This post is part of a series on the business of sustainable agriculture by the folks at Bon Appétit Management Company, a company that provides café and catering services to corporations, colleges and universities. To read the earlier posts, click here.
By Bon Appétit East Coast Fellow Carolina Fojo
Sample interview with a farmworker on a small, East Coast farm, Spring 2010:
Interviewer: Are workers on this farm treated fairly and with respect?
Interviewer: How comfortable are you voicing a complaint [that you have about the farm to your boss]?
Farmworker: (A quizzical look suggesting “why on earth wouldn’t I feel comfortable?”) Very comfortable.
Interviewer: What would make your job better than it is right now?
Farmworker: (A pause and a shrug) Nothing. They give us breaks, they respect us. It’s a very good place to work.
The above excerpt is an example of what many of my recent interviews with farmworkers have sounded like. Over the last few months, the other Bon Appétit Management Company Fellows and I have been driving around the country, visiting small farms in Bon Appétit’s supply chain. Our goal: to gain a better understanding of what creates good labor conditions on farms. So, we’ve been speaking to farmers and farmworkers alike—asking them about the characteristics of daily labor on their farms, and what they think works well (or doesn’t work well). And though it’s still too early to publish any official results, I’d like to call out a pattern that is beginning to emerge: Small things can go a long way.
It’s interesting that, often when I get responses like the ones outlined above, they’re coming from farmworkers who work on farms, which, at first glance, aren’t doing anything all that revolutionary. These are small, family-operated farms which aren’t necessarily paying their workers overtime, (oftentimes they can’t afford to), nor are they giving them bonuses. They don’t have any formal policies regarding on-farm treatment or worker’s rights (though, thus far, all farms I’ve visited have paid their workers at least the minimum wage) and yet, the workers seem genuinely happy.
So what gives?
“It may be simple, but I just try to live by the golden rule.” That’s the answer I most often get when I ask farmers what they think creates good working conditions on their farms. And when I dig a little deeper, I often find that this philosophy of “living by the golden rule” can manifest itself in a variety of small, simple ways. One farmer makes sure to stay at work all day—he’s the first to arrive, and doesn’t go home until his last farmhand has finished and left. Another farmer has his hands in every aspect of his farm—there’s not a job he asks his workers to do that he doesn’t do himself. Yet another farmer provides free coffee and cookies for his workers during their break time. Though such gestures may seem insignificant, these are the farmers whose workers have had only positive things to say about their jobs.
This concept of small things making a big difference can apply not just to people, but to animals as well. During a recent visit to a free-range turkey farm, I learned that playtime is important —for all species! Apparently the turkeys love nothing more than scampering through the cornfields exploring and pecking at scattered corn kernels on the ground. And the employees who work on the farm get their playtime too—one Friday afternoon last year, the farm cleared some space, laid out row upon row of plywood platforms, and hosted a giant cornhole tournament. (For all you non-Midwesterners, it’s basically a huge game of bean bag toss). Everyone on the farm—managers, hourly workers, and the farm owners—spent the afternoon throwing beanbags at wooden boards, competing against each other in the impromptu tournament. It was such a success that the farm later repeated the idea, but in the form of a H.O.R.S.E. tournament, which they affectionately referred to as a “pavo” Tournament, since pavo is Spanish for “turkey.”
Of course, cornhole and pavo tournaments can’t solve all farm labor issues. When it comes down to it, there are still farmworkers across this country who are not getting paid a living wage (arguably, that’s the case for most farmworkers in this country), farmworkers who are not viewed or treated as human beings, and even farmworkers who are enslaved. And those issues run deeper, and are more complex than a farmer simply making the commitment to live by the golden rule. The issues also can differ between small, family-operated farms (which I have been visiting), and large, industrialized farms (which I have not been visiting)…in short, the matter of farm labor ain’t no simple thing. That said, I think it’s important not to discount the role that small efforts can play in creating a respectful, open, and dignified work environment. Small efforts can’t solve all the large problems of farm labor, but I do believe that for farmworkers, sometimes, it is in fact the little things that count.