By Becca Berkey
The economic justice issues facing organic farmers and workers in the northeastern United States are consistent with many of the challenges faced in conventional agriculture such as inadequate pay, lack of housing, intense market competition, and health-related problems due to the strenuous nature of the work. The reasons for these issues, however, may differ in the organic farming sector. In small-scale organic farming the issues largely come from a lack of systemic infrastructure within which the farmers themselves can make enough income to support and enact their values of justice and sustainability. Thus small-scale organic agriculture and its farmers and laborers can be considered a population marginalized within the larger political-economic landscape of U.S. agriculture.
By Jack Kittredge
The growing momentum of the campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour presents those of us who are farming with a serious challenge. Most of us pay significantly less than that to our farmworkers. Many of us do not even earn $15 an hour ourselves, as owner-workers.
The minimum wage campaign was successful in a few cities at first, notably achieving various phased-in raises culminating in $15 per hour a few years hence in the municipalities of Seattle, New York, Buffalo, Syracuse, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland. Last year the states of New York and California joined the march to $15, with thirty more plus Washington DC raising their minimum wages significantly. The city raises were often targeted at restaurant and food service workers, having little impact on farms. The state raises, however, are a different story. In some states agricultural workers are not exempt from state minimums, in others they are but the reality of all other traditionally low wage work escalating to $15 an hour in a few years may make workers reluctant to take jobs on farms which pay so much less.
By Elizabeth Henderson
“This will wreck farming in NYS!” that is the New York Farm Bureau knee jerk reaction to any hint at raising wages or otherwise improving conditions for farm workers. Is the Farm Bureau right and do organic farmers agree? As I see it, there are a lot of things in our power to change on our farms and policies that the NOFAs can champion in our states and together on the federal level. For this article I have gleaned ideas from organic farmers and from programs that champion farmer and worker justice. Please help us prove the NYFB wrong by contributing your own ideas!
Family scale, small farms and “farms in the middle” have been going out of business for decades. This country has gone from over 5 million farms to only about 2 million in my lifetime. African American farmers have lost their land at 5 times the rate of white farmers. The low commodity prices and especially the low milk prices of this past year have driven out yet more farms. Since the height of the farm crisis in the 1980’s, the organic label has been a refuge that has saved thousands of farms and allowed people like me to create new ones. (See the film “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” for the death and rebirth of John Peterson’s farm.)
By Elizabeth Henderson
Early in 2016, Evangeline Sarat at Sweet Land Farm announced publicly that she was paying wages to her employees at the Tompkins County living wage level.
Evangeline explained, “For me, it is very pinpointed: if my employees work, they should make a living. Especially, with food. If they’re working to grow healthy food, I don’t see how it’s logical that they not get enough to live.”
Her declaration set off a flurry of emotional discussion among farmers and foodies that has not died down, especially with Governor Cuomo agreeing to gradually raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. A few months later, Paul Martin, Evangeline’s former partner, replaced her as the manager of Sweet Land (perhaps one day, they will tell the story of their partnership) and agreed to explain the consequences of her decision for Sweet Land.
By Elizabeth Henderson
During the New Deal Era, President Roosevelt struck a bargain with Southern Democrats: they would support worker rights legislation so long as their farmworkers (and other predominantly African-American workers, such as domestic workers) were exempt. Thus, Congress excluded farmworkers from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA), the main federal law that protects workers who join and organize labor unions, and from the federal minimum wage and overtime protections in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (farmworker children were also excluded from the child labor protections during times when they were not legally required to be in school). Not until 1966 did Congress require employers to pay farmworkers the federal minimum wage. To this day, farmworkers remain excluded from federal overtime requirements, the NLRA, many states’ workers’ compensation laws, and many occupational health and safety protections. The protections for child farmworkers are also weaker than the child labor protections in all other industries.
The labor law exclusions result in farmworker wages being among the lowest in the country: poverty among farmworkers is roughly double that of all wage and salary employees. Additionally, farm work consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous occupations, yet only 31% of farmworkers have health insurance.
By Elizabeth Henderson
Organic Farmer Greg Swartz has gone to the extraordinary measure of moving his entire farm so that he can fulfill his farm goals which include paying living wages to everyone who works there. This year, Willow Wisp will be starting to farm the newly purchased ground where in a few years, they will be able to quadruple their previous production.
Greg started Willow Wisp Organic Farm in 2007 on 12 acres on the Delaware River in Damascus, PA, 120 miles northwest of New York City and across the river from Sullivan County, NY. This is a rural area within driving distance of some of the highest end markets in the country. After ten years of apprenticing and working for other farmers, as well as a brief spell as Executive Director of NOFA-NY, Greg set out on his own to grow fresh market organic produce. He focused on direct sales, establishing markets at the Union Square Greenmarket, the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket, two more local farmers’ markets and a de-livery route to restaurants and independent groceries.
By Rebecca Thistlethwaite
This article originally appeared in the May 27, 2016 LocalHarvest Newsletter
it is reprinted with permission
I need to preface this discussion by pointing out my – and LocalHarvest’s – longstanding commitment to social justice, fair trade, and living wages. Yet, as a re-covering farmer who had a business large enough to have employees, I also understand the invisible math that most people never get to see. In the December newsletter we spoke to some of the challenges that US farmers face when competing with cheaper, imported food. If a retailer or a consumer can get a cheaper organic tomato grown for a 10th of the labor costs as a US organic tomato, they just might do that. Now imagine if those US labor costs were to go up 50%?
By Eric Holt-Giménez
As the organic market expands, the cost to consumers is slowly but steadily dropping, making organic food somewhat more accessible to more people. This has been good news for wholesalers, processors and retailers. For farmers—and farm workers—not as much.
Why hasn’t the expansion of the organic food industry translated into higher wages and farm gate prices?
The simple answer is because organic farming is at the wrong end of the value chain.
But that is true for all farmers. What puts organic farming at a disadvantage is, in an organic nutshell, capitalism.
The high retail price of organic food frustrates farmers and consumers alike. Reasons given for the price difference between organic and conventional food–for some crops up to 300 percent–revolve around factors like low supply and high demand, greater labor input and postharvest handling, inefficient distribution chains and disadvantages in economy of scale.
By Oya Aktas
The rapid growth of the “Fight for $15” minimum wage movement and President Barack Obama’s changes to overtime regulations have sparked new rounds of debate over the economic consequences of an increased overtime pay threshold and a higher minimum wage. Advocates of overtime and wage hikes argue these policies protect workers from exploitation and improve job quality. Opponents insist these regulations will hurt workers in the long run, as they will inflict a burden on companies that will be forced to cut jobs. These concerns are nothing new—this debate dates back to the early 20th century, before the minimum wage even existed in the United States and when overtime pay was unheard of.
At the end of the 19th century, economists preached that markets, if left to their own devices, would function at equilibrium levels with the best possible dis-tribution of resources. Rapid industrialization created the Gilded Age of American wealth, and people credited the free market with their increased prosperi-ty. But along with increasing growth, industrialization also sharpened economic inequalities and made certain groups particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Debates over hour and wage limits focused on which groups required labor protections and the best mechanisms for protecting these groups.
By Jack Kittredge
Land in the Pioneer Valley, the alluvial plain along the Connecticut River, is arguably the best farmland in the state of Massachusetts. In fact Hadley loam, a deep, well drained soil formed in the silty alluvium of level flood plains and considered one of the premier agricultural soils in the nation, is named for the town of Hadley, which is adjacent to Amherst, Massachusetts. Adding to the quality of the soil there are the valley’s moderate elevation (mostly under 300 feet) and ample rainfall (approximately 48 inches per year) which make land in the Valley a Mecca for Northeastern farmers.
Two young farmers originally from New York and Vermont, Missy Bahret and Casey Steinberg, migrated to the Valley over a dozen years ago by different paths — but ended up running a farm together in Amherst.
“I’m from New York – the Hudson valley,” says Missy. “We met in college at the University of Vermont. We were friends there but didn’t plan on farming. But we worked together on projects. I was studying environmental education and Casey was studying outdoor education.”
By Elizabeth Henderson
Domestic Fair Trade and Farmer Justice Organizations
Domestic Fair Trade Association
The Domestic Fair Trade Association is a collaboration of organizations representing farmers, farmworkers, food system workers, retailers, manufacturers, processors, and non-governmental organizations. Our primary goal is to support family-scale farming, to reinforce farmer-led initiatives such as farmer co-operatives, and to bring these groups together with mission-based traders, retailers and concerned consumers to contribute to the movement for sustainable agriculture in North America. DFTA has posted on its website a detailed evaluation of fair trade claims in the US market. NOFA is a founding member of DFTA. http://www.thedfta.org/
Agricultural Justice Project
The Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) is a non-profit initiative to create fairness and equity in our food system through the development of social justice standards for organic and sustainable agriculture. On the website you will find a Tool-kit for farmers with resources on fair labor policies, intern con-tracts, fair pricing, contracts and the background for fairness in international law. NOFA is a founding member and a continuing partner in AJP. http://www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org/