Here, you can pick that strawberry right off the plant and eat it,” Adelfo Antonio told the Guardian. He has worked these fields for 20 years, the last five as a supervisor. His high regard for his job and employers is apparent. As we talked, he kept at least one eye fixed on his coworkers, who stretched plastic sheets across the dirt of the field to protect their rows of seed from the coming autumn winds.
Antonio said he appreciates the culture of mutual respect on this farm. “People like how they are treated here. When conflicts come up, our management is open to working through them,” he said. A few minutes later, a break was called, illustrating his point. There had been some disruptive behavior in the company housing and a discussion ensued between the crew and one of the farm’s owners about house rules. The group formulated a plan to avoid trouble in the future.
But Swanton’s egalitarian fields are the exception among American organic farms. The average salary of the estimated 900,000 farm workers in California — the birthplace of the organic and farm labor movements in the U.S. — is around $8,500, more than $2,000 below the federal poverty line.
In 2006, the California Institute for Rural Studies put out a rare study of working conditions on the state’s 2,176 organic farms that suggested that in some respects, workers are better off on conventional farms. Although the average wage was higher on organic fields — $8.20 for entry-level work, compared with $7.91 on conventional farms — traditional agriculture outstripped organic on certain employee benefits. A mere 36 percent of organic businesses were found to provide health insurance to their employees, as opposed to 46 percent on conventional farms.
Unable to rely on chemicals for pest control, organic farms often face higher labor costs in the fields. “Wages and benefits should always be viewed in the wider context of sustainability, and that includes a farm’s ability to stay in business from one year to the next, i.e. its profitability,” said Jane Baker, a spokesperson for California Certified Organic Farmers, the state’s major organic certification agency.
The inequity faced by farm workers belies the fact that the organic movement began as an alternative to the industrialized food system. “Back then, we never would have imagined that you’d be buying an organic product that was built on the backs of workers. For us, social justice was every bit as important as the environmental part,” said Marty Mesh, an organic farmer since 1973 and executive director of Florida Certified Organic Growers & Consumers.
Mesh was involved in the debates over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s first codification of the National Organic Program. He said that although many farmers advocated for regulations surrounding working conditions, the federal government found it hard to stomach labor stipulations. Many involved felt their inclusion would hurt the growth of the organic industry. So the social movement aspect of organic farming was left on the cutting room floor.
That has not been the case overseas. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, whose organic label is recognized worldwide, adopted explicit social justice language in its basic standards in 2003, stating in their “Principles of Organic Agriculture” document that “organic agriculture should provide everyone involved with a good quality of life and contribute to ... reduction of poverty.”
CCOF now offers a dual track certification process wherein California farms can forgo specific IFOAM requirements. The lack of guidelines of worker treatment has led to some problems. “We’ve seen many of the same issues on organic farms that we do in conventional agriculture, on small and big farms alike,” Michael Marsh, directing attorney of California Rural Legal Assistance, told us.