Keeping Fairness in Organic: The Agricultural Justice Project’s Food Justice Certification

ajp logoJust as basic as care of earthworms is care of the people in organic farming. This can be accomplished through fair prices to farmers for their farm products and fair and respectful treatment of farm workers, as well as of others who work in organic supply chains. Fairness is integral to organic and is one of the four principles of Organic Agriculture. The roots of the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) go back to the beginning of the National Organic Program (NOP), when some farmer organizations and farmworker advocates realized that the NOP had no standards for fairness in organic trade or for decent treatment of the people who do the farming.

Four people started meeting in 1999, three farmers and one representative of a farm worker support organization – Elizabeth Henderson from NOFA, Michael Sligh from Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI – USA), Richard Mandelbaum of Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas/Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), Marty Mesh of Florida Organic Growers (FOG), – to figure out how to keep fairness in organic agriculture in the US. Together, they formed the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP). Over the next few years, the group wrote standards for fairness on farms and in trading between farms and buyers, a domestic fair trade certification program. They recruited farmers, farm workers and other members of the organic community to set up a stakeholder advisory committee to make sure that the standards were comprehensive and realistic. The farmworker members of the CATA board reviewed and critiqued the standards. The resulting program – Food Justice Certified (FJC) – provides a way to ensure that fairness is happening on and for organic farms and demonstrates this fairness to the public with credibility.  AJP also created a series of training programs and technical assistance for organic farmers to help them improve labor policies and practices to make their farms more socially resilient and just. Since 2014, AJP has been an independent 501(c)(3) with the four partner organizations represented on the Board.

The mission statement of AJP is ambitious: “The AJP works to transform the existing agricultural system, seeking empowerment, justice, fairness and respect for all who labor from farm to retail. Central to AJP’s mission are the principles that all humans deserve respect, freedom to live with dignity and nurture community, and share responsibility for preserving the earth’s resources for future generations.

The FJC label is based on high-bar social justice standards for farms, processors and retailers, including every link in the food chain from seed to table.  The standards address issues that are pivotal to achieving economic parity, equity and justice in our food system.  The FJC Standards include:

  • Fair prices for farmers negotiated with buyers and based on actual costs to produce food that does not abuse the environment, laborers or livestock
  • Living wages, respect and decent working conditions for all food workers
  • Transparency of expectations for workers, farmers and their trade partners
  • Grievance procedures free from retaliation
  • Protections for children from hazards and assured access to schooling
  • Access to healthcare and freedom from exposure to toxic materials
  • The right to organize for farmworkers and for farmers and other food system workers
  • Closing the income gap between highest and lowest paid employees within a company
  • Conflict resolution without retaliation for raising sensitive issues. You can read the standards and full policy manual on the AJP website – www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org. . For evaluations of the Food Justice label and program see http://fairfacts.thedfta.org/ and http://greenerchoices.org/2017/04/25/food-justice-certified/.

In addition to the standards, AJP provides technical assistance to farms and food businesses to help them improve labor and trade policies.  On the website in the Farmer section is a Tool-kit that includes a long list of resources to help farmers implement fair labor policies and get prices that cover livable wages for themselves and their employees:

  1. A self-assessment check list so a farmer can evaluate readiness for FJC
  2. A self-assessment check list for fair pricing
  3. A downloadable template for labor policies so that a farmer can quickly create a set of employee guidelines that are FJC compliant
  4. Intern learning contract examples
  5. Resources on calculating production costs as a basis for pricing that fully covers these costs
  6. A guide to fair contracts

The Tool-kit also covers conflict resolution. Resolving conflicts in a fair way and enabling employees to raise issues without fear of retaliation are crucial elements of a fair workplace.  Conflicts between farmers and their buyers must also be resolved fairly and without retaliation.

The Agricultural Justice Project conducted a three day training for Food Justice Certification (FJC) for reviewers and inspectors in Deerfield, MA, April 2 – 5, 2018 at Woolman Hill Conference Center. The training is for organic certification staff, organic inspectors and representatives of worker organizations who would like to participate in implementing Food Justice Certification on farms and food businesses across North America.  The April training reviewed the AJP standards, the process for conducting Food Justice Certified file reviews and inspections, and allowed participants to take part in actual farm inspections. Once they pass the final exam, they will be qualified to do FJC reviews and inspections.

Many more farms have benefitted from AJP technical assistance than have engaged in certification.  The reality is that there is very little market pull that would compensate farms for improving labor policies and worker pay. Nevertheless, AJP has contributed to raising public and food movement awareness of the workers on farms, and stirred up the public debate on social justice, equity and fairness – this “third leg” of sustainability. The presence of a high bar program raises the bar for other programs setting a higher target for them. Farms that have engaged in FJC find that they retain workers and spend less time and resources on retraining new people. More committed workers are also more likely to make sure the food they harvest or handle is safe.

Jessica Culley, General Coordinator at CATA, explains why AJP is important to farmworkers: “We all need to realize that the creation of an alternative food system has to include the needs of workers in a measurable way. The goal of FJC is to become a recognizable label to folks in our region—really lifting up the profile of farms and businesses that participate and creating a dialogue around alternative labor practices.”…

Rosalinda Guillen, renowned farmworker organizer and Director of Community to Community in Bellingham, WA, gave this strong endorsement of AJP:

 “As an organization Community to Community believes there is only one certification scheme that adequately addresses farm worker concerns because farm workers were involved in developing the standards from the very beginning, and continue to be at the table regarding all decisions made to changes… We only support the Agricultural Justice Project…the gold standard that we should all be striving for. As FUJ [Familias Unidas por la Justicia] leaders say “fair wages and treatment is about more than just making money, it’s about changing a system built on our exploitation.” None of the current market schemes and labels are created to change the system, they tweak it, the short-term benefits will last only as long as the corporate retailers and agricultural corporations want it to last.” (January, 2017)