Monday, February 15, 2010

Farming and Justice?

By Nicole Sugerman

This week’s article was precipitated from a frantic phone call I received from a friend last Thursday afternoon. My friend had just picked up her first CSA basket in her neighborhood in New York City, and called me immediately. Our conversation went something like this.
“Nicole, why does my CSA newsletter tell me that I should oppose a New York bill imposing minimum wage requirements for farmworkers?!”
“Hm, I don’t know. That seems kind of crazy. What do they say?”
“That it will put small farms out of business”
“Oh. Well, yeah. That’s sort of true. It’s complicated, because agriculture doesn’t really work.”
“It doesn’t?”
“No, not really. Because farming is so labor intensive, agriculture in a capitalist system has pretty much always depended on cheap labor, to enable pricing food at a cost that people are actually willing to pay. Depending on the circumstances, this cheap labor takes many forms: slavery, family farms using free labor from their children, underpaid farmworker labor often from undocumented immigrants, or below-minimum-wage apprentice labor. I see your farmers’ point- a minimum wage requirement will make food prices go up, and increase the operating costs of small farmers, who aren’t making a lot of money as it is.”
“That’s totally divisive. The needs of farmworkers to make a living wage get pitted against low-income people needing to buy food for affordable prices.”

We clearly didn’t come up with an easy answer. After we stopped talking, I continued to think about the issue all day.I spend a good deal of time puzzling over the complexities of farming and labor, but my friend’s shock at the incongruities of the agricultural system caused me to consider them anew.

Farming is hard, long work. Speaking from my experience of vegetable farming (growing other food crops, like grains or animals, is similarly labor intensive but outside of my direct realm of knowledge), between preparing plant beds, planting crops, thinning, weeding, trellising, controlling for disease, harvesting, washing, and maintaining one’s soil and fields, (not even including the work after we go home, of crop planning, communication, financial calculations, ordering supplies, and writing our shareletters!) farmers work many long days. And producing a food crop is not like producing most other commodities. For one thing, crop production is dependent on many factors that are completely impossible to control: the weather, insect populations, the absence of diseases and fungi from one’s crops, to name a few. Additionally, food is not a commodity, it is a necessity, which means that one cannot calculate one’s labor involved in producing it and price it accordingly. One has to price food so that people will actually be able to buy it, because everyone needs to eat, and healthy, fresh food cannot be accessible only to the very rich. These factors create a situation in which there is a pricing roof, so to speak, that does not account for the laborious process and considerable economic insecurity of food production.

A share in this CSA certainly provides a lot of food, but it also is not inexpensive. And even so, this farm depends on quite a bit of ‘subsidized’ labor. We have ‘cooperators’ who work without pay to fulfill their co-op hours. We have Saul students, who help us get a considerable amount of real farm work done through their hands-on learning process. We have tireless apprentices and interns who work alongside Nina and I, exchanging hands-on education for a weekly stipend and vegetables. Even with all this additional labor, Nina and I, the only two people making a living wage, work long, 10 to 12 to sometimes 14-hour days at least five, often six days a week.

I am not writing this article to complain. Farming is a labor of love, and I really, really love it. I am just trying to share my own experiences to illustrate the complications in thinking through labor and farming in a way that is personal to me.

I would also like to recognize, however, that the subsidized labor present on the Weavers Way Farm is not exactly comparable to more pressing and more alarming agricultural labor issues. I talked to a few of the apprentices and interns about their thoughts on their experiences as agricultural workers who do not currently make a living wage. “I’m okay with it,” one of our interns said, “except when my friends make me feel bad about ‘working for free’”. We discussed the fact that an apprenticeship is a sort of old-fashioned job training, that while many of our friends spend a lot of money on vocational schools, certificates, or graduate programs, farm apprenticeships are a way to gain the experience necessary to land a farm management job, while getting paid rather than paying for the experience. This does not mean it is not complicated and that other situations would not be much more desirable. But currently, of the three to five million annual farmworkers, 61 percent live in poverty (National Agricultural Workers Survey, fide domestic_fair_trade). Unlike the apprentices on the Weavers Way Farm, most of these workers are not gaining experience in order to move to higher paying farm manager or owner positions. Most of these farmworkers lack the access to capital and resources required to start a farm, and many of them are undocumented immigrants, making such an arrangement untenable.

While paying a higher minimum wage to farmworkers may seem tricky in light of small farms’ viability, as my friend’s CSA farmers feel, there are many working toward fair wages in farming. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a farmworker-led organization in Immokalee, Florida that fights for—and wins—agreements with major restaurant chains for Florida farmworkers’ wage increases in the form of direct, per-pound payments to workers by the restaurants, mutually agreed-upon codes of conduct with respect to farmworker treatment, and transparency in the restaurant chains’ buying practices. The organization has won agreements with Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway. They are currently engaged in convincing Chipotle to work with them for more fair buying practices in their stores.
Other efforts work to raise consumer awareness of farms where farmworkers are paid equitably and treated fairly. While organic agriculture is ‘better’ for farmworkers in that they are not being exposed to harmful synthetic pesticides that can cause cancer and illness, organic standards have no stipulations as to wages or treatment of farmworkers. So, some are developing a certification process for fair practices. Like fair trade coffee, chocolate, and other products sourced abroad that seek to monitor and vouch for workers’ rights, ‘ domestic fair trade’ is a system of third-party accountability and labeling in an attempt to create a market for fairly grown produce, much as organic certification did for environmentally sustainable produce. Swanton Berry Farm, one of the first members of the Domestic Fair Trade partnership and the first organic, all-union-labor farm in the U.S., says that “[the benefits they offer their employees] naturally raises the cost of our strawberries, but we feel that our customers will be happy to pay a little more knowing that our workforce is treated fairly.” The cynic in me knows that not everyone can necessarily afford to pay a little bit more for these fairly produced strawberries. However, some of us can, and I hope that we continue to think and act about how we can support justice in our food production, whether through conscious consumption, or by organizing against systems which make agriculture’s financial viability difficult, and against oppressions that marginalize farmworkers and further enable their poor treatment through the silencing of their struggle.

Food Justice Resources:

Agricultural Justice Project:
Coalition of Immokalee Workers:
Domestic Fair Trade Association:
Equal Exchange:
Local Fair Trade Network:
Swanton Berry Farm:

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