Food Justice Certification – More than Just an Add-On to Organic

Youth cleaning beans at Pie Ranch

Youth cleaning beans at Pie Ranch

Food Justice Certification is still in the early adopter stage. The entities that certify are highly ethical farmers and food businesses that want to bring the public’s attention to the possibility that farmers could be paid fair prices and farmers can provide safe, respectful jobs with living wages to farm workers. Green-Star, an outstanding food co-op in Ithaca, NY, engages in FJC both to demonstrate that it has good labor policies and also that it is paying fair prices to the local farms that supply the store. Brandon Kane, General Manager of GreenStar, says that FJC expresses the values of co-op members. In a letter to other NE co-ops, Kane wrote: “Food Justice Certification through the Agricultural Justice Project has become a critical component of GreenStar Co-op telling its values story and backing it up with hard facts.” AJP and NOFA are partnering on a project that will assist organic farms in improving the labor policies and engage food co-ops in the region in more joint promotion with farms on shared values.

Despite national consumer surveys by Consumer Reports showing that significant percentages of those surveyed highly value food grown with good labor policies (86% in 2014, 89% in 2016), there are few markets that offer premiums for food grown by happy workers. International fair trade has been able to convey the message that small farms in developing countries deserve a fair price to survive, though most programs do not include improving conditions for workers on these farms. The message that US farmers need fair pricing surfaces only during periods of more severe crisis, like the late 70’s and again recently, for dairy farms.

The group of farming stakeholders that designed Food Justice Certification (FJC) deliberately set out to create high bar standards for US conditions and tested the standards on farms to make sure that there are farms that have attained them. What the Agricultural Justice Project has never managed to do is to raise enough money to provide FJC for free or cheap like some programs that verify humane conditions for animals. In the absence of either a premium or very low cost for certification, the rate of adoption by farms has been very slow.

Announcing the Certification of Soul Fire Farm

The latest farm to receive FJC is Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, NY, the first farm to be certified FJC without also having organic certification. Soul Fire meets and surpasses organic standards, but has chosen to focus on racism and training farmers of color. Soul Fire is a small, highly diversified farm that provides weekly doorstep deliveries of in-season, farm fresh, Certified Naturally-Grown food to hundreds of individuals in the Albany inner city living under food apartheid and targeted by state violence. Soul Fire Farm is committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system. As stated with passion and conviction on their website, the Soul Fire farmers “raise life-giving food and act in solidarity with people marginalized by food apartheid. With deep reverence for the land and wisdom of our ancestors, we work to reclaim our collective right to belong to the earth and to have agency in the food system. We bring diverse communities together on this healing land to share skills in sustainable agriculture, natural building, spiritual activism, health and environmental justice. We are training the next generation of activist-farmers and strengthening the movements for food sovereignty and community self-determination.”

Upon learning that their farm had qualified for FJC, the Soul Fire team responded: “Soul Fire Farm proudly sought the Agricultural Justice Project’s Food Justice Certification, recognizing that to date, it is the only farm certification that commits to an unequivocal focus on the rights of food systems and food chain workers, centers farmworker led organizations, and was developed primarily by farm workers and farmers in a participatory stakeholder process. As collaborators in a movement that honors the people whose labor has built the food system in this country, we pursued FJC in recognition of the striking significance of a certification that amplifies farm workers’ voices while supporting their lives and livelihoods. In a food system founded on stolen land and labor that continues to perpetuate structural racism and injustice, we value FJC’s insistence on fair pricing and fair labor practices that challenge food apartheid and the devaluing of the people who steward the land.

“At Soul Fire Farm, we go beyond the organic standards and the FJC standards by working to dismantle the racist structures that misguide our food system. Through programs such as the Black-Latinx Farmers Immersion, sliding scale CSA farm share, and youth food justice leadership training, we are part of a network of farms working to foster land stewardship and leadership by Black and Brown people in the food system, reclaim Afro-Indigenous regenerative farming practices, and catalyze the transfer of resources and power from those with food system privilege to those impacted by food apartheid. In our own team, we strive to mirror the healing justice we seek in the world by uplifting radical self-care, community accountability, compassionate communication, distributed leadership, fair compensation, and commitment to personal and professional development.”

Swanton Berry Farm – FJC is a Step towards Human Rights for Farm Labor

Jim Cochran, farmer at Swanton Berry Farm, helped in creating FJC, providing his farm for AJP to develop its audit method that includes both a certification agency inspector and an inspector from a worker organization. His farm was one of the first two to be certified in California, along with Pie Ranch, an educational farm a few miles up the coast from Swanton. Cochran lays out his reasons: “The dignity of farm labor is a founding principle of Swanton Berry Farm. From the beginning, we wanted to present our customers with a product produced under the best working conditions possible. What would be the point of farming organically if the workers were underpaid, overworked or treated without respect? Just carrying the California Certified Organic label did not address these important issues.” Cochran was also the first (and perhaps the only) organic farmer to invite the United Farm Workers to unionize his employees. While the cost for FJC certification is similar to organic, the cost of the UFW union is significantly higher with the employer paying for the excellent health program and a pension plan for employees. Cochran is definitely willing to put his money where his mouth is. In an interview a few years ago, Cochran explained his motivations:

“As with the organic label, Food Justice Certification is a whole philosophy. Just as the organic method is not just about using organic inputs, but it’s also about understanding soil ecology, the farming environment, and water, it’s similar when you look at social or labor issues. You have human beings who have families and needs and wants. It’s a complex fabric. In my opinion, having organic certification is only half of the equation. …I think labor certification is going to become increasingly important. There are many people on the farm doing the harvesting, watering, cultivating, record keeping, and other farm work that the public doesn’t see. People are concerned about whether their clothes are made under sweatshop conditions in other countries, but they’re not thinking about these issues here in the United States. This label is a step in the right direction. …It’s only in the last two or three years that you hear people talking about worker issues more, and I’m happy for it. I hope that raising awareness will spark some other farmers to start thinking about them as well. I’d be happy to talk to any farmer who wants to give me a call and ask me about our practices. Our purpose in going through this program is not to highlight ourselves as better than other farms but to get the ball rolling on something that we hope becomes more widely adopted.”

The Family Garden – FJC Highlights Values of a Fair Farm

Jordan Brown’s farm, The Family Garden, had its home in Bell, Florida where they produced certified organic vegetables on 25 acres, before relocating to 20 acres in the larger city of Gainesville in 2015, keeping fruit production in Bell. He considered FJC for over a year before making a commitment, but then he wrote: “As my workers and I learned together about AJP’s social justice standards, I became even surer that I had made the right decision for my farm and the people who work alongside me and my family here… We’re taking a big step together, being the first farm in the southeast U.S. to participate in this program. I’ve learned a lot from the process and am excited to see the program grow. …As organic vegetable farms get bigger and bigger the only way for farms our size to stay in business is to move to retail sales, and having this certification sets us apart from all the other farms. In the local food scene, this is something that nobody really talks about and every farmer says they pay their employees well and treat workers with dignity, but that’s not always the case. I was exposed to agricultural injustice from farmers that I know around here. Abuse can be anywhere on any size farm. Success for us comes from the folks who come to our stand or signup for our CSA because they know we’re a FAIR farm and want to support good work.”

Brown has made a concerted effort to find retail markets in Gainesville that will recognize his labor policies by paying a premium for his produce. But he has not been successful. By contrast, his CSA customers often express their appreciation. Brown says that FJC is a way of making his values and actions public: “Food Justice Certification is important to me because it’s the only way, as far as I know, to certify that anything we’re doing labor-wise is any different than any other farm. We’re trying to pay people a living wage, have a safe and respectful work environment, and trying to offer people some minimal benefits that would be associated with most jobs, but are not common in agriculture. We give people a few paid holidays off, we pay 2 hours a week of sick pay so folks can add it up and don’t have to worry about missing work, and at the end of the season they can collect a check which lets folks take off a couple of weeks, all the produce they care to take from the farm, and one of the long term goals is to offer overtime pay.”

The FJC process has also been helpful to Brown as he has expanded his farm: “The growth of our farm, from being a real small operation to where we are now, is closely tied to Food Justice Certification; it helped me get more organized because FJC standards required me to start running payroll, get Workers Comp, filing taxes, and start keeping better records. It took some time to get everything in order and get organized because we do have to meet a lot of guidelines, At the same time, I think that organizational component has greatly benefited the farm. There are lots of larger farms that are already very organized and keep records the way we do, but they wouldn’t meet the FJC standards because of their on-farm practices.”

Pie Ranch – FJC Provides Framework for Teaching about Fairness
Pie Ranch has been training young farmers and providing educational programs for high school students since 2003. The Mission of Pie Ranch is “to cultivate a healthy and just food system from seed to table through food education, farmer training, and regional partnerships.” Program Director Nancy Vail explains their decision to apply for Food Justice Certification:
“Becoming and remaining Food Justice Certified has been an important way for Pie Ranch to stay accountable to our values around social justice and fairness. Having written policies in place and ongoing trainings help to make our evolution as an organization transparent to all. Building empathy for the human side of agriculture is part of what’s needed for people to start valuing FJC in the marketplace. We still have a long way to go with this, and simultaneously we need to keep pushing for policies that help to keep food accessible for all people. I think we could focus more on how we advertise FJC on our products to help with increasing revenue.”

FJC is a way to assure that the apprenticeships Pie Ranch offers are ethical and not just a form of cheap labor. They want to pass on good practices to the young farmers they train so that they get their own farms off to a good start. In addition to introducing their own apprentices to FJC, Pie Ranch partners with the much larger training program at University of California Santa Cruz’ annual programs on food justice. According to Vail: “As an educational farm that engages with thousands of people a year, being Food Justice Certified has been helpful as it offers a framework for how we talk about fairness in the food system. Each year we offer classes on the Agricultural Justice Project and FJC to participants in our Emerging Farmers and Youth Programs. It helps to center the people in the food system, especially brown and black folks who have been and continue to be the ones most affected by exploitative practices.”

When asked if there were ways besides certification to achieve the same things, Vail replied: “I think we could achieve some things without certification, but to really stay accountable means we need an outside organization like the AJP helping us to do that.”

Fairness and Justice for All
Ultimately, deciding to engage in Food Justice Certification amounts to a commitment to agrarian justice for farmers and farm workers. As Jordan Brown puts it, “Having more farms participate in the Food Justice Certification Program will help grow a greater awareness of the labor practices and unfair working conditions in the agriculture sector across America. Ultimately, more farms getting this certification will bring more money back to the farm and the farmer. Real change is needed in the farm labor sector and will happen in one of two ways: wholesalers taking smaller margins or higher prices at the retail counter that reflect the actual cost of food. People generally don’t care about any type of injustice until they are confronted with it. I think that if more consumers understood the injustices that happen to farm laborers in America and how difficult of a job it is for such a little amount of money, perhaps the Food Justice label would help open peoples’ eyes to those injustices.”

Jose Manuel Guzman, a former mushroom worker and Lead Organizer at the farmworker organization CATA, sums up the significance of AJP to people who work on farms:
“The Agricultural Justice Project is of vital importance to farmworkers and their families. It promotes organic agriculture, helping workers to have a better understanding of how food can be grown in a natural, healthy way without putting them at risk of exposure to pesticides. The workers’ rights standards set by the project are more than just basic workers’ rights. They allow workers to collectively bargain and organize and create a space for dialogue between workers and farmers. They guarantee a fair and just treatment for all involved.”
Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.