By Sam Fromartz
Food and Environment Reporting Network • May 6, 2013
We are honored to report that Tracie McMillan’s story on the plight of farmworkers, “As Common As Dirt,” won a James Beard Foundation Journalism Award last week. The story, produced by the Food & Environment Reporting Network in collaboration with The American Prospect, appeared in the magazine’s September 2012 issue. Considered the Pulitzers of the food reporting world, the Beard Award was FERN’s first journalism prize, and also came within our first year of publishing.
The story revealed the systematic practice of cheating farm labor contract workers of their wages, to keep costs low. Outsourcing labor to contracting companies also allows farm businesses to distance themselves from the practice, which has prompted law suits as well as state and federal actions. McMillan told the story by focusing on 75-year-old Ignacio Villalobos, who has been a farmworker his entire life and who is a plaintiff in one of these law suits.
The story took several months to report, requiring multiple trips to southern California and many hours of interviews with farmworkers, government and industry officials, and legal advocates. The project took patience and tenacity, qualities which are frequently lacking in a time of highly constrained resources and constant deadlines. This is exactly FERN’s strength—to engage in the kind of in-depth work that is too often ignored and underfunded. The story took a significant commitment from FERN, but we always believed in its importance. We are honored that the story received this recognition.
Aside from McMillan’s exceptional reporting, we could not have done this story without our partner, The American Prospect. The Prospect brought editorial resources to the project to augment our own and the constant collaboration showed the value of our model. We’d like to thank Kit Rachlis, the Prospect’s Editor-in-Chief, and his team for helping us to marshal the story to completion.
“The exploitation of farm labor has long been one of the great scandals of American society—it dates back at least to the beginning of the 20th century—and persists to this day,” said Rachlis. “Tracie’s piece looks at one of its most insidious practices—institutionalized wage theft—and shows its devastating effect on people’s lives. At once intimate, authoritative, and moving, the article ranks as one of the best the Prospect has ever published, and I’m enormously proud to have such a good partner as FERN.”
In the story, farmworker justice advocate, Greg Schell, is quoted as saying: “When I came out of law school, my hope was some day, I’d see farmworkers approach the economic mainstream. The things that made their employment so unusual—contractors, wage theft—would disappear, and they’d look more like the general workforce … That has happened, but it’s happened in the wrong direction. What’s happened is the general population is looking more like farmworkers.”
McMillian’s story is about a hidden labor sector of our society but it is also a cautionary tale—and one especially relevant for our times.
Expect more stories of this caliber in the future.