Walking the Corn

While cotton may have snagged the tagline ‘the fabric of our lives,’ corn might as well be the grain of our lives in the United States, given how inextricably it’s woven into the food landscape. It’s not that people eat a great deal of corn as corn, but that corn and corn components are everywhere, and in fact can be quite difficult to avoid. And all that corn has to come from somewhere, like the Midwest, land of golden fields and towering silos.

Which is where ‘walking the corn’ comes in. As corn enters a silo, it tends to clump and adhere to the sides, eventually causing jams that need to be cleared. There’s no mechanical way to do this. A worker needs to enter the silo, clear the jam, and make sure everything is set up for the grain to flow smoothly. It’s an unpleasant job, especially in summer heat, which is why the lowest-ranked workers tend to get saddled with the task. In corn production, the people most likely to end up walking the corn are the minimum-wage workers who comprise the backbone of the industry: undocumented immigrants looking for a means to support themselves, and teens.

Things can go wrong when you’re walking the corn. The whole point is to free up blockages to allow the grain to flow again, and sometimes, the grain piles in out of control, creating a swirling vortex that sucks workers into a mountain of corn too quickly for anyone to react. Sometimes, their coworkers watch them die, helpless to do anything as they struggle to survive the sudden sea of corn. In the last six years, 80 workers have died in silo accidents, and 14 of those workers were teenagers. 20% of accidents in silos involve workers under 20.

These things wouldn’t happen, of course, if the supply of corn into the silo was cut off while workers were inside, and it seems like common sense to temporarily stop production while blockages are cleared to allow labourers to work safely. This, however, would put a bubble into the rapid distribution of corn, a costly commodity, and thus, many production facilities don’t stop work while teens and other workers are sent into silos to clear them, even though there are clear safety arguments for doing so. This may be an OSHA violation, but it doesn’t serve the overall motive of the producer, which is profit over all else.

Those same workers are not in a strong position for self-advocacy, either. Challenging an order to be sent into a silo when equipment isn’t shut down could be grounds for firing, or mockery; workers are reminded that they are disposable and someone else eager for a job will happily take their places. In industrial agriculture, where a culture of a very specific kind of masculinity, one that doesn’t shrink from tasks or fear danger, rules, workers are also admonished not to be such scaredy cats, or so cautious when it comes to workplace safety.

This is the way it is done, this is the way it has always been done, and asking employers to adhere to basic safety standards and guidelines is ridiculous; surely employees can’t expect their bosses to shut down production just to satisfy their feelings or concerns. Young workers and undocumented workers are vulnerable, knowing that they’re considered inferior and interchangeable with other workers, and operating in full awareness that they aren’t full human beings in the eyes of their employers, or the government, which permits stepped wages for people like teens on the grounds that they’re inexperienced.

Furthermore, many are unaware of their rights as workers when it comes to safe and comfortable working environments. They are not necessarily aware of the OSHA regulations as they pertain to farms, let alone the standards surrounding correct procedures for cleaning silos. If they are aware, they don’t know how to go about filing a formal request for safer conditions, or how to report violations to government agencies; if they do know how to do so, they’re afraid or reprisals and penalties. While the government may claim to protect whistleblowers, it’s hard to keep that promise, and in the eyes of a scared 16-year-old farmworker or an undocumented Oaxacan man trying to earn money to send back home, those promises ring empty.

Farm worker is still one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States, but it’s getting safer in many ways. The grain industry, however, is a glaring exception to this trend, with a large number of accidents and reports about unsafe conditions. It’s unsafe enough to have attracted attention from major media as well as government agencies charged with ensuring the protection of workers, and yet the general public often seems unaware of the issue, despite the outreach on the part of media organizations eager to reach viewers with shocking and disturbing stories of workers dying in grain silos to keep the flow of this particular commodity steady.

Exerting consumer pressure on the corn industry is challenging in some ways because of the insidious nature of corn in our food and other foods. It’s not a product that can be easily identified and targeted for direct action, unlike, for example, a given model of car, or a food that’s eaten primarily on its own. People who want to protest sexual assault in the strawberry fields of California can design a campaign around strawberries, for example, but corn? Corn is everywhere. It’s a behemoth, and that makes it difficult to know where to begin when it comes to grappling with it.

How do consumers fight a monster that they don’t even know is there? Increased awareness of the issue is obviously part of the picture; people won’t know to protest the issues associated with corn until they know there are issues. But what next? The problems with corn are a compelling argument for getting people involved in protection for all farmworkers, because improving conditions in the agriculture industry will also indirectly contribute to better lives for those sent into the silos.