Mercedes Santiago (She/Her)

Mercedes currently works as a soil technician in eastern Kansas, and has spent five years working on farms not her own in Virginia, Washington and Kansas.

Currently I work as a Soil Ecology Technician for a perennial agriculture research institution.

I made the switch from farming at the end of this past farm season because it was becoming financially and physically unsustainable.

I love farming, but I knew I needed to make a change.

Before this, I worked as a farm hand for 5 years at different flower, fruit, and vegetable farms around the country.

At my current job, I’m divided between lab work and fieldwork with most of the fieldwork happening between March and October.

It really is like farm work – seeding, preparing the soil, fertilizing, but the harvest is more scientific in that we aren’t growing crops for food production, we are growing them for research.

We are weighing the roots and measuring plants and counting up grain heads.

It becomes fractionated, but most of the field work is farm work.

Our organization is developing perennial grain alternatives to annual grains; for example there is a domesticated perennial wheat alternative being developed, perennial sorghum, legumes and rice, as well as perennial oilseed crops.

Our work is an attempt to build an agriculture that functions more like an established ecosystem, characterized by stability and perennial growth – it’s a promising way to draw down carbon and reduce soil degradation, but it’s a new field and the funding isn’t quite as abundant as it is for annual agriculture.

It’s weird stepping out of production agriculture, into ag research. It’s been a hybrid experience:

sometimes it feels a lot like farming and sometimes it feels a lot like research.

At my new job there is more respect given to the human needs of the researchers.

We aren’t just valued for our physical labor, we are also valued for our minds.

One of the most refreshing aspects of my transition back to research is the respect for mental labor.

I have worked on farms where mental labor is taken for granted and often time I spent doing mental labor for the farm was not financially compensated.

Administration, communication and record keeping also takes time and energy!

I think it’s important for employers to remember that any time their workers are doing labor for the farm, whether that labor is mental or physical, they should be paying their worker for that time.

I started farming during the summer of 2016.

I was working at a conventional cut flower farm in northern Virginia.

  • I got paid $30/day and lived in a farm house with 6 other interns.
  • It was a wonderful and difficult experience all at the same time.
  • We lived in this 200 year old farm house, 3 interns to a room, two rooms of interns. It was an old plantation farm with the plantation structure to it. Some of the interns lived in what had been the slave quarters, which was deeply troubling.
  • We were getting paid so little, but the workers called the shots on the farm.
  • There were longer term employees who had stayed multiple seasons.

The farm owner was at an age where he had taken a big step back. If we said something had to be done a certain way, he would be okay with that.

I saw how clearly I was exploited, but the dynamic was also one in which we had agency and could advocate for ourselves.

  • We worked 6 days/week at $30/day, he provided all of our food, he would go to Costco once a week and buy things off of a list that we wrote.
  • We rotated making meals for each other.

We created this idyllic little community, but I couldn’t afford to stay on. I had to leave at that time because he couldn’t offer enough money to pay me an hourly wage.

Over time it changed.

The old farmer listened to the feedback of his employees.

The farm transitioned to organic, and most of his employees returned and became hourly workers.

Some of them lived on site in a different house that he purchased. The old farmhouse was turned into an AirBnB and venue space. Interns got involved in the efficiency of the organization and the farm started making more money.

It was a weird experience.

I cherish it, and it was also my first insight into how you are exploited as a farmworker.

We were comfortable, respected, and listened to, but we weren’t really paid fairly for our labor.

From there I went to a farm in eastern Washington near the Oregon border; it was a family farm, very small.

They just hired two full time laborers every season and they would have part time workers or family friends who would come help.

We were farming on about 8 acres.

Part of it was an orchard because the husband was an arborist. I enjoyed the experience, but we were living very close with the family. They had 3 small children who often came knocking on our door, and though they were delightful, it blurred the lines between my work and home life in a way that became difficult over time.

I had personality clashes with the other full time farm worker, who was a perfectly decent guy, but we just didn’t work well together, and since we were living in the same space, we couldn’t escape each other.

I came back to eastern Kansas after that season and I started working in Lawrence for a well-established and respected female farm owner.

Over time I developed some frustrations with how she ran the farm, but it was her farm, and she had been calling the shots and having notable success for many years.

After three years, I felt that my experience had peaked.

My boss clearly wasn’t going to make space for a real managerial employee and it just wasn’t sustainable for me any more. My time on the farm had come to a close, and I knew I needed to move on. I never held any animosity towards the farm owner though, and I still cherish her as a friend and mentor.

Climate anxiety first brought me to farming: feeling completely unequipped in the face of rapidly oncoming ecological collapse.

I studied biology in college and learned all this stuff about the climate, environment and plants. I focused on botany and I had all this academic knowledge, but no practical skills.

I was experiencing existential anxiety. I kept thinking, “I need skills! I need to be able to do stuff!”

I think I was also pulled into farming by something much deeper and ancient, rooted in my family line.

My dad is an indigenous Puerto Rican.

His side of the family has been farming on those mountains for as many generations as we can trace. Some of our ancestors were the Taino Indians, who were of that land and lived in reciprocity with it. Some of our ancestors were West Africans, stolen and brought to Puerto Rico by our Spanish ancestors. Over time the groups mixed and produced our people, the Jibaros, the mixed-race, agrarian, mountain-dwelling descendants of the Taino Indians.

We’ve been growing food on those mountains for centuries.

My uncle says, “It’s (farming) in the blood.”

There’s not really any other option for some of us in the family. That’s how it’s been for a really long time.

So for me, I think I was following the urge or drive that so many in my family have feel more connected to our lineage and land, doing the most traditional work there is.

I have gone back and forth on whether or not I would want to start my own farm.

Sometimes I can see myself doing it and enjoying it and other times it would seem too much of a burden.

I think I would love to work on a cooperatively run farm, where the burden is distributed between many people who are working together in a system of horizontal leadership.

I’ve been drawn to farm for other people from this sense of community survival and understanding that we have to find a way to live collectively again.

You need the people who can produce the food and the medicine.

I don’t feel as equipped to make the medicine or cook the food. Growing food felt like a way to give back to my family and community in a way that is in step with my nature.

For my partner, he’s a chef, what is natural for him is to cook the food and share the food with others. Other people in my life know how to make plant medicine. That is amazing, and I like to grow and gather plants for them.

In this way I am part of the community.

I would love to work on a farm where we are growing food that we know is going directly into the community to people who need it the most.

I think that ideally farmers and farm laborers should be treated as public servants.
Farms should be operated for the community to eat food.

What has driven me to do this work is seeing how messed our food system is.

The way it is so centralized now has created community vulnerability.

I would love to be part of a farming system where the farm is producing food free for the community and farm laborers are being paid a consistent livable wage that doesn’t fall on the farm owners back.

We all live under the same system and we can see how things are right now – bootstrap individualism… I’m going to make my living off of other people’s work.

This mindset is the one that has dominated for so long.

The truth is, it can’t continue.

If we don’t make the shift ourselves, we will inevitably be forced into it.

I would like to see our food system make that shift with intention, while we still have time.

I made a friend in Lawrence, Kansas. He runs a publicly funded farm project called the Unsuspended Food Project (his farm is called Maseualkualli Farms).

He’s giving the produce away and people are paying him after the fact for the value of the produce.

He put forth to the county a proposal for a People’s Century Farm. The government would set aside money to fund the labor to produce food for the community. If we reprioritized funds, it would be far more affordable and humane than our current system.

It’s my dream, but I also don’t know how feasible it is within the dominant culture.

Sometimes farm owners say they want staff to work in a more managerial way, but aren’t actually willing to relinquish control.

If you’re saying you want a wash/pack manager, you have to let the person manage the wash/pack.

Or saying, “It would be really nice to have someone stay on as manager,” when the truth is, any time they had to let go of control, it was a battle and there was resistance.

You can’t ask employees to take more responsibility and then refuse to give them more responsibility.

That is an issue that I’ve run into more than once.

It’s also frustrating when the expectation is that everyone should be working as hard as the hardest worker, and often the hardest worker is the farm owner.

I have worked with people who will work without breaking.

I’ve also worked for an 80 year old who took lots of breaks, so I’ve seen both sides.

I’ve worked for women who worked through lunch and did not take breaks. There was this expectation that we not take breaks either and it created this resentful environment where we were hiding our needs and taking care of them on the side. If we got caught taking a break, there would be this feedback that we were burdening others by being lazy or the idea that “I’m paying you to work, not stand there.”

It was only ever the farm owner who carried that perspective. The laborers always had each other’s back. We know we worked hard and deserve a time to take a break.

This attitude of working without breaks was especially difficult for me.

I am a chronically ill, chronically underweight farmer. I fatigue easier than most of my colleagues. I require more frequent meals and more rest overall than the average person.

I don’t resent my illness or living with physical limitations, but I did resent working in places where the expectation was to work so diligently that we abuse our bodies and neglect our human needs.

There was no consideration or accommodation given to workers with different bodies or levels of ability. That’s something I’d like to see change.

I really love plants.

I think that is what drew me into farming and also into biology.

I have a driving curiosity about plant life and ecosystems.

Once I started growing plants I realized I couldn’t stop doing it.

The community aspect brings me back, but plants are the biggest draw.

Building a relationship with the land has changed me, helped me understand myself and where I come from. My family has had a kinship with the land for many generations and I think it’s really key to living a healthy life in right-relationship with each other: knowing the land and respecting the land as our creator.

I think the land and the plants keep me coming back season after season.

I started by only calling myself a farmer and then slowly realizing the difference between a farm owner and a farm worker, whereas now I call myself a farmer and farm worker interchangeably based on the experience I’m trying to speak to.

Farm worker means your labor is being used, being sold to someone else for profit, even if it isn’t very much.

The time when I exclusively called myself a farmer was a time when I was more naive about the experiences of being a laborer.

Even when I was frustrated with the farm owners, I loved my employers and really respected them, but there was this weird dichotomy between farm owner/operator and farm worker.

  • I sometimes call myself a farmer because I think if the activity that you’re doing is farming then you’re a farmer.
  • These days I also call myself a farm worker because it invokes a collective fellowship with the people who are making money for someone else.

The term “farm worker” implies a specific set of experiences with power and hierarchy and capital.

Farm workers occupy this really disempowered position, we are exploited for our labor, and sometimes applauded as heroes, but at the end of the day we are treated as expendable.

When I use the term farm worker, I’m speaking to the people whose hands are doing the work and whose hands are undervalued.

I’ve used both terms, but realistically farm workers are farmers.

I would love to see farm laborer salaries be subsidized by the government.

I think the for-profit farm is a deeply flawed model.

Our food should be seen as a community resource, not a capital commodity.

Farm operators shouldn’t have to worry about making enough profit to pay their employees and keep the farm running, they should worry about stewarding the land and producing for the community. Farmers and farm workers are public servants; they should receive guaranteed income, health insurance and paid time off.

One of the biggest issues for my sustainability on farms was that I couldn’t take sick time or vacation time.

If I’m not working, I’m not getting paid.

If that was guaranteed, I think a lot more people would be farming.

I also think any conversation about agriculture reform that doesn’t establish real measures for Reparations and Land Back to those communities most affected by labor theft and land theft is not a real conversation about ag reform.

A stable food system that is humane and fair to workers has to be built on a foundation of real justice. Anything else would be missing the mark, and would inevitably fail to provide real food justice.

Mercedes’ farm wages:

1st farm job – $30/day. If you stayed more than 12 weeks, you got $40/week. Hours were variable: some days we worked 7 hours, some days we worked 14 hours. We got $30 either way. Housing provided.

2nd farm job – $10/hour for flower specific work, veggie apprenticeship $500/month for set/agreed upon hours, any time over was hourly rate. Housing provided.

3rd farm – started at $11.50/hour, raised to $13.50/hour over three years