Hang on for the ride here folks…
For a full disclaimer, I am Southern. I’m proud to be Southern but the South has a dark stain on its past that no one should be celebrating or proud of. This is a post I have been thinking about for quite a while but it has become far more relevant in the past week with the tragic events in Charleston and the vast political rhetoric that followed it. Originally, the thought started to form in my mind when the Occupy movement started gaining steam all over the country during the Great Recession while we were living in Napa. Then we were only a short car ride away from two cities, Oakland and San Francisco, which had major camps of occupiers so I essentially had a front row seat for that.
For those of you not familiar with the Five Whys technique, it is an excellent way to get to the root cause of a problem. It is a SixSigma technique outlined on their website here.
According to the site the Five Whys, is most useful “when problems involve human factors or interactions.” There are few problems greater than the outbreak of war so be patient with me here as I explore the Five Whys of the Civil War. What does this have to do with the wine industry? To quote Elle Woods from the movie Legally Blonde, “I promise, I have a point.”
Why #1 – Why Did the Civil War Start?
On April 12, 1861 the first shots were fired which kicked off the Civil War. These shots were fired in Charleston, SC directed at Fort Sumter which was located in the Charleston Harbor. After secession, South Carolina and the newly formed Confederate States had asked the Union armies to abandon the forts in the Harbor and tensions were running high.
Why #2 – Why Did the States Secede?
If you read through the entire Declaration of Secession for South Carolina, the cause of the declaration is the idea that somehow the other states had broken the trust and agreements on which the United States were founded and they were upset that the central government now had the authority to mandate laws that would be beyond what they had originally agreed to. This is the state’s rights argument. Unfortunately for the South, the platform they chose to build the state’s rights argument on was Slavery.
Why #3 – Why did the Southern States Choose to Build a State’s Rights Case with Slavery?
Economics my dear Watson! Doesn’t it usually come down to money? Cornered and faced with the complete destruction of their economy, the Southern States did what most people would probably do in the face of imposed financial ruin. They fought back. USHistory.org puts it this way…
“The sudden end to the slave economy would have had a profound and killing economic impact in the South where reliance on slave labor was the foundation of their economy. The cotton economy would collapse. The tobacco crop would dry in the fields. Rice would cease being profitable.”
The institution was wrong. However it was the way it had always been done and the South didn’t see any other options.
Why #4 – Why Was Slavery so Important to the South’s Economy?
The majority of farming was accomplished with slaves. Once slavery was taken out of the picture there was no way to maintain the vast farms and plantations. Working the land personally was considered “beneath” the gentile way of life that the southern states had established for themselves. There was no one willing to work the land so they had slaves to do it for them. There also was no economic force for the south outside of the production of cash crops; Cotton, Tobacco, Indigo, and Rice mainly. It was nearly a monoculture with a single main industry and smaller sub industries supporting it. This led to a set up that was doomed to fail.
HA! It didn’t even take five whys to get the root causes of the Civil War.
This was the problem. It was an entire economy, built on one industry, relying on one type of worker to support the rest of the population of the area.
Here’s my point…
So let’s now fast forward 154 years to present day and take a good look at how the food industry in this country is set up, focusing mainly on the wine industry since that is the industry I’m most familiar with. Let me be very clear. I am not comparing the hideous institution of slavery to the immigrant labor force we have today. Just the dependence on this particular workforce with little viable alternative. I’m sure there are legal and illegal immigrants represented. I don’t want to pick on any particular area but for the purposes of this comparison, let’s take Napa County. Agriculture is the main industry of Napa County and of that Agriculture I think it is safe to say that it is mostly vineyards and wineries. The next industry is hospitality however the hospitality wouldn’t exist if the vineyards and wineries were not there. The vineyards and wineries are currently owned by a mix of different entities; private individuals who either have been in the valley for generations and inherited their land, wealthy new comers wanting a piece of the idyllic lifestyle, or corporations who specialize in the wine and beverage industry. All of this is possible because we are able to find semi-skilled immigrant labor who are willing to work hard, dirty, difficult jobs to make ends meet. Many are transient, living in farm labor camps during the season and following different crops around the state. Most are just barely making ends meet and living transitory lives to continue working as much as possible. Strawberries in the spring, Lettuce in the summer, grapes in the fall, etc…
Napa is an entire economy, built on one industry, relying on one type of worker to support the rest of the population of the area. Do you get why I’ve been thinking about this for a while?
During the Occupy movement when unemployment was at its highest, the vineyards and wineries struggled to find enough workers to accomplish the tasks needed to keep the vineyards in top shape. The labor contractors managing the crews were rumored to be leaving jobs if they heard that someone across the valley was paying slightly higher for the same work. Meanwhile, I was watching newscasts everyday of people camping in downtown Oakland and San Francisco, complaining about how they were out of work and couldn’t find work because the 1% was keeping them down. I couldn’t help but wonder why we didn’t send buses down to the cities to pick up these folks and solve two problems at once. One winery on the central coast actually went so far as to try to hire an “All-American” harvest crew. John Salisbury posted ads to try to find additional help for the harvest. He had 80 inquiries for jobs. Forty came in to fill out applications. From that group 22 were selected for interviews and only 18 actually showed up. They hired all 18 and that dwindled quickly down to 7 who made it through the whole season plus they were 3 times as expensive as migrant labor and extra slow compared to the immigrant crews. He was back to hiring migrant crews after that.
Then we have the immigration debate to add to this mix. The proverbial governmental mandate that could radically change how we bring in immigrant labor to this country to work doing jobs that the domestic population has nearly zero interest or skill in doing. Depending on how it is handled it could have huge implications to the cost of our food supply chain throughout the country. Right now people are interested in purchasing cheap food and with cheap food comes the cheapest labor that the economy can deliver and at this time that is based on migrant labor.
Here comes my frustration with our current political atmosphere in which politicians are too busy rehashing and debating the rhetoric of a war that happened 150 years ago rather than focusing on a similar economic set up of our food industry today. I would love to tell them the same thing that I would tell a Southern redneck talking about the “War of Northern Aggression.” Get over it! We have bigger fish to fry in the here and now before history repeats itself. Hopefully it can be a more positive outcome this time.