Fair from Farm to Retail

Food Justice BannerThe Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) and NOFA—one of AJP’s four founding members—are launching a two-year ‘Fair From Farm to Retail’ Project to support the organic farming community here in the Northeast in addressing our shared social justice values while striving for dignified careers for farmers, our families, and workers on our farms.

We are following up on the NOFA Domestic Fair Trade Committee’s 2013 survey of 280 farmers in which organic farmers identified several social justice values as important aspects to their operations and expressed a desire to create a just, equitable working environment. The survey also identified some of the challenges and pressures—wages, benefits, fair prices, a steady market— keeping these values from being achieved.

To help farmers retain that focus, and to assist them in addressing and implementing social justice practices, NOFA & AJP will provide—GRATIS—assistance by providing free technical assistance and resources to farmers to help put into practice some of the hopes that farmers have but may fear are too expensive to achieve.

Both organizations are driven by similar visions & principles and commitment to the organic farming community. We seek to combine the particular strengths of NOFA’s long-standing and ongoing relations with and support of organic farmers with AJP’s social justice resources and standards, as exemplified by its Food Justice Certification Program, intended to provide farm workers & farmers—who, when they are small scale producers are themselves workers—with a common ground of recognition and support where fair pricing, long-term relationships, and equitable labor practices are assured.

AJP is a collaborative, non-profit initiative working to transform the existing agricultural system into one based on empowerment and justice and fairness for all who labor from farm to retail through the development of social justice standards for organic and sustainable agriculture, developing technical tools—including extensive toolkits and templates, and one-on-one technical assistance—to assist farmers in evaluating how well the extent of their commitment to social justice values is supported in practice.

Any business in the food system (farms, processors, restaurants, food co-ops and others) can become certified if it meets the standards for employment practices and trade practices with buyers and/or suppliers. Here in the Northeast, Green Star Food Co-op in Ithaca, NY and Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, NY are among the increasing number becoming certified. Two excellent detailed stories about AJP, its certification program, and FJC entities can be found in the Summer 2018 and Winter 2018-19 issues of the Natural Farmer.

As such, the ‘Fair from Farm to Retail’ Project now underway in all seven NOFA chapter states will concentrate on farmers’ relations with employees (health & safety, conflict resolution, and efforts to achieve a living wage) and with buyers (fair pricing, developing long term relations, achieving a premium in the marketplace).

In the project’s first stage we are looking for 50 farms to complete a confidential Farmer Benchmark Checklist, an edited version of the AJP Self Assessment Checklist. Filling out this form—which should only take ten minutes; can be completed online; and does not send the farmer out into one’s fields — will help farmers to recognize many of the key criteria that constitute a ‘social justice’ farm & how well one is already enacting some of these elements. AJP will provide a summary review of helpful observations and suggestions for potential next steps in absorbing social justice policies and practices for each farm, including a list of resources and sample templates if requested. Full details of the Project and the Farmer Benchmark Checklist can be found at the AJP website www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org.

These are hard times for family-scale farms, we all know this. But there are seasoned farmers with well established social justice values willing to impart their experience and wisdom and there are beginning farmers entering the organic community with a sense of fairness already in their hearts, not yet in their practices. We seek the participation of both as we head in the direction of a healthier farming system.

What is critical here is that regardless of further participation by the farm or whether farms choose to seek AJP’s Food Justice Certification—farms participating in this Project are under no obligation to do so—both AJP & NOFA want to encourage farmers to begin considering and developing such practices, and are willing to support such efforts at whatever level of engagement, through tool-kit resources; workshops and presentations on specific issues; or certification.

As of this writing we are halfway to our goal. For the Project’s success we seek farmers representing a broad spectrum—urban and rural; diverse commodities (vegetable, field crops, dairy, fruit, and mixed livestock and poultry) and types of operations (certified organic, certified naturally grown, biodynamic, ecological practices). We seek farmers with apprentices, interns, seasonal, temporary, migrants, and H2A; selling to retail, through CSA’s, at farmers markets; non-profit and not.

From this first group of 50 farmers, we will identify 20 to complete the AJP self-assessment form, with AJP trainers providing any necessary assistance gratis, providing recommendations and resources for improving working conditions, policies, and practices on the farm, simultaneously demonstrating the processes used in an AJP certification audit, and illustrating how they compare with the FJC Standards.

In the second season, the AJP team will conduct, also free of charge, on-site demonstration mock audits to our Food Justice standards at several farms spread across the region, at which any of the participating farmers will be welcome. Included in these audits will be interviews with managers and a selection of employees, for our program is unique in that the certification process involves both an AJP trained organic certifier and a worker organization representative. The certifier conducts interviews and reviews business practices and policies, while the worker organization representative confidentially interviews staff, employees and managers to get a sense of the workers’ experiences. This tandem inspection process helps to create a voice for workers while also ensuring policies and procedures are in place. These inspections may also be combined with organic inspections to reduce expenses.

FJC also provides an avenue for farms and businesses to improve employee policies and practices as well as developing long term relationships between farmer and buyer, assuring consumers of high standards for social justice, reflecting, as it does, the singular principles of domestic fair trade. A second component of the project will focus on the relations between farmers and buyers, specifically food co-operatives, leveraging their increasing commitment to several core domestic fair trade principles, particularly with their emphasis on supporting local organic growers and endeavoring to provide living wages to their own workers and their long standing adherence to cooperation. In fact, all four founding partners of AJP—including NOFA and CATA-the Farm Worker Support Committee, based in southern New Jersey—and AJP itself are also founding members of the Domestic Fair Trade Association..

Retailers are a significant stakeholder in forging an alliance toward creating equity and fairness in the food system. AJP believes food cooperatives, in particular, can be key allies in adopting this certification as a best practice especially as consumer demand for ethically traded products continues to grow. It considers how products are sourced and grown, both in terms of the environment and in the working conditions of the labor force. Many consumers are also willing to pay a premium for these goods.

Consumers are seeking a reliable way to evaluate the fairness of the food they purchase. By bringing together and prioritizing respectful relationships among different stakeholder groups in the food chain, AJP is increasing this awareness. Brandon Kane, General Manager of GreenStar Co-op, a 1,500 member food co-op in Ithaca, New York, sees adopting the standards as a path toward the “creation of a sustainable community, with stable jobs and greater economic viability for farms, buyers, and retailers. Fairness and equity in the food system is obviously a top tier value our co-ops hold,” he says, “and thus should be emphasized in messaging to our membership and customers…providing co-ops with a host of metrics that demonstrate that we are truly walking our talk.”

Many people who buy from local family-scale organic farms and businesses assume that these farms and businesses are thriving financially and providing dignified working conditions to their employees. Unfortunately, this faith is undermined by the realities of the cheap food system which has prevented the development of a sustainable business model that allows farmers and their employees to achieve an adequate standard of living. Prices paid to family-scale organic and sustainable farmers have not been high enough to enable them to pay themselves living wages while providing living wage jobs with decent benefits and fair and dignified working conditions for their farm workers. Farm work should be a satisfying and valued career path for both farmers and their employees.

If you do not farm, consider sharing this story and the accompanying link to the Farmer Benchmark Checklist with a farmer friend or neighbor or the farmer who operates your CSA or is your favorite vendor at the farmer’ market. The link is best accessed through the AJP website, www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org or contact the author at louis@agriculturaljusticeproject.org.