Monday, May 31, 2010

book review: farm hands

This weekend, I read Farm Hands, by Tom Rivers (a title with a clever dual-meaning that I didn't realize the first time I read it). It is a intriguing look at the amazing people and the hard work that are the backbone of the farm industry in Western New York. I am amazed at the courage of Tom (and his employer, The Daily News in Batavia, NY) for taking such an challenging, in-depth look at farm labor and immigration -- topics that are often a source of great controversy in this country. This book represents the kind of passionate, thoughtful journalism that is sadly lacking from the 24-hour TV noise that tries to call itself "news."

The book is a collection of articles that Tom wrote, documenting the his experiences as he volunteered for a wide range of farm jobs -- from milking cows to picking almost every kind of fruit and vegetable grown in the area. Working with crews from Mexico, Jamaica, and Haiti, his persistence in the face of such physically demanding work earned the respect of the workers and gave him a unique perspective on the difficulties of their labor and life. Despite his incredible effort, Tom was outpaced by the other workers, but they selflessly offered advice and, at times, they even went so far as to help fill his baskets with produce.

The culmination of the assignment was a new found strength of mind, which Tom used to shed his post-collegiate weight and take on marathon -- a challenge that he found to be less demanding than the daily marathon of farm labor.

Tom has shown a new light on the subject, highlighting the reality of how difficult the work is, and giving us a glimpse into the lives of the people who live in near anonymity as they provide the inexpensive food that we take for granted. The glib remarks made by talk-show hosts and immigration protesters don't stand up well against the truth of the situation -- this is very demanding work that most Americans are unable or unwilling to do, and our outdated immigration policies are in serious need of reform.

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