This is the fifth 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 past posts, click here.
By Dayna Burtness
Farms never cease to amaze me. Besides my grandparents’ corn and soybean farm, the first farm I ever visited was a tiny place nestled in the woods of northern Minnesota when I was 18. Goats with strange golden eyes wandered up to the fence, hoop houses sheltered mysterious vines, and every square foot was either full of growing things in every shade of green or tools jury-rigged with duct tape and wire. From the moment I arrived I was hooked on the scrappy energy of the place.
Now I’m 24 and have visited plenty of farm operations large and small, but I still get that same buzz when I spot a chicken coop made from salvaged wood and spare parts. Part of my fellowship for Bon Appétit Management Company is to survey local farms in our supply chain about their farming and labor practices, so after spending two weeks visiting farms in southern Minnesota and the Maryland-Pennsylvania area I had plenty to be buzzed about.
Over the course of two weeks, my colleague Carolina Fojo and I visited four very different farms and one growers’ cooperative. For me, the most interesting farm visit was the Open Hands Farm. This four year old farm is a small but growing Community Supported Agriculture farm near Northfield, Minn. Erin Johnson and Ben Doherty, the owners of Open Hands, farm six acres and feed about 70 families through their CSA shares with the help of their farm dog, Cody. Another 3,000 or so college kids get to enjoy their produce in the Bon Appétit café at St. Olaf College, which buys about 30 percent of the farm’s produce throughout the season. Ben and Erin use organic practices but haven’t needed the certification because since their CSA customers pick up produce right on the farm, they figure they have 70+ customer- and chef-inspectors every week, so why pay for a certifier to visit?
While conducting the farm survey we skipped most of the section on labor because they don’t have any employees. However, they’re debating about whether to hire help next season as the farm expands – probably a young aspiring farmer who is willing to intern. Most of the conversation revolved around fair pay. Ben and Erin are both highly justice-oriented people (as are many owners of small farms), so they were agonizing over the tension between the average pay that interns usually receive and what they felt right about paying. On the one hand, a farmer can put a lot of work into educating an intern. However, most interns want to start their own farm someday, but how can they save when making $500 a month? Ben and Erin started their farming careers as interns and have firsthand experience in how difficult it is to land an internship that enables a young farmer to save for anything, let alone a farm.
Between checking out their chickens and surveying the 8,000 pounds of winter squash in their hoop house, it occurred to me that we can’t get a good picture of the labor situation on a farm without knowing how the owners’ finances are faring. Are farmers like other small business owners–often known to pay themselves last? Or are workers the ones who get shorted when a crop fails? And what about health insurance? In Ben and Erin’s case, after four years their farm sales have finally reached the point where they can afford health insurance, but it’s only for catastrophic emergencies or illnesses.
I bet most farmers like Ben and Erin want to pay everyone well and offer health insurance, but are small-scale farmers making enough money to pay themselves? Off to more farm visits to find out…