Labor Day 9:7:20 The Essential Essential Workers

On this Labor Day, I thought it right to single out our most essential workers. For six months or so, the American economy has contracted with pandemic lockdowns dictating what's essential work to be done and what work is not essential and not permitted.

berry acreage

The “essential work” question got me to thinking, Who are the most essential of essential workers for sustaining life among the general population? Understandably a lot of early attention went to the medical profession. But putting aside the “essentialness” of the ER physician, who matters hugely to a few on their work shift, Who is most essential for folks at large? Who, in a utilitarian sense, does work that matters to all of us?

That led me to consider the basic human needs. Food, clothing, shelter. Doubtless, food (and I include water) is #1. It’s the one human need we cannot delay consuming for long. Yes, we can risk eviction for nonpayment of rent and live in the car, but we can’t put off food. So I singled out food production as the essentialist work, given a survival-of-whole-population metric, if you will.

Among nations of the world, the United States is especially hyper-efficient at producing food. Relative to our population of 330 million, no other country comes close to America in natural resources to produce food: vast plains of productive, fertile soil for farming and land for ranching, a temperate climate, and a splendid system of rivers. We’re one of the world’s top food exporters, easily exceeding our needs with agricultural clout.

And these most “essential of essential” workers that produce the food that keeps us well-fed--the farmers and ranchers--they’re only 1.3% of our population! While our efficiency has meant the demise of small farms for more than a century--to atavistic chagrin--no one complains about spending 5.7% of pre-tax income on groceries (2018, BLS) at the supermarket. A modest figure which hasn’t budged much in years.

To give you an idea of American efficiency, consider a comparably sized economy--that of China--with similar food production and agricultural resources. China employs a staggering 30% of their workers in farming and ranching. Their 30% vs. our 1.3%!

Although these times can vex, one need not worry the food angle. Sure, delays getting it on the supermarket shelves happen, but rest assured food production is the key essential about American bounty. This is not the time to plant potatoes in the backyard!

Image credit: author photo berry acreage, Woodburn, Oregon.


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