(Photo: Courtesy SantaCruzBlogazine.com)

Meet the Organic Strawberry Grower Who Welcomed the Union to His Farm

Getting rid of pesticides wasn’t enough for Jim Cochran—he wanted to take better care of his workers too.
Oct 1, 2014· 6 MIN READ
Danielle L. Davis is a nonfiction writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Intentional, L.A. Weekly, and on various Internet platforms.

“PAY HERE, THE HONOR TILL—make your own change,” reads the sign that hangs above Swanton Berry Farm’s baked goods display case. If you buy something at the farm stand, located north of Santa Cruz just off California’s Highway 1, you place whatever you owe into an open cash register drawer stocked with change that sits on the counter alongside further instructions: “Please double check math to ensure honesty.”

The honor till is one of many tokens of the Swanton Berry spirit that seem far from conventions of commercial farming. Scanning the farm shop, you’ll find hints of others too: California Certified Organic Farmers emblems, a big black-and-white framed photo of Cesar Chavez, and a vintage United Farm Workers sign, the black eagle insignia pasted under its motto, “Con unión se vive mejor.”

Founder Jim Cochran, who is equal parts brawny and gentle, has made a career of overturning convention. While the current model of industrial agricultural insists that organic farming and fair labor practices are incompatible with economic survival, he has devoted his life to proving the opposite is true.

(Photo: Courtesy LaidBackDad.com)

Back in the 1970s, Cochran, who grew up in Carlsbad, Calif., dreamed of becoming an astrophysicist but wound up on a big strawberry farm in Salinas. There he saw toxic chemicals being dumped onto the fields thousands of pounds at a time—fields he was expected to work in. After a few bouts of pesticide poisoning and an aversion to seeing spray zones buttress people’s backyards, Cochran, who had worked his way up to a managerial position, tried to convince his bosses to go organic. They refused, claiming that it was impossible. At that time, no one had grown strawberries organically with any commercial success.

“Everyone in the industry said it couldn’t be done,” Cochran recounts. So he quit in 1983 and rented four acres of coastal land in Davenport to give it a shot himself. Three years later, the pesticide-free strawberries he was producing had become a sought-after commodity in high-end, independent grocery stores. As soon as the picture-perfect berries hit the shelves, clamoring customers would whisk them off. When he was inducted into CCOF in 1987, Swanton became the first certified organic strawberry farm in the state.

After Cochran succeeded in establishing a market for organic strawberries, he was cast out of the conventional growing world—big business in California. The state is by far the leading berry producer; growers hauled in 1.5 billion pounds in 1987. The industry has only continued to grow in the last two decades. The burgeoning organic community, however, embraced him as a hero. He continued to expand his operations, planting a variety of organic berries and produce on what grew into 200 acres of rented beachside farmland.

“This is more important than a regular job. Our opinion matters. I feel like I’m a real part of the company.”

Angelica Rodriquez, 21

Drive north from Monterey on the Pacific Coast Highway, and you’ll eventually see a yellow vintage International truck on the side of the highway, peeking out from rolling green upon an endless horizon. There’s a giant wooden cutout of a strawberry sitting in the pickup next to a sign that screams, “JAM TASTING!”—that’s the Swanton Berry farm stand. By the early 1990s, it had become a summer hot spot for Bay Area tourists. Cochran liked hearing the white noise of Russian, Japanese, and French seeping from the buildings’ walls.

“Walking around the farm during the summer months, with all the different people that come, you sort of imagine that you’re at the United Nations,” says Cochran. “It’s really a wonderful, eclectic crowd.”

The stand was booming, and Whole Foods kept selling out of berries—but Cochran still wasn’t satisfied. Conversations among organic farmers revolved around holistic practices to protect the environment and people’s health. Cochran was a proponent of all that, but he felt something was missing from the discourse; none of the farmers concerned about environmental issues were talking about the condition of farmworkers.

With his experience growing up around agriculture in Southern California and time spent working on farms, Cochran had seen that farmworkers were a widely exploited class, even in the organic world. By the late 1990s, the slow and local food movements took hold—and idyllic photos of families leisurely harvesting rolling hills appeared on the packaging of products from organic and small farms.

California strawberry farmworker (Photo: Bruce Forster/Getty Images)

“Most organic food that’s produced in the U.S. is produced by underserved Mexican workers,” Cochran says. “But they’re often not in the photo shoot.” The reality of farmwork, even here on the Pacific coast, is far more grueling and less picturesque.

It bothered him that while some farms had fair labor practices, many did not, and the public rarely knew what went on at a particular farm. Of the 200-odd organic strawberry growers in the state, not one flew the UFW’s black eagle flag, the symbol of a unionized farm.

“I felt like it was an issue that needed to be addressed, and one way to do that would be to show that I could operate a farm under a union contract and pay all these benefits and still make a living,” Cochran tells me.

According to Lauro Barajas, the UFW’s regional director in Salinas, it’s rare for a grower to initiate talks with the union. Ever since its beginning in the 1960s, when farmers tried to crush a grape pickers’ strike, the union’s relationship with growers has been combative. People like Barajas are more accustomed to the likes of Cochran trying to stifle workers who attempt to organize.

“Today it’s no different,” Barajas tells me. “We need to fight so hard with every single employer to get a contract for the workers.”

Not so with Cochran. In 1998, he called up the union to talk about drafting a contract.

“The guy who answered the phone couldn’t suppress his level of surprise,” remembers Cochran of that conversation. “He told me, ‘Wow, I can’t believe a grower is giving me a call to have a chat.’ ”

That chat developed into a collective bargaining contract that detailed the new benefits each worker would receive: a full medical plan, a dental plan, a retirement plan, vacation pay, holiday pay, and a pay scale that started above minimum wage and included scheduled raises. Negotiated every three years, it also delineated grievance procedures and more recently introduced an employee stock ownership plan, which awards company stock to employees over time, making them partial owners of the farm.

“I wanted [Swanton Berry Farm] to move away from the hereditary, individualistic energy of conventional farm ‘monarchies’ toward a meritocracy that has more of a decentralized, collective energy,” Cochran says. He hopes ESOP gives his employees a sense of ownership. Collective decision making is a Swanton Berry imperative. Employees don’t have supervisors breathing down their necks while they work—the company trusts them to do their jobs well.

The signing marked Cochran’s second shattering of status quo—Swanton Berry became the first organic farm in the nation to have unionized workers.

“It was very exciting when that happened,” remembers Pedro Tortoledo, a tractor operator who started working at Swanton Berry when the contract was first negotiated. “We got a lot of stuff that we didn’t have before that a lot of other people don’t have that make our lives much better.”

“This is more important than a regular job,” says Angelica Rodriquez, 21, who’s been working as a Swanton Berry baker under the tutelage of her mother—the farm’s veteran head baker—since she was 16. “Our opinion matters. I feel like I’m a real part of the company.”

Cochran’s partnership with the UFW began 16 years ago. Today his is still the only organic berry farm in California with a union contract. It’s almost unheard of that farmworkers receive the types of benefits that Swanton Berry offers, union-affiliated or not. That seems, if not noble, at least understandable, when horror stories of negative incomes and inequitable subsidies dominate the national dialogue about agriculture. (The New York Times ran an opinion piece in August titled, “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers.”) Most small to midsize farms don’t even make a profit. The average net earnings from 90.5 percent of farms with sales less than $250,000 was $2,615, according to the USDA’s most recent data (2009); they struggle just to keep the lights on and the chickens fed and are usually subsidized by one or more of the owner’s other occupations. Cochran worked in a nursery school and as a contractor during the first few years of Swanton Berry, until the business turned a large enough profit to be his sole income.

With the less predictable yields of organic growing and the costs of the benefit package—which adds about $5 per hour, not including wages, to his labor costs for each employee—Swanton Berry Farm’s profit margin is a razor-thin 3 percent average. Compared with other small farms, it’s doing quite well. Nowadays, Swanton Berry sells about $2 million worth of strawberries a year, making just $60,000 in profits. The farm stand never goes into blackout because of unmet electrical bills. But the profits pale in comparison with those of the large corporate farms that produce most of the nation’s food—just 10 percent of U.S. farms account for 82 percent of production. Corporate farm profit margins range from 10 percent to 24 percent, according to USDA data. The upper end of that margin is in line with the nation’s most profitable businesses, such as oil extraction, banking, and legal services; the average corporate grower household rakes in more than $200,000 a year.

“With that kind of cushion, it would really be much easier for large farms to institute the same labor standards and benefits that I do,” Cochran says. “But you know, if you pay your employees a few extra bucks an hour, it would mean less vacations to Italy.”

His seems slightly perturbed but then chuckles and adds, “If you’re getting rich, you’re not doing it right.”