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  • Farmers by and large cannot pay a living wage or meet fair labor practice standards because the price they get for the food they produce does not cover their true cost of production.

  • White, aspirational farmers and immigrant farm workers may earn the same income and work under similar conditions, but the former view the experience as part of their education while the latter feel trapped in dead end jobs.

  • Many farmers who meet the Agricultural Justice Project’s fair labor practices standards don’t get certified under those standards because they employ undocumented labor.

  • A Consumer Union survey found that many consumers are willing to pay a higher price for food from farms that institute fair labor practices. However, few markets will pay a higher price to farmers who meet those higher standard.

A conversation with Elizabeth Henderson of
the Agricultural Justice ProJECT

Contributor: Robert Raymond

Elizabeth Henderson is a cofounder of the Agricultural Justice Project, an organization created to set standards and encourage fair labor practices, and to help farmers negotiate a fair price for the food they produce to enable them to meet those standards. Here she talks about the structural reasons why we don’t have a just food system and her organization’s multi-stakeholder advocacy approach.

Could you sketch a picture of what the labor injustices within our food system are, specifically in the Hudson Valley, and what you see to be some of the root causes?



Well, if you talk about the labor injustices in the Hudson Valley or the food system in general, part of it, of course, is from the historic situation that we're in. The United States system has grown out of basically two historical trends: one was small-scale farmers trying to make a living for themselves and their families and feed themselves, who then started to sell on commercial markets. And the other, the greater part of the food system is based in the system of slavery, where there were massive plantations worked by people who were enslaved and had no choice.


Most of the food that we get in this country comes from really big farms. I think the top five percent of the farms produce eighty or ninety percent of the food that people eat. Those aren't the farms that you see in the Hudson Valley. The Hudson Valley farms that are selling to local people, at the very largest, might be hiring a hundred people. But that would probably be the biggest vegetable and fruit farm in the Hudson Valley.  What make those farms somewhat like the really big farms is the fact that the prices that they are paid for food are not based on the actual cost of producing that food—they are set somewhere else, based on international competition and for selling various commodities. There's no longer any system in this country of pricing that makes sure that farms are paid a price that covers their costs of production, including living wages for all of the people who work on the farm. That is the underlying root cause of what we're struggling with: the prices that farmers get are too low.

What is your take on why those food prices are so low compared to other countries?



Well, our government has a basic policy of cheap food—that's the underlying federal policy. During the Depression Era, to bring farms out of the Depression, the government established a policy of parity payments and supply management. The Agricultural Adjustment Act set up that so that farm prices were higher, not from subsidies paid by the government, but from prices the farmers received in the marketplace, so that processors or manufacturers who wanted to buy from farms had to pay them a price that was the parity level. However, by and large what farms are getting now is about 30 percent of what they should be getting to be in line with the rest of the economy. So for a hundred weight of milk, which is how milk is measured for sale, farmers should be getting something like $52 for a hundred weight. They're actually getting $18-20. So that's the constant pressure that farmers are under to find ways to cut costs and paying farm workers less is one of the easiest ways to cut costs, because when the National Labor Relations Act was created in 1935, farm workers were left out. The workers in other sectors have the right to organize, to bargain collectively—but farm workers have not had that right. The New York State Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act [which will go into effect on January 1, 2020] awards that right to farm workers. But it will be a while before farm workers are organized in New York State. It may be a really long while, because in California they've had that right for I think 25 years, but only about 1 percent of the farm workers in California actually belong to unions, or bargain collectively with the owners of the farms to raise the wages that farm workers get.

Can you describe what the farm worker demographic makeup looks like in the Hudson Valley?



I asked a group of students in a class on the food system to interview two different groups of farm workers. One group were young white people who were college educated, who were working as interns on organic farms in the Rochester area—young people who are learning to become farmers themselves. The other group were Mexican farm workers, some of them undocumented, who were working on a couple of larger vegetable farms in the Rochester area. It turned out that the wages that the two groups were getting were very similar. But the young, college educated, would-be farmers were happy with those minimum wages because they were learning a lot and they saw the experience as part of their education to becoming a farmer. Their work hours were just as long, they were suffering the same heat and cold and rain, but their attitude was totally different from the immigrant farm workers who were really trapped there in a low wage job—it was the best they could get. They were the only people who were available to do this work and who were willing to work that hard for minimum wages. So just wanted to make that clear. The conditions for farm workers aren't really different for immigrant farm workers on large farms and young, would-be farmers. The pressure on small-scale family farms to keep wages low is the same as on the bigger farms. It's very hard to get up enough money to pay people $20/hr or $25/hr. Farms that are doing a good job are paying $13 or $14/hr. And that's for both groups of workers.

So, yeah, you're saying that this isn't necessarily an issue of nefarious farmers targeting vulnerable communities like immigrants, but it's more of a systemic issue that's felt throughout the ecosystem of small farming and family farming in general.



Yes, exactly.

Can you talk a bit about the Agricultural Justice Project?



Starting back around 1998 or 1999 when the first rule for the national organic program was released by the United States Department of Agriculture, The National Organic Program did not have any standards that related to fair payments for farm workers, good working conditions or the prices farmers need to cover their costs of paying decent wages. There is nothing like that mentioned in the National Organic Program. And then several of us in farming and farmers organizations wrote to the USDA saying, “How about including this?” And USDA replied, “That is not in our purview.” So in order to keep fairness in organic agriculture, a group of us created what eventually became the Agricultural Justice Project. We set out standards on what would be a fair farm in terms of working conditions and what would be a fair relationship in terms of price negotiations between a farmer and the buyer who is buying the products on that farm. So those standards were first written around 2000 and they've been revised twice. The latest version has been completed but hasn't been published, but it's not that different from the 2013 version that's published on the Agricultural Justice Project website in both English and Spanish. Also on that website are materials that would help farmers come into compliance with these food justice regulations. So farms can be certified for justice—and so can other businesses. Not very many have done that, although a lot of farmers have used the materials to improve their labor policy.

And so there are a few different components of the project, including a toolkit for farmers?



Right, the toolkit has all kinds of materials on what's legal, how to go beyond what's legal, in terms of labor conditions, being sure that you have a good conflict resolution policy so that everyone knows what to do if they have a grievance and that can be followed in a fair way. There are materials like that that are available to every farmer whether they decide to go for a Food Justice Certification or not.

What are some of the specific practices that a firm would have to follow in order to qualify for the Food Justice Certification?



In order to qualify a farm has to be paying living wages to the people who work on the farm. Or if they cannot afford to pay living wages yet, they have to share their farm financial information with the people who are working there and together work on a plan to get to living wages for everybody. That's one of the central standards.

Aside from living wages, are there any other requirements in terms of working conditions, hours, overtime, etc., that have found their way into this certification as well?



That’s what the standards are about. They're fairly detailed, like 35 pages of standards that relate to hours, benefits, housing condition, working conditions for children. Under our standards, you're not allowed to have children under 16 work full time on a farm—they can only work full time from 16-18 years of years of age if they are not in school and have deliberately given up the opportunity to finish their education. So basically, there's no child labor except for part-time child labor.


Benefits have to be all of the legal benefits—you have to meet whatever the law is in your state. So, workers compensation, unemployment insurance, time and a half—farms have to have a plan for getting to the point of being able to pay time and a half for overtime over 48 hour—but it's not a requirement to pay time and a half because hardly any farms in the country do it.

You've characterized the sort of foundational problem as being low prices, which seems like a pretty systemic challenge. I'm wondering, is it financially viable for a lot of these farms to pay living wages? Is there a concern about these farms going out of business if they are trying to raise wages? And how do they go about navigating that in terms of existing within this larger system that is constraining them?



One of the reasons that not many have been certified for Food Justice is that it is really a challenge. The farms that are able to pay a living wage—and a living wage is not a high wage, it's a wage that allows you to rent an apartment, have enough food to eat, have a vehicle to get to work, send your kids to school, it's not luxury wages—farms that really make that a central focus and one of the most important things that they're doing, are able to do it. Any number of the farmers that are meeting that standard—and I've visited really extraordinary organic farms where they are paying full wages and have very fair and good working conditions, those farms aren't necessarily certified because they have undocumented workers and they want to pass under the radar, and not call too much attention to their workers. So, there are farms for which it is possible.  It has to be as important to the farmer as using the best organic practices.

What makes it so that some farms are able to make it work? Have you had experiences where there are farms that want to do this, but then they just look at the numbers and it's just not gonna be viable for them?



Yes, I've talked to farmers who are struggling and there's just no way they can get that extra ten, fifteen cents an hour to make it to $15/hr in wages because of the prices that they're getting.

What, in your opinion, allows for some farms to be able to do it and some not? Just practically speaking, in a concrete way, what are some farms doing right that they're able to actually make this happen practically?



I think the farms that are Food Justice certified have been certified for a long time. Swanton Berry Farm, in California, Jim Cochran, who is the farmer there, also has his farm unionized by the United Farm Workers. For Jim, those justice issues are just top priority and he has been willing to sacrifice himself, as far as how much money is taken out of the farm, in order to pay decent wages for those who work there. Two of the other farms that are Food Justice certified are also farms that do a lot of teaching and organizing. So, that plays a factor as well, that they have additional sources of funding besides just selling the food that they grow.

Are any Hudson Valley farms that are Food Justice certified?



No, there are a couple of farms that have used a lot of our materials, who meet our standards, but who have undocumented workers and so are not willing to.

So there are some that you're aware of that would fit the standards and would otherwise potentially be candidates, it's just that they're not interested in the exposure that might lead to problems for some of their workers?



That's right. There is a farm that is in the process of applying, Rock Steady Farm and Flowers in Millerton, NY.

You've spoken about the incentive for becoming certified coming from farmers or farms who already have a somewhat progressive mindset, but it also sounds like there is a consumer-driven aspect to it. For example, people pay more for organic because it's got the organic label. So is part of the incentive for the Food Justice Certification that consumers are going to be willing to potentially pay more for a product that has the certification?



According to a survey done by Consumer Union, a fairly large percentage of consumers would be willing to pay a higher price for farms that were treating their workers well. But it's been very hard to find a market where that actually happens—there are very few instances in which you can find markets that are willing to do that.


For example, when Whole Foods was doing their "Responsibly Grown" program and their highest level of classification for farms was organic and fair traded, Whole Foods was not willing to pay an extra penny for farmers using those higher standards. The only business that I know of that has shelled out some money to help farmers make better conditions for their workers has been Ben & Jerry's, with their "Milk for Dignity" program.

That's the program that Migrant Justice is involved with?



Yes, Migrant Justice and Ben & Jerry's agreed to a contract for Milk with Dignity and Ben & Jerry's actually pays the farms that supply them some extra funds so that the farms can improve the living and working conditions for people who work on the farm. And the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, with their Fair Food Program, have forced some of the biggest farms in Florida out of the cesspool they were wallowing in where they underpaid and mistreated their workers really just horribly. But the Coalition of Immokalee Workers agreement doesn't call for living wages, it just calls for getting people paid for all of the hours that they work—and ending sexual harassment and trafficking. It's considered a major accomplishment.


The other important thing about the Food Justice standards is farm workers cannot be exposed to toxic materials without proper protection. In the process of developing these standards, Food Justice was involved in two national meetings with farm worker organizations that were held over the past 10 years to discuss farm workers and fair trade. And what the farm workers agreed upon was that one of the most unfair things that happens to farm workers is that they're exposed to toxic materials. Not just the farm worker, but the farm worker's entire family, if they bring home clothes that have pesticides on them.


So Food Justice Certification is really an example of domestic fair trade, and I think it's important when talking about fair trade to understand that there is no international agreement about what is "fair" in fair trade. When we talk about organic certification, other people all over the world who are certifying farms as organic agree on what they are certifying. It's the practices that are used on the farm, the exclusion of materials that are considered toxic or not sustainable. And everybody kind of knows what is being covered. But in fair trade, some of the fair trade programs mean that the farmer is getting a fair price, most of the international fair trade is of that kind. They're certifying cooperatives, so very small farms and paying those farms a better price for the product than in the conventional market. Some fair trade programs also include labor standards for the people who work on farms, but not all of them. So Fair Trade USA does have a labor standard, but those standards were not developed in a stakeholder process like how Food Justice certification is. Our standards were worked out by farmers and farm workers, and then we have standards for storage and manufacturers—and people who actually work in those situations participated in the writing of the standards. But for Fair Trade USA, those standards are written by professional standard writers.

So Food Justice incorporates much more of a multi-stakeholder approach.



That's right.

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