News From the Farm | October 17, 2016

Seasonality is a characteristic of agriculture.  Some seasons are busy, others less so. Busy times mean more employees — and less busy times – well, seasonality in farming is why it has always been hard for farm workers to find year-round steady work. Most people still think of farm workers as migrants, moving from one part of the country to the next, following the harvest as crops mature. For migrant farm workers from time immemorial, there have always been periods of time when work is scarce. This is unlike almost any other profession.  Sure, teachers have traditionally had time off in the summer.  Landscaping and construction are also kind-of seasonal.  But I think not to the extent that is built into the very nature of farming.  Harvest time is fraught with urgency — the crop must be in the barn and out of the rain, or at the processing plant and out of the field, in a short window of time, or it will be lost. All the effort of keeping the crop safe, growing it from a seed to a grain, or from a bud to a fruit, can be for naught, if the harvest fails for one reason or another.  

That popular conception, of farm workers as migrants, isn’t in fact, accurate any more.  The number of farm workers who migrate within the US has fallen by 60% since the 1990’s, just as migration back and forth from Mexico has fallen.  Now, as documented by agricultural economists, only a small percentage of farm workers migrate within the U.S. and this is true for both undocumented and documented workers, and in all areas of the country, in all demographic groups. There are several reasons for these changes at the macro level, and one is that the agricultural workforce is now older, and more experienced in farm work.  Workers are more likely to be married and living with their families, with kids in school, and a car in the garage. As farm working immigrants put roots down in their new communities, they are less willing to migrate.  Another important part of the changing picture has to do with immigration policy. While there are still workers moving in and out of the country from Mexico and Central America, that flow has diminished.  In our Capay Valley, we have seen all of these factors at work.

It has always been an important principal at Full Belly Farm to provide year-round employment for a core group of employees.  In our climate we can grow broccoli, carrots and greens in the cold season, from November through April, keeping our staff working, although with only 5 instead of 6 days per week in January, growing to 10 instead of 8 hours per day in June. Come Spring, the work-to-be-done skyrockets, and we need all hands on deck, planting, weeding, trellising, harvesting and taking care of the high-value crops that are the farm’s sustenance. But even though our labor needs go down in the cold season, we have been able to provide year-round work for a group of core employees.

I looked at the trends from the past ten years of Full Belly labor records and noticed that there has been a steady, slow increase over the years in the number of people that we have on payroll in January.  These are the core employees that stay through the winter, and their numbers have grown as the farm has grown.  But every year, we prepare for the summer, starting in April, by bringing on new employees, and we have had a harder and harder time doing so in the last few years. We always hire on some summer high school students that can work a few days a week, but the full-time workers that we need to help us in the busy and critically important summer season, have been harder and harder to find. This means that fields and crops are left untended. I compared two years: 2011 and 2016, and noticed that we have actually been adding fewer people to our staff each year, and that certainly hasn’t been because we haven’t tried. These are trends for us to ponder, because the ag economists are saying that they aren’t going to change.

Of course, we would like to even out the seasonal changes in our labor needs, just keeping the core group of workers, without having to hire on additional summer help. But that is a wish that flies in the face of agricultural reality.  We add additional people to our staff because there is work to be done from daylight to ‘dark-thirty’ (a term that we use in the summertime when we find ourselves loading trucks and printing invoices when we should be getting ready for bed). For example, in 2011 our employees worked almost twice as many hours (total, for the whole crew) in June as they did in January.  In 2016, even though our workforce didn’t increase proportionately, the total employee-hours worked in June was almost 2- 1/2 times more than in January.  That’s what “seasonal” means at ground zero! The number of hours in a week gets stretched to capacity, farther than you thought was possible.

We would like our community to understand some of these farm realities. Sometimes you might hear farmers saying that they think agriculture is ‘different’ from other industries.  This seasonality in labor need is one of the differences. There aren’t as many farmers now as there used to be, so the urgency of bringing in the harvest and the need for additional labor at that time, is no longer a shared responsibility.  But growing fresh fruits and vegetables, bringing them to local markets, providing nutritious food — what is the measure of the value of these activities?  Each farm will face these challenges alone, and find solutions (or not) that work for their unique conditions. The question that remains, for policy makers and for communities that value local food, is do we value our local farms enough to share the challenges and find solutions together? Of course, we are hoping that the answer is yes!  Let us know your thoughts.

— Judith Redmond