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Union labor on the farm

Barriers and solutions to organic farms using union labor

Farmworkers in Salinas
Farmworkers who organize have a hard row to hoe

By Erin Volheim

One of the successful campaigns of the legendary Cesar Chavez and the UFW movement was the banning of the short-handled hoe. Its use exacerbated the backbreaking conditions of farm work. Today commercial organic farms have the option of using a long-handled hoe, hand weeding, mowing, torching or synthetic sheet mulching. Smaller farms can also integrate green mulching, weeder geese and grazing.

For a small scale organic farmer all of these options are expensive when it comes to paid labor. In the U.S., organic vegetable growers can spend about $1,000 per acre to remove weeds with hoes and hand weeding, compared to $50 per acre by conventional growers who use herbicides. The labor costs for either side don’t include paying farm workers a living wage, health insurance, retirement plans, etc. Unfortunately, these benefits are also a rarity for any small scale organic family farm.

Families own and operate most farms in Oregon. About 85 percent of farms are sole proprietorships, seven percent partnerships, and six percent corporations (many family owned). Farmers are getting older, and few young people are choosing farming. The average age of domestic farmers is 53 years, the highest since records were kept. Meanwhile, there is an average of 115,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their families (60,000) in Oregon annually. The majority of this workforce are Latino males who earn an average of $7,500 annually while bringing in three billion dollars of economic activity to Oregon every year.

In 2003, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) adopted a new chapter on social justice for its basic standards. Today there appears to be stronger interest in making a clear link between social justice and organic agriculture at this international level. Central to social certification programs in agriculture are criteria aimed at ensuring the working conditions for hired labor are fair, safe, healthy and equitable. A 2005 UC-Berkeley study found that a “common misperception among farmers and consumers is that organic certification already addresses working conditions for farmworkers, and that because organic agriculture rules forbid many toxic pesticides, it is often assumed that organic is “better” for farm workers than conventional agriculture. However, national organic standards do not include criteria for workplace conditions.”

The study also found little support from organic farmers for adding social certification standards to the current organic certification requirements. More than half of the respondents were opposed to this proposal. United Farm Worker’s spokesperson Mark Grossman states that “There’s a common conventional wisdom by a lot of consumers, especially at the higher-end stores, that just because it’s organic the workers are treated better. And that’s simply not true.” Primarily the reason for this, at least among smaller family farms, is not lack of social concern but lack of economic flexibility in a risky business where crops can fail. Small organic family farms are already suffering from the competition with corporate farms and their organic imports from countries where labor is desperately cheap. The majority of organic farmers I personally know either work from dawn to dusk during the growing season, or have additional sources of income.

To bridge the great divide between social conscience and economic reality, those few Oregon organic farmers who have committed to improving the situation for farm workers have had to be patiently creative.

Dave Eskeldon of Egor’s Acres could be the poster child for a future domestic fair trade label in organic agriculture. In 1991, he started farming after 25 years as a school teacher. Two years later he was certified organic by OTCO, and then it took another seven years for him to work his farm to an economically viable situation (using his retirement income as a fallback), so that by 2001 he could commit to a union contract with Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, (PCUN- Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United). They are the first union formed explicitly to protect immigrant agricultural workers in Oregon. PCUN began in 1985 in Woodburn with 80 members and now includes more than 5,000 registered members.

PCUN won their first bargaining agreement with Nature’s Fountain Farm in 1998 which continued until 2005. Egor’s Acres is now the longest active contract with PCUN along with newer contracts with Tinseldown Acres in Scio and Praying Mantis Farms in Woodburn. There are three more organic farms in the process of creating labor contracts with PCUN. PCUN also has one contract with a conventional strawberry grower Garcia Farms in Wallowa, which does not use dangerous chemicals like methyl bromide.

Eskeldon and Ramon Ramirez, President of PCUN, both speak highly of their working relationship. PCUN has taken on the extra effort of being a marketing resource for Egor’s Acres. Through their work they helped Eskeldon expand his business by facilitating a regular account with Willamette University’s “Bon Appetit” food service. In addition, for the last several years PCUN has marketed his corn, cucumbers and strawberries to their union contacts and supporters like the Ecumenical Ministries or the AFL-CIO. They also have been “very understanding,” at one point the workers wanted a 25 cent raise, and Eskeldon agreed, if it was timed with the corn harvest. Communication balancing workers’ and the farmers’ needs is important.

This is just one of the services PCUN provides for the farmer and the farmworkers. “We also help a farmer stabilize his workforce with skilled union members,” says Ramirez. In a time when a conservative immigration climate has reduced the migrant farming workforce and most U.S. citizens are not taking up farming as an occupation this is a great resource. PCUN does the hiring and dispatches the workers, meanwhile providing communication services and attending to union members needs.

Eskeldon stressed the fact that a farm worker is a “skilled individual,” so using another innovation, a labor sharing agreement with neighboring Tinseldown Acres, he is able to annually employ four workers at $11-$15 and next year he might add three more. This not only provides full-time employment but also saves the farmer money and time lost in retraining new individuals every year. “I’ve found now that I can also better plan the farm’s labor needs and organize the work year, so that everyone is guaranteed regular work during the season”
In 2005, the California Institute for Rural Studies commissioned a study on the “Best Labor Management Practices on Twelve California Farms.” All of the farms were certified organic. The research findings indicate that good farm labor conditions are a win-win situation for farmers, farmworkers and agricultural communities. The practices they recommended are: respectful treatment; slower pace of work (less injuries and greater worker happiness); fair compensation (through wages and other forms of supplementing incomes); year-round employment; health insurance; personal loans; food from the farm (one farm provides weekly produce boxes); healthy and safe work environment; paid time off; flexible work schedule; housing; opportunities for advancement and professional development; diversity of tasks; involvement in decision-making processes and clear and effective grievance procedures.
In addition to being “the right thing to do,” good farm labor conditions result in numerous benefits for farm operations. Many of the farms in their sample obtained price premiums by delivering extremely high quality produce, which requires a skilled, knowledgeable and committed workforce. There was also a significant reduction in training and management costs, reduced accidents and lower workers’ compensation rates.

It is safe to say that the farmers in their sample were primarily motivated by a strong sense of social justice which organic farmers like Eskeldon share. Overall, the study found that this was based on a “deep respect for the essential role workers play on their farms and the belief that they should be treated well and fairly compensated.” If you are an organic farmer interested in making this belief a reality on your farm, please contact Ramon Ramirez at (503) 989-0073.

Erin Volheim writes and gardens in the Little Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon.

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