Know your farmworker, know your food: Zulema Lopez, 12, left, with her her mother and sister.
Agriculture tends to cling to certain practices long after the rest of society has discarded them as morally repugnant.
You might think slavery ended after the Civil War, yet it exists to this day in Florida's tomato fields, as Barry Estabrook demonstrates in his brilliant book Tomatoland. Likewise, the practice of subjecting children to hard, hazardous, and low-paid labor seems like a discarded relic of Dickens' London or Gilded Age New York. But here in the United States, hundreds of thousands of kids are doing one of our most dangerous jobs: farm work. They toil under conditions so rough that Human Rights Watch (HRW) has seen fit two issue two damning reports (here and here) on the topic over the past decade.
In the second report, from May 2010, the group concluded: "Shockingly, we found that conditions for child farmworkers in the United States remain virtually as they were a decade ago." Which is to say, appalling. The kids who pick our crops are routinely exposed to toxic pesticides, their fatality rate is four times that of other working youth, and they are four times more likely to drop out than the average American kid—overall, HRW reports, just a third of farmworker kids finish high school.
Oddly, there's nothing illegal about their plight—most federal laws governing child labor don't apply to farms, according to HRW; the US government spends $26 million fighting abusive child labor in other countries, but has failed to bring the fight to America's fields.
The Harvest/La Cosecha, a new documentary directed by the veteran photographer and human rights advocate U. Roberto Romano, shines a bright light on this murky corner of the agribusiness universe. The film traces the lives of three teenagers and their families as they move across the US following the harvest, from Texas onion fields to Michigan apple groves and places in between.