are truly accessible to folks from the community. So, things like childcare, and language interpretation, and disability justice are integral to our culture at Soul Fire Farm. Your second part of your question was about, you know, people paying for food as opposed to just giving it away. And yeah, I do think there's a dignity in a market exchange. And so, even if someone is paying with EBT or paying a very small amount for their food, there is a sense that that food is not a charitable contribution to them, but really something that they own and earn. Which I think does benefit the member. It also benefits us, not because the $5 a week is a lot, but because when people pay something, even a small amount of something, they really want that thing. And they're making a commitment to that thing. So, we don't have folks like throwing away that food or wasting that food, or not showing up to pick up their box, because there's a two-way investment, and there's a two-way relationship. Sometimes when things are free, there is not as much commitment to the value of those things - on either side. And so, we as farmers really cherish what we're providing and then our members really cherish what they're receiving. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] Soul Fire Farm operates a CSA which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. They've got about a hundred members, and it’s part of a concept of cooperative economics which focuses on building relationships that are beyond a casual producer-consumer relationship. Households sign up at the beginning of the year and commit to a monthly payment based on what they can afford, for weekly deliveries of fresh food to their doorstep. The farm commits to taking the weekly harvest and dividing it by 100 for each member share of the harvest. Some members pay extra for what they call a Solidarity Share, to provide free or very low-cost boxes for their neighbors who are refugees, recent immigrants, or maybe impacted by mass incarceration. And the farmers still get paid for those shares. I wondered about the logistics of the doorstep delivery for every CSA household; it seemed challenging to pull off. 

LEAH PENNIMAN: Doorstep delivery is surprisingly not as logistically complicated as one would think. You know, once you get the route figured out, it can be done in 5 hours or so, which is really about the amount of time that you spend standing around in a farmer's market and maybe not selling all of your produce, especially if it’s a rainy day. So, it works for us. We really figured it out and it is such a huge benefit to our members because a lot of folks don't have transportation, or they're single parents may have children that they can’t' necessarily drive around even if they do have transportation. So, the doorstep delivery has made the farm share CSA model work for people who otherwise would not be able to access this fresh food. And so, it's been... you know we considered early on ditching it and doing something else and there was such an outcry. Like no, we're gonna make this doorstep delivery work because this is very important to our community. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] During our phone interview, I read one of the passages in Farming While Black that had really jumped out at me. "Certainly, if we wanted to sell all of our food to suburbanites connected to the so-called Good Food Movement, we would be sold out with a waiting list. Our vision is different. Seeing food as a basic human right and not a privilege compels us to do the hard work of getting our harvest to those marginalized by food apartheid. " It would have been a different thing if you were to say "I really want a farm, some other people I know want a farm, we're gonna put this farm together, and we're gonna make a living. We're gonna sell produce." And your vision... it encompasses so much more than that. 

LEAH PENNIMAN: Yes, thank you so much for reading that out loud. And you know, it's work for the heart. And so, we're very happy to do it, but you know for example, folks in our community who we most want to reach, have never often times never heard of a CSA, might be mistrustful of this idea of "What is this commitment we're making? And like signing over our EBT card" And so on, and so forth. So, a lot of the work in the winter is about relationship building, and sharing with folks. We do a lot of free workshops at churches and libraries and schools about nutrition and food justice. And so, in building those relationships people find their way to becoming members of the CSA. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] I'm speaking with Leah Penniman, farmer and author of the book Farming While Black. We'll return to our conversation in a momen

[Earth Eats Production Support Music] 

Production support comes from Bill Brown at Griffy Creek Studio, architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects. Sustainable, energy positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world. Bill at GriffyCreek.studio. Insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch Insurance. Offering comprehensive home, auto, business, and life coverage, in affiliation with Pekin Insurance. Beyond the expected. More at BillReschInsurance dot com and Bloomingfoods Coop Market, providing local residents with locally sourced food since 1976. Owned by over 12,000 residents in Monroe County and beyond. More at Bloomingfoods.Coop. I'm Kayte Young and this Earth Eats. Let's return to our conversation with Leah Penniman about her new book Farming While Black. 

KAYTE YOUNG[Interviewing]: So in the book you do dive into some of your own spiritual practices and the roots of those practices. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the origins of that for you, and how it relates to your farming, and why you thought it was important to include that in a book like this. 

LEAH PENNIMAN: Hmmm...yeah, so much to say on that. But I think something else there is that these elders, these women in Ghana who I know well, asked me if it was really true that farmers in the United States would plant seeds and not pray over them, or not give libation, or not dance, and that we expected for food to be produced that nourished body and soul. Like they were just in complete disbelief. That was the almost universal practice. So, for black people who are not colonized, the integration of spirituality with farming is natural and inseparable. There isn't a difference, and so it actually would be disingenuous not to include spiritual practice in a book about black farming. We pray over our seed, we have harvest festivals, we use herbs for spiritual baths. And it did feel a little bit scary, and a little bit daunting to include that because our African traditional religion, indigenous religion in general has been so demonized, it's considered devil worship by a lot of folks. And a lot of black folks in our community have adopted those doctrines of Judo-Christianity, and also scorn traditional religion or group it together as with all other indigenous religions as animalistic. And don't see the complexity, and depth, and beauty of things like you know the Odu Ifá - the oral history of the Yoruba people, which is a United Nations intangible cultural heritage wonder of the world. You know so, there was this sense of that there will be push back about that, but it felt... it’s so important to what we do, and so important to who I am, that it was a necessary risk. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] Farming While Black is a how-to guide for farming, for purchasing land, navigating lending and funding, for building raised beds, for mediating contaminated soil, growing particular crops, but it's also a how-to on building a community, on building a community a structure that can be sustained over time. The book includes sample meeting agendas for specific kinds of meetings and suggestions about what decisions should be made at what types of meetings. For instance, a strategic discussion meeting lasts about an hour and considers the why and the how of a particular project. I asked Leah why she thought this kind of guidance was important to include. 

LEAH PENNIMAN: Sometimes I feel like a grumpy, jaded, you know person who's been on the earth too long even though I'm in my 30s because I'm just like "Oh yeah, y’all you know think this is fun and games and easy and you're just going to go around and harvest flowers and herbs all day, but you don't know anything about governance, or business." So there's a little bit of that in there, a little bit of that curmudgeon-y-ness, but I think it’s really true to be able to have production skills, is just one small part of what it takes to work towards a healthy farming and food systems. A lot of it is about management of relationships and power and decision making, about clear agreements. And sometimes in the last, in social justice circles we steer away from that, and believe that somehow we have positive relationships of trust and respect, that those things will just work themselves out. And they don’t. It's actually even more important in communities that are rooted in friendship and love and mutual respect that we get very very clear about our agreements and what we can expect from each other and who holds what power. Cause I've just seen too many examples of projects with a ton of potential disintegrate because of interpersonal dynamics that relate from not having clarity around what our standards and expectations are. So, I'm all about that. I'm all about the meeting agendas, and the contracts, things like that. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Interviewing] So, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the black and latinx farmers immersion program. 

LEAH PENNIMAN: Black, latinx, indigenous farmers immersion program is a one weeklong, sixty-hour intensive farm skills training program. We have about twenty folks in a cohort who come live, work, and learn on the farm together. And we spend about half our time learning by doing in terms of actually farming and learning the systems, hands on. Then we also have workshops on everything from soil science to marketing as well as reflective pieces about the history of black indigenous agrarian movements, and how to heal from the trauma of land-based oppression. It's really hard to describe in words, you know, abstractly the magic that is the LFI. It has been named by participants as a space where freedom can really be felt. There's a really really powerful connection and healing and growth that happens. This program came out of a really strong desire from our extended community locally and nationally to have farm training programs in a space that's led by black and brown people. And then that was something that they hadn't been able to find in the past, so we created the program to respond to that need. And you know, it filled out with one Facebook post in a few minutes, and so we, you know, created as many sessions as we can handle and still have a huge waiting list. So, the book in part was to address the folks who are waiting their turns to like come to Soul Fire so they can have a peek at the learning and curriculum in advance. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [To Leah] I appreciate you talking to me and sharing your thoughts with me, spending this time. 

LEAH PENNIMAN: Oh, my goodness, it’s been such a delight. And I really appreciate you taking the time to read the book and ask such thoughtful and insightful questions; it means a lot to me. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Leah Penimman's book Farming While black, is available through Chelsea Green Publishing. Find details on our website, EarthEats.org. 

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RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eobon Binder, Chad Bouchard, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Taylor Killough, Josephine McRobbie, Daniel Orr, The IU Food Institute, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.

KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Leah Penniman and Chelsea Green Publishing. Production support comes from Elizabeth Ruh, Enrolled Agent, providing customized financial services for individuals, businesses, disabled adults including tax planning, bill paying, and estate services.  More at PersonalFinancialServices dot net. Bill Brown at Griffy Creek Studio, architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects. Sustainable, energy positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world. Bill at griffy creek dot studio.And Insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch Insurance. Offering comprehensive home, auto, business, and life coverage, in affiliation with Pekin Insurance. Beyond the expected. More at BillReschInsurance.com

Close-up of two black women squatting and working with green bean plants in a field.

Tending crops at Soul Fire Farm/Photo by Neshima Vitale-Penniman. (Courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing)

“The book was written to uplift the noble and dignified history of Black agrarianism and to debunk the myth that our only relationship to land has been in the context of slavery and sharecropping” 

This week on Earth Eats, a rebroadcast of our conversation with Leah Penniman — Farmer, educator, organizer, and author of a new book, Farming while Black: Soul Fire Farm’s practical guide to Liberation on the Land.

And we have a story from Harvest Public Media about US farmers hurting during the pandemic, due to a lack of farm workers with H-2A visas. 

Leah Penniman is the co-founder, co-director and program manager of Soul Fire Farm In Grafton, New York.

Soul Fire Farm is committed to ending racism and injustice in our food system. The farm operates a one hundred member CSA and hosts many training opportunities, including a Black, Latinx and Indigenous Farmers Immersion program.

Our conversation touches on issues such as access to fresh food and farmland for people of color in the US. Leah talks about debunking the myth of black people’s relationship to land being confined to slavery and sharecropping, and what it means to celebrate and reclaim the practices and traditions of African, Immigrant and Indigenous growers throughout history.

Leah Penniman’s book, Farming While Black was released in October 2018 with Chelsea Green Publishing

Learn more about ideas discussed in our interview with Leah Penniman:

4 Not-So-Easy Ways to Dismantle Racism in the Food System

Reparations and a Reparations Map for Black-Indigenous Farmers

Soul Fire Farm Action Steps for Food Sovereignty

Uprooting Racism in the Food System Immersion Program

Leah’s article in Yes! Magazine about the Black and Latinx Immersion Program

Stories On This Episode

Farmers Find Help Close To Home As COVID-19 Keeps Some Guest Workers Away

Men (mostly caucasian) in t-shirts sitting around tables eating inside a metal sided barn.

It’s planting season across much of the United States, and some farmers who rely on foreign guest workers are struggling due to the coronavirus pandemic. Though the immigration ban announced by president Trump this week will likely not apply to H-2A Visa holders, there are other hurdles.

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