This is the this is the third post in a series on the business of sustainable agriculture by the folks at Bon Appétit Management, a company that provides café and catering services to corporations, colleges and universities. To read the earlier posts, click here.
By Dayna Burtness
Since 2005, I’ve spent most of my waking hours either working on farms, managing one, assistant managing a farmers market, or researching the food system at an agricultural think tank. Now I work for a food service company focused on sustainability, and a big part of my job will be visiting farms in our supply chain to assess their labor practices. Despite all the progress we’ve made in sustainable food over the past few years, farm labor is relatively untouched and has far to go. In the dialogue about these issues, it seems like we’re talking about two different worlds, both centered on the people who harvest our food albeit on different scales.
First, there’s the world that Bon Appétit Management Company’s Maisie Greenawalt experienced in her visit to the tomato fields in Immokalee, where migrant farm laborers can endure modern day slavery, sub-standard living conditions, and backbreaking hard work for minimum wage. Despite my 4 years as a farm worker, I didn’t know much about this shameful side of the food system until recently. Maybe it’s a lack of funding, the sensitive political nature of labor, or plain old denial; for whatever reason, many food and farming groups don’t pay as much attention to workers as they do to farm owners and animals.
Then there’s my world of farm workers, where fresh-faced and idealistic twenty-somethings apprentice or intern on small, organic farms to get them started in farming or just to be closer to their food. The long hours and hard work are usually a life experience to blog about and an awakening to a world away from cubicles. Most farmers who accept these interns are incredible role models for young people; I was fortunate to begin my farming career with two of them and I count dozens more as friends and mentors. However, just because farms are small and sometimes organic doesn’t mean we should forget about their workers when it comes to discussing labor issues.
Although it’s not often discussed, there is actually a wide array of experiences that interns and apprentices can have working on farms. I’m lucky; my first experience as a farm worker was ideal. I’ve never heard of a farm with better working conditions. We were paid $700 per month for 50 hour work weeks. I stayed in a bedroom in the farmhouse and had my own bathroom. Morning break, which usually included scones and coffee, was a half hour and then we had an hour for lunch. They even took us out for coffee and treats on rainy days, for crying out loud! Most importantly, the farmers respected me and I was able to voice all concerns without fear.
However, several of my peers have not been so lucky. Their experiences have ranged from tough but understandable situations to downright scary. For instance, hardly any small farms offer their full time laborers health insurance. This is tough since it’s easy to get hurt as a farm worker, but understandable due to astronomical health care costs and the fact that often times the farmers themselves aren’t insured.
Most farm workers employed as interns aren’t paid anything close to minimum wage, but some work 60+ hour weeks for less than $2 per hour, all while living in a tent or trailer and buying the groceries beyond what the farm grows. Margins on produce are low, but I doubt that people striving to buy good food at their farmers market would consider that to be fair.
Those conditions certainly aren’t ideal, but the scary situations are the ones in which workers feel unsafe, threatened, and powerless. Often times farm workers don’t have cars (how could you earning less than minimum wage?) and farms are located far from buslines, so you can imagine how intimidating it might be to be a lone intern stuck somewhere and afraid for your safety. I’ve had friends who have needed to be picked up in the middle of the night from farms because they’ve felt physically threatened by employers.
Let me be clear: the conditions in the tomato fields in Florida (and other large farms across the country) are atrocious and deserve to be the focus of more nonprofits and businesses in the supply chain. However, it’s too easy to think we are buying perfect food when we buy from small, local farms. As we strive to better understand labor issues on farms we need to ensure that the experiences of all farm workers are heard.