Beware Of Farm Slavery

Organic food is becoming mainstream in America, and that’s a fact. According to USDA data, 28 percent of U.S. consumers buy organic food (fresh and processed) every week; more than 50 percent of what they buy comes from big retailers and supermarket chains like Walmart, Costco, and other behemoths.

Buying and consuming organic food makes us feel good. We’ve been told it’s good for our health and good for the health of the planet. More and more of us are even taking the extra step to ensure that we procure as much of our organic food as possible from local producers, whom we meet at our weekly farmers’ market or whose delivery truck comes to our door with our CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) box of goodies.

Most of us also have a huge blind spot regarding the origin of the food we eat. Who plants, grows and harvests it? How much are they getting paid? What working conditions do they experience day in day out?

There are 1.4 million farm workers in the United-States, according to the most common estimates. A third of them work on Californian farms. The rest can be found mostly in Florida, Washington State, Texas, Oregon and North Carolina. Two out of three work on large farms.

Historically, farm workers in this country have been immigrant and transient populations. Ever since the unlucky Chinese gold-diggers from the Pearl River Delta tried their luck at practicing their native horticulture in the valleys of California in the 19th-century, farm workers have been marginalized and left to live precarious lives in the biggest agricultural state and elsewhere (the practice of slavery in the South obviously brought its own set of issues to agriculture there). Their poor language skills have kept them isolated. So have the Federal and state legislations on labor protection. Born of the New Deal era, the National Labor Relations Act or Wagner Act signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935 excluded farm workers at the request of Democratic Senators from the South–they refused to extend those privileges to the African-Americans who made up most of the farm workers’ ranks in the region.

The situation has not been remedied ever since. To this day, minimum wage laws don’t apply federally to farm workers, and they are not entitled to overtime pay. Children as young as 12 year-old can be legally hired on farms. It is roughly estimated that between 300,000 and 800,000 of them work in the fields of America at least at some point during the year. No one knows for sure because there’s no system in place to track and count them, Vera Chang, a fellow at Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation explained last week at the Eco-Farm Conference. The country has 22 full-time inspectors in charge of controlling 1.4 million farm workers, she added.

Clearly, the 21st century has not brought much systemic progress to the farm-workers’ situation. A few encouraging events are worth mentioning, however. Since 1997, several farm owners in Florida were charged for violations of human rights and eight cases of slavery involving over 1,000 foreign farm workers where prosecuted.

In the midst of the bleak situation that is endemic to U.S. agriculture, here’s a special mention also to the astounding work and achievements of the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Its most recent large victory was the deal sealed last August with Sodexo. The multinational food-service and facilities management giant that serves 9.3 million meals a day signed the Coalition’s Fair Food agreement, a Code of Conduct that includes fair treatment of farm workers and third-party investigation of farm-worker complaints. The agreement also commits Sodexo to paying a small premium (1.5 cents a pound) for their tomatoes in order to ensure fair wages for farm-workers, and to being transparent in their tomato purchasing.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers' demonstrators, Burger King protest, University of Florida campus, 2007.

Remarkably, organic agriculture born in America of lofty ideals of social justice, cooperation and participative democracy in the 1970s, has not made a dent in those practices.

“Organic agriculture has a very long way to go. It only represents 1 percent of the cultivated land in America and we have still to show an exemplary record when it comes to labor practices,” Amigo Bob Cantisano, an organic farmer in California since 1974, an activist (he co-founded the Ecological Farming Association in 1981) and a consultant who’s helped transitioned 600,000 acres to organic farming around the world, told me.

It’s no mystery that farming, be it organic or conventional, yields very little pay. Young idealistic farmers who embrace a healthy lifestyle toiling the soil to feed their community learn it the hard way. My friend Meghan recently worked for a couple of years as an organic farm manager in Washington State, making 800 dollars a month. Her food was provided; her [free] accommodation was a large tent. She is no exception.

Since the “get big or get out” motto of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz in the 1970s, farmers have become the most vulnerable link in the food chain dominated by huge corporations driven by their sole focus on high volumes/low costs. Consequently, consumers’ demand and expectations for low food prices have become a huge component of the sad state of affair of our farmers’ income. Dire financial straights lead to desperate strategies to lower labor costs.

Workers at Full Belly Farm.

Thankfully, a few shining examples show us that alternatives exist. Especially among organic farms. In California, for instance, Full Belly Farm is a debt-free operation that provides a decent living for the families of its four partners and of their 70 employees. In fact, Full Belly Farm prides itself on its sustainable labor practices, including a stable payroll and health benefits for two-thirds of the employees and their families. “We’re blessed with a climate that keeps us busy year round”, partner and co-founder Paul Mueller says. Naturally, sustainability comes at a cost to the consumer, which Paul Mueller is unapologetic about. “You need to understand what you’re paying for, what kind of social structure you’re buying with your dollars”, he argues. “If you believe in being compensated fairly for your work, and in compensating others similarly, then it is not cheap,” he says.

Lundberg Family Farms, a leader in sustainable rice production, is another famous case of well-rounded sustainability. Its payroll represents 65 percent of its overhead, and 70 percent of it are year-round employees who receive full benefits: health coverage, 401K, profit sharing plan, life insurance and education reimbursement. “Many are long-term employees who’ve been with us for over 15 years,” VP of Administration Timothy Schultz said at the Eco-Farm Conference last week. “We believe that if you treat people well, they will treat you well. Our rice is not the cheapest, but this is part of our narrative,” he added.

Revisiting our understanding of the value and of the price of sustainably-grown food starts with us, the consumers.

Now, that‘s “beyond organic“.

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