News From the Farm | September 5, 2016

It is hard for organic growers to practice sustainable agriculture without advocating better pay for farm workers. The overtime bill (AB1066) currently on the Governor’s desk would mean a pay increase for our workers.  Instead of the current practice of paying overtime after 10 hours, we would pay overtime after 8 hours in the day or 40 hours in the week.

During the busy season, we work 6 days a week and 10-hours a day because things ripen 7 days a week and all day long.  Adding the increased overtime pay to the increase in minimum wage to $15/hour starting in 2017, plus health insurance and its rising bite on our budget, plus labor scarcity – and we see that our model of labor-intensive organic farming is perhaps not sustainable. The added expense of these changes will increase our current labor budget by over 35% annually. Different farmers may react differently. Some will cut hours for their crews, and some will create different 6-hour shifts to fill the days work – which could actually harm fieldworkers, who rely on the long hours of summer when the bulk of their annual income is earned.

That said, in many of the arguments for overtime pay, it is asserted that Ag is doing fine and that growers are exploiting the most under appreciated workforce in the economy. The paradox of California’s Central Valley as one of the world’s richest farm economies is juxtaposed with it also being one of the areas of highest poverty, and this points a finger at agriculture. Perhaps the finger should be pointed more clearly at an economic system that sees labor as an expendable input in the search for cheaper end products and greater profits. In this system, the cheapest producer is often the one who survives and prospers. This reality may not ultimately work for the human and biological systems that underlie food production.

Many farms try to provide good working conditions for their employees, especially now that short supplies of farm labor require that farms keep those employees that they can. California farms, including relatively small farms like Full Belly, are job creators for farm workers and rural dwellers. Many of those farms operate on relatively slim margins. Farms can’t raise prices when they provide better pay to their workers— they live with the social expectation that food needs to be cheap and relatively abundant.  Compartmentalized arguments that separate the costs of taking care of the resources that bring food to our table – including human resources – and paying for the real cost of food, beg for a more thoughtful analysis.

IMG_0941This photo is at the Nugget in Vacaville! Full Belly tomatoes and cherry tomatoes first thing you see when you walk in the door!

Agriculture is a different industry in ways that we don’t appreciate and with which we are loosing context. Summertime harvest of everything from apples to zucchini reflects a reality of season and plant physiology. Harvests are at their peak in the long days of summer, and that reality will not change. Human hands are needed to pick those crops that require a trained eye to choose. We are loosing sight of that seasonal need, and relegate that reality to farmers to figure out, without a society-wide commitment to bring in the harvest and provide the resources to do so.

Farmers adjust to the realities that they are faced with. Many farmers are choosing to move to a completely mechanized form of agriculture so that a few workers can manage hundreds of acres. Labor, as an increasingly scarce resource, is being replaced by capital and technology (a continuing trend that is being amped up with new non-farm capital investing in farmland—largely nut production). Perhaps this is inevitable and some think even desirable.  Yet all ag is not homogenous—Some crops can’t mechanize and robots can’t replace skilled eyes and hands– at least not in the foreseeable future, so that the impacts of AB1066 will inevitably hit some growers harder. There is a 6-year period for farm employers and markets to adjust, and a bit more time for small farmers. This will help, but it may also mean that some crops simply disappear from the California agricultural portfolio.

Shifting increased costs to farmers has been part of a long -term trend.  Labor is in much the same category as farmers. The statistics are telling. There just aren’t very many farmers anymore—less that 1% of the US population produces the bulk of what we expect to fill our grocery store shelves. As a nation we pay less than 7% of our disposable income for food- the lowest of any industrialized country.

That economic reality has been hard on farm workers, rural communities, farmers, farm families and the ecological wellbeing of the rural countryside. The arguments for AB1066 generalize that farmers are doing well, sweeping all into a single bundle. As a small farmer in California’s complex and vast farm economy, I know that generality is simply not true. “Farmers” includes hedge funders, Tech sector types and those with secure, protected incomes.  There are plenty out here on the farm who are hanging on in a very hard business where asking for another 50¢ per bunch is greeted with a sales snub.

There is also a disturbing bias about farm work. It is often seen as menial work, drudgery that should be replaced with technology, the lowest form of employment. The more often that this narrative is repeated, the more the dignity in the real work of growing, caring for, and harvesting our food is discounted. In this discussion about equity, farmers are often seen as being backwards and part of the problem.

We struggled this spring with cheap roma tomatoes being shipped into the area from Mexico, pricing our romas out of the market. There is a huge push in the crowded grocery business to have the cheapest of everything, so the two thousand boxes that we hoped to ship, based on last year’s volume, were priced out of the market. Labor costs to pick and pack are 50% of the price of a box, and if the price is too low, the product is best left unpicked.

Food costs will reflect the cost of labor. If food costs don’t rise, the food will come from regions of the world where the labor costs are low. The more we push agriculture to an industrial model, the more we will have to live with the consequences in terms of water quality, biological diversity, rural community well-being, soil health and food quality. Our discussion of overtime pay should reflect a complex of knots and opportunities where we need a deeper social commitment to building a sustainable food system.

–Paul Muller