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University of California Press
Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic / Edition 1

Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic / Edition 1

by Margaret GrayMargaret Gray


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In the blizzard of attention around the virtues of local food production, food writers and activists place environmental protection, animal welfare, and saving small farms at the forefront of their attention. Yet amid this turn to wholesome and responsible food choices, the lives and working conditions of farmworkers are often an afterthought.

Labor and the Locavore focuses on one of the most vibrant local food economies in the country, the Hudson Valley that supplies New York restaurants and farmers markets. Based on more than a decade’s in-depth interviews with workers, farmers, and others, Gray’s examination clearly shows how the currency of agrarian values serves to mask the labor concerns of an already hidden workforce.

She also explores the historical roots of farmworkers’ predicaments and examines the ethnic shift from Black to Latino workers. With an analysis that can be applied to local food concerns around the country, this book challenges the reader to consider how the mentality of the alternative food movements implies a comprehensive food ethic that addresses workers’ concerns.

Editorial Reviews

Agriculture and Human Values - Russell C. Hedberg II

"Gray deftly crafts her arguments . . . This book is exceptionally researched and would make an excellent and challenging addition to
undergraduate courses on sustainability as well as graduate courses in public scholarship."

Progressive Planning - Tom Angotti

"Gray compiled a vivid picture of the living and working conditions of farmworkers in the Hudson Valley. . . . She reminds us that a progressive transformation of our global and local food systems cannot be achieved without securing justice for all food workers."

Perspectives on Politics - Eric Buzzetti

"Gripping reading . . . Gray’s success in uncovering injustice within the locavore movement in the Hudson River Valley is irrefutable."

New York Times, The Opinion Pages - Mark Bittman

"As Margaret Gray discusses in her excellent book, 'Labor and the Locavore,' we cannot achieve ethical consistency in producing food without paying attention to labor. . . . For food to be affordable, people — all people — must earn living wages; alternatively, good food must be subsidized. Both conditions would be even better."

Labor Studies Journal - Kia Sanger

"[An] excellent book . . . broad and balanced."

Agricultural History - C. Clare Hinrichs

"An inspiring example to current and future scholars of food and agriculture."

Food, Culture, and Society - Suzanne Cope

"Gray illuminates issues that even the most thoughtful among us have been turning a blind eye toward regarding the experience of many farm workers."

Green Left Weekly - Fred Magdoff

"An important contribution to the discussion of alternatives to the conventional food system."

Labor Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas - Charles Thompson Jr.

"Gray has shifted our discussion of food ethics back to the humans who, by their hands, give us our daily bread."

Labour-Le Travail - Noah Zerbe

"Labor and the Locavore represents a powerful corrective to a major shortcoming in the food politics movement. . . . Gray’s
work shines a bright light on precisely this side of the equation and highlights the need for a comprehensive food ethic that encompasses both environmental and social justice."

New Labor Forum - Christy Getz

"Gray exposes the stark reality of farm labor conditions in the Hudson Valley’s regional food economy . . . An important contribution to the literature on social justice in agriculture."


"By teasing out the complications of a single sliver of the 'alternative' food system, Labor and the Locavore points the way forward for foodies."

NY 1

"Gray is a nuanced, thorough and evenhanded writer, which makes her argument all the more convincing."

Progress in Human Geography - Julie Guthman

"Labor and the Locavore is a timely and important antidote to much of today’s popular food writing. . . . I definitely recommend the book."

Women, Food, and Ag Network - Abby Dubisar

"Gray smartly argues that we must attend to the working conditions of individuals employed by farmers. . . . this book will be an eye-opening experience for anyone who cares about what they eat."

Agricultural History

"Labor and the Locavore combines a wide-ranging historical perspective with the insights of contemporary fieldwork... Gray's tenacious commitment to examining the broad context of persistence and change in the injustices experienced by Northeast farmworkers offers an inspiring example to current and future scholars of food and agriculture." 

NY 1 - L.V. Anderson

"Gray is a nuanced, thorough and evenhanded writer, which makes her argument all the more convincing."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520276697
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/25/2013
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Labor and the Locavore

The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic

By Margaret Gray


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95706-0


Agrarianism and Hudson Valley Agriculture

WHEN TODAY'S HUDSON VALLEY GROWERS are lionized in the pages of foodie magazines or the travel section of the New York Times, they are depicted as practicing a dying trade and preserving open space for the cultural and environmental good. Many of the region's farmers see themselves as part of a hardscrabble agricultural tradition (my own town in the region celebrates an annual "Hardscrabble Day"), and certainly their precarious economic position relative to owners of factory farms supports this perspective. Many of their ancestors came from very humble backgrounds, and some struggled against the oppressive tenant system of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Though they may own hundreds of acres of land and hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of farm equipment, their ability to stay afloat from year to year is never assured. Yet advocates of open space preservation see farmers' valiant fight to "hold on" as a defense against the developer's bulldozer.

At the same time, these farmers are enjoying the revival of interest in Hudson Valley agriculture by living up to the idealism of boutique farms, heritage fruit, pick-your-own venues, and branded products. Farmers' markets have proliferated all over the region, and numerous restaurants tout local products on their menus. "Violet Hill sunny side up egg with Berried Treasures ramps and Yuno Farms dandelions" was a featured item on the 2009 Earth Day menu at New York City's upscale Casa Mono. Restaurants such as Manhattan's Blue Hill—with a menu described as "seasonal American celebrating the bounty of the Hudson Valley"—design their offerings around the best local produce. Another ardent supporter of "hometown" ingredients, Rhinebeck's Gigi Trattoria in Dutchess County, boasts supplier relationships with forty local producers. These top-end promotions are evidence of a regional food culture in the making.

"Food culture" is presumed to be distinct from an "industrial food system." In this regard, the expectation is that the food be artisanal in nature and therefore associated with the labor economy of the expanded family, or the cooperative enterprise whose participant members hold some equity. Consumers of this culture are led to believe that their interaction with a small farmer is more akin to securing carrots and beets from a neighbor's flourishing garden than to the commercial exchange that takes place in a supermarket selling factory farm produce.

The regional marketing that promotes today's small farmers is replete with the echoes of more than two hundred years of agrarian idealism, a rich belief system that historically has sidelined the long-suffering but indispensable farmhands. Yet while it is common to hear today's farmers lament the difficulty of securing a consistent annual profit and finding suitable workers, the historical record shows there is nothing new about either of these complaints. Since their initiation into agricultural commodity markets in the early nineteenth century, the region's farmers have consistently transformed their growing practices in an effort to try to secure a profitable niche. Concomitantly, they have faced the challenge of securing a stable work force as changes in the nature of farming go hand in hand with changes in the labor market and growers' labor needs. Between the end of the era of self-reliance in the mid-1800s (when farmers depended on family labor or bartered community labor, and little monetary exchange took place) and World War II, the region's farmers, as a whole, did not enjoy anything resembling a stable agricultural economy or work force. This chapter shows how contemporary Hudson Valley food culture leans on the agrarian ideal and offers a snapshot of the history of farm laborers in the region, from the early decades of farmers entering into market systems to the current economic landscape of Hudson Valley agriculture.


There is no doubt that Hudson Valley farming qualifies as an exemplum of the artisanal, local growing ethos that has fueled the local food movement and new forms of agrarianism. Whether Hudson Valley food culture can be distilled into a brand-name dish, method, or product remains to be seen. Perhaps "local" is the best way to define the region's food culture, with its niche products, direct marketing, and accompanying promotional apparatus. "At its heart, a genuine food culture is an affinity between people and the land that feeds them," and it comprises "a set of rituals, recipes, ethics, and buying habits." This is Barbara Kingsolver's stab at defining the term and the ideal to which her family subscribed in their "year of food life." A supermarket diet of multinational products and produce of unknown provenance is the very antithesis of what is imagined to be an authentic food culture, which involves knowledge about how foods are acquired, prepared, preserved, and consumed.

Such a sense of place is best represented by farm products, and Hudson Valley food culture is distinguished by its reliance on high-quality, fresh produce and meats, artisanal goods such as specialty cheeses, and boutique beverages like small-batch ales, hard ciders, wine, and other alcoholic drinks. One hallmark of local food here is heirloom and heritage fruits and vegetables, which have made a comeback in recent years, particularly since more discerning urban consumers have tired of commercially popular produce such as the Red Delicious apple, which has a perfect shape, robust color, and sweet taste, but whose overproduction has diminished its flavor. One of the region's current strengths is niche marketing of specialty fruit. A selection of these is offered at locations like Adams Fairacre Farms grocers (with three locations in the Hudson Valley), one of the first local grocery chains to aggressively promote regional produce. As autumn rolls around, shoppers will find clearly marked bins with detailed descriptions highlighting the qualities of more than twenty varieties of local apples. Bordering the produce aisles are jars of local foodstuffs: honey, jams, chutneys, salsas, marinades, and pickles. On the other side are arranged local milk, eggs, yogurt, and cider, while regional cheeses are to be found alongside gourmet selections in another part of the store. Although only a small percentage of the store's overall stock originates nearby, the range of products is a showcase of Hudson Valley agriculture—fulfilling the traditional function of the county fair—and the proportion of regional products is increasing annually. Adams grew out of an early-twentieth-century farm stand and exemplifies the type of regional economy that has allowed some of the valley's growers to thrive in the face of cheaper international products. In recent years large chain supermarkets, including Walmart, have begun to feature local produce in an effort to compete.

The niche marketing of regional produce has been updated to accommodate new institutions and relations of consumption. Perhaps the most significant change in Hudson Valley agriculture at the end of the twentieth century was the development of opportunities for small producers to sell directly to consumers—a necessary strategy for promoting local food. The most visible institution, of course, is the farmers' market. Its progenitor, the Union Square Greenmarket in downtown Manhattan, was established in 1976 and quickly became the largest retail market in the state, featuring the stalls of as many as 140 regional producers a week. In the past decade the number of farmers' markets in the state has more than doubled, increasing from 235 in 2000 to 521 in 2012, with New York City's five boroughs accounting for 138 of these. One of the newer models of local farming is the CSA (community supported agriculture), an alternative farming economy in which individuals receive farm products in return for an advanced investment or ongoing subscription, thereby providing the farmer with upfront funds needed to run the operation. With CSAs, individual members are small shareholders shouldering a risk in return for a portion of the yield. Not only have new farms established CSAs from the outset, but some longtime farmers have also added CSA subscriptions alongside their traditional retail and wholesale practices.

The culture of parochial purchasing extends well beyond the farmers' market since an increasing number of restaurants, as documented by their menus, have determined it to be a market necessity to offer local products. The region's food identity is anchored by the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), a prestigious culinary college in lower Dutchess County that has trained many of the area's chefs. Its courses include Food, Wine and (Agri)culture; Leadership and Ethics; and Ecology of Food. One graduate, Waldy Malouf, former chef at Manhattan's Rainbow Room, which he transformed during the 1990s, has been an important promoter of Hudson Valley food. The New York Times included Malouf's 1995 The Hudson River Valley Cookbook in its roundup of top cookbooks of the year, and it was also nominated for the prestigious Julia Child Cookbook Award, further institutionalizing public awareness of the region's offerings. An early innovator of American nouvelle cuisine was John Novi. His Depuy Canal House opened in High Falls, Ulster County, in 1969, featuring local food and earned a four-star rating in 1970 from Craig Claiborne, the New York Times' erstwhile dean of restaurant criticism. More recently, Laura Pensiero, owner of the aforementioned Gigi Trattoria in Rhinebeck, published Hudson Valley Mediterranean (2009), a paean to the region's local foods.

Prestigious restaurants are part of the promotional apparatus that helped give birth to a regional food culture in the Hudson Valley. Not only did chefsshowcase local farms and regional cuisine, but they also contributed ideas and techniques to the common repository of local food culture. One chef in particular who has shaped ideas about the region's local food is Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of Manhattan's Blue Hill restaurant and proprietor of Blue Hill at Stone Barns at Westchester County's Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, which includes a working farm, restaurant, and education center. Like Alice Waters's Chez Panisse Foundation, Stone Barns Center hosts a speaker series, conferences, a farmers' market, a curriculum for school gardens, and a plethora of programs for kids, such as summer day camp, story hours, cooking classes, and hands-on farm experiences. Other nonprofits that advocate for local agriculture include Putnam County's Glynwood Institute for Sustainable Food and Farming, which also operates a farm and fosters dialogue through events, publications, and local programs to promote sustainable farms and rural communities. The Valley Table, a Hudson Valley quarterly magazine dedicated to food and farms, is an important publication for taking the pulse of the region's food movement. In addition to publishing produce and restaurant profiles, some of them by local food activists and politicians, the magazine includes articles that promote the available range of farm products, from award-winning wines to artisanal cheeses and alcohol distilled from local fruit. In 2009, a new glossy, Edible Hudson Valley, began quarterly publication as part of a national network that now boasts eighty regional "community-based, local-foods publications" under the Edible Communities rubric.

Finally, something must be said for the history and landscape that have shaped the region and legitimized its rural character. World-famous for the achievements of Hudson River School painters such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church, it was one of the first American regions to establish tourism by taking advantage of the combination of natural beauty, relative proximity to New York City, and ease of transportation. The combination of lush scenery, military history (West Point, home to the U.S. Military Academy on the west bank of the Hudson, for instance, was occupied by the Continental Army in the late eighteenth century), and arts contributed to the establishment of a high-profile cultural identity for the region, which included bona fide historical sites such as Native American settlements, Revolutionary War battlegrounds, and aristocratic riverside estates. Employing the architectural and design talents of Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing, the owners of such estates, located mostly along the "aristocratic" east bank of the river, helped create the pastoral rural vernacular that defines the region as a whole. Today, it is agritourism that draws visitors to the Hudson Valley; the food movement campaigns at the turn of the twenty-first century delivered a windfall of publicity and investment in the region's agricultural sector.

A variety of definitions of "local food" are in circulation. Some refer solely to geographic proximity (as in the one-hundred-mile diet), others to a type of distribution network like the farmers' market. To the degree to which "local food" implies a food culture, this includes not only fresh, seasonal, diverse products, but also the active promotion of biodiversity and local sustainable economies. In and of themselves, these are important and valid reasons for why consumers might prefer to eat local. But characterizations of "local foods" do not stop there. For example, the Whole Foods website describes how local foods "enhance farming towns and their regional identities" Small local farms are a valuable component of a community's character, helping maintain agricultural heritage, preserve land use diversity and moderate development." A more florid commentator on the Eat Local Challenge blog took it further yet: "Buying locally grown food is fodder for a wonderful story. Whether it's the farmer who brings local apples to market or the baker who makes local bread, knowing part of the story about your food is such a powerful part of enjoying a meal." These more abstract associations—the stories told, the pride in a sense of place, and the high estimate of community and heritage—are components that feed into the heady romance of local food production.

Underpinning the romance is an automatic equation of geographic proximity with goodness, a phenomenon termed the "local trap" by scholars who argue that scale—whether local or global—is always socially constructed and nonuniform. The conflation of localness and wholesomeness is strongly echoed in the writing of food movement leaders like environmentalist Bill McKibben, novelist Barbara Kingsolver, and ethnobiologist and nutrition ecologist Gary Nabhan, all of whom have drawn up manifestos from their locavore, neoagrarian adventures to reinforce these beliefs. In addition, a generation of scholars have expounded on the positive aspects of local food systems, which include economic and social benefits, the promotion of justice and community through face-to-face interactions with food producers, and the capacity of alternative agrisystems to promote civic engagement and enhance democracy. The most recent lineage for this revival dates to the "natural foods" revolution of the 1960s, fostered in communities in Vermont and Northern California, institutionalized in food coops, and rooted in E. F. Schumacher's "small is beautiful" philosophy of human-scale technologies.


Although this book is primarily a contemporary survey of agriculture and agricultural labor issues in the Hudson Valley, I want to emphasize how much history and ideology have shaped the way that we think about these topics. The contemporary subjects of my research have their own individual stories, which are explored in the chapters that follow, but the constraints they face resonate with powerful legacies from the record of agricultural history.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of agrarianism not only as a formative component of national ideology, but also as a determinant in the political economy of food. Whether consciously or not, it has been adopted by all types of farmers (organic, local, very small, corporate) and is deeply embedded in the public mind. The values attached to American agrarian life are associated with high moral virtue, economic self-sufficiency, and individual freedom. U.S. agrarianism posits small-scale family farming as the basis for a model society, as articulated in Jefferson's influential vision of a nation of freeholders occupying the middle landscape between cities and wilderness. Jefferson's model was fueled by the ideal that "those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God." Other canonical writings, such as gentleman farmer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's Letter from an American Farmer, helped establish agrarian self-reliance as a distinctively American trait. (Crèvecoeur originally farmed in the Hudson Valley before moving south to the Carolinas.)


Excerpted from Labor and the Locavore by Margaret Gray. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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