Does Buying Organic Help Farmworkers?

The federal standards don’t include any labor provisions, but the Agricultural Justice Project is sustainable ag work for the people in the fields.

Mexican migrant workers harvest strawberries in Dover, Fla. (Photo: Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images)

Twilight Greenaway is an Oakland-based writer and editor who has been working on the web since 2000.

If you’ve ever seen a crew of farm laborers harvesting food, you know it’s an unforgiving line of work. Gabriel Thompson, author of Working in the Shadows, spent several months picking lettuce in 90-degree heat in Yuma, Ariz., where he says each worker was responsible for more than 3,000 heads a day. “I’d come home with a red face, swollen hands and feet, and a throbbing back that was never quite aligned correctly,” he wrote. “By eight o'clock, without exception, I was asleep.”

Indeed, most farmworkers work long, hard hours under circumstances most Americans wouldn’t put up with. In addition to undertaking dangerous and highly repetitive tasks in the hot sun, modern farmworkers have been stripped of basic rights, harassed, held against their will, and deprived of breaks and pay.

Do these grim realities apply on all farms? Surely small and organic farms—the ones you see at your local farmers market—offer workers a better living under humane circumstances. Don’t they?

Anecdotally, the answer is a resounding yes. Many small-scale producers pride themselves on treating their employees well. But dig a little deeper, and it gets complicated, fast.

In a 2013 survey of 600 organic farms, for instance, the Northeast Organic Farming Association found that family members made up around 35 percent of the workforce. While many of the respondents paid their workers more than minimum wage, it wasn’t much more—between around $9 and $12 an hour.

“The reality is that the pressure to keep prices low often makes it very hard for small-scale organic farmers to make a decent living or to pay their workers very well,” says Elizabeth Henderson, a veteran organic farmer and cofounder of the Agricultural Justice Project.

Reduced exposure to pesticides on an organic farm is an improvement in working conditions over conventional ag, but the USDA organic standards do not include any rules about labor. The project teamed with like-minded organizations to create the Food Justice Certification program and food label. The goal is to reward the farms—as well as processors and other entities in the food system—for exemplary labor practices.

“These are people who really prioritize their work with people as much as their work with the soil,” says Henderson.

To achieve Food Justice Certification, farmers and other food-business owners must provide a living wage, the right to collective bargaining, fair conflict resolution procedures, safe and adequate housing (when offered), and health and safety protections, including “access to adequate medical care and a ‘right to know’ clause regarding use of potential toxins, with the expectation that the least toxic alternative is always used.” Businesses must also adhere to international laws protecting workers, including ILO conventions and the U.N. Charter. 

After a successful pilot program in the Upper Midwest, only recently has the project gotten off the ground. AJP has certified two farms in California and one in Florida, and a handful of other companies have signed up, including a grain and meat cooperative in Canada. A farm in Ithaca, N.Y., plans to announce its participation in the coming months, as does at least one food co-op—and more are to come.

Take Nancy Vail and Jered Lawson, the codirectors of the educational farm Pie Ranch in Pescadero, Calif. The farm employs a small crew of laborers for its 75 acres of farming, as well as a rotating group of apprentices and interns on the part of its property geared to education. Vail and Lawson decided to become Food Justice Certified in part as a way to undertake ethical apprenticeships in an era when interns and apprentices are often seen as a form of free labor (and law enforcement is often cracking down on small farms for illegal and unorthodox labor agreements). They also hope to pass on good practices to the young farmers they train, who may one day start farms themselves.

“It’s critical that our apprentices are not only learning about how to compost really well and how to irrigate properly, but that they’re also learning about labor issues and how to run a just operation,” says Vail.

Vail and Lawson are constantly looking at ways to address larger injustices in the food industry through their work. “The reality is that there’s a huge, vast group of people of color working within the food system who aren’t necessarily being treated fairly,” says Vail. The ranch also hosts monthly readings and conversations around race issues and works closely with the farmworker community in the area.

As a Food Justice Certified farm, Pie Ranch has to provide a great deal of documentation to its workers and AJP about the pay and benefits it provides and the labor it expects to get in return. This paperwork will likely keep some farmers from getting certified, Henderson says, but “once they do write it down, it helps make it all clearer what’s been offered and what’s expected.” AJP also provides technical assistance to Food Justice Certified farms that request it.

Workers at Pie Ranch must also earn “a living wage,” according to the AJP standards. The county where the farm is located defines a living wage as $12 an hour. That’s what Pie Ranch pays its workers, but Vail says California labor laws also allow the farm to deduct the cost of housing and food from its total payroll before taxes, which makes it more economical for the farm.

Creative approaches like this are nothing new to most small-scale and organic farmers, many of whom employ family members to get by. “It’s tricky given how food is valued in this country,” says Vail. “So many small farmers pay their workers better than they pay themselves.”

Henderson thinks domestic fair-trade efforts like AJP are at a place similar to where organics were in the ’80s. The die-hards are doing it, but it hasn’t really caught on at a wider scale yet. That said, peer pressure may help. “I’d like to see one or two [Food Justice Certified businesses] in every major market area of the country,” she says, “as well as some examples of fair food chains, meaning farms that sell to processors, stores, and restaurants with good policies.” AJP is in conversations with the Food Chain Workers Alliance to bring the certification to the rest of the supply chain.

Henderson is optimistic that Food Justice Certification will catch on and that some consumers will be willing to pay a little more for ethically grown produce, much in the way they do fair trade coffee and chocolate. She also thinks it helps to have fast-food-worker strikes in the news and such a surge of interest in food and farming. 

“There are all these young people excited about the idea of farming,” she says. “But when they get going they’ll understand that they have to be able to make a living at it. It’s just possible that all of this may reach some kind of tipping point.”

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