Boots on the Ground: Gathering Data from Cow Pastures and Raspberry Fields

This is the this is the fourth 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 Carolina Fojo

Part I: Cow Poop

Last week, while on the road gathering data on sustainable agriculture and labor practices, I was having a chat with a Minnesotan grass-fed beef farmer about water contamination. As he extolled the virtues of pasture-raised cattle, I asked him if grass fed cows’ poop getting into water is really any better than CAFO cow poop getting into water: “I mean, poop is poop, right?” He paused, and then coolly replied, “Well actually, poop is not poop.” (He then went on to explain about how the health of the cows impacts the “health” of the cow poop which in turn impacts the health of the waterway being contaminated…)

So poop, apparently, isn’t poop. Oh, learning.

Part II: A Mission

Despite what it may seem, my reason for visiting this grass-fed beef farm was not purely out of a passion I have for discussing manure—I was collecting data for a survey. My current mission for Bon Appétit Management Company is to create a list of questions (a survey) about the sustainability of agricultural and labor practices in the company’s supply chain. I am doing this by asking farmers and farmworkers about (a) agricultural practices at the farm level and (b) how farm workers are treated. My hope is to use this information to help create a more socially just food system. (Hey, dream big I say!)

Shockingly, however, this process has been a bit more challenging than expected…

Part III: “Bastante Tiempo”— To Farmworkers Time is Money

There’s a lot tangled up in this whole “get in, get the info, get it accurately, and GET OUT” business. To use the old adage, time is money. And taking time away from farmers and farm workers to speak with them has the potential to translate into them literally making less money.

During last week’s test run with our most current version of the survey, one worker politely informed me that the questions took “bastante tiempo” (“a lot of time,” read: too much time). Especially if workers are getting paid by the piece, talking to us can literally mean that they make less money for the day. And if they’re already getting paid meager amounts, those 50 tomatoes not picked, or those 15 minutes docked from their pay, could make a significant difference to the day’s wages. But is it really possible, in only 10 or 15 minutes, to understand a worker’s experience, and whether or not they are being treated unfairly?

To say the least, it’s distressing that creating better conditions for workers will be a struggle due to the realities of those very conditions we want to change.

Part IV: Varietal Farmers, Standard Survey

Another challenge has been factoring in both small farms and big farms, conventional and organic farms, farmers who will be honest and farmers who might hide the truth, and combining them all into one pretty, neat, amassable survey.

For example—we have placed a lot of emphasis on the Latino/migrant/hourly worker; however, the issues they deal with are perhaps different than those of say, a college student working as an intern on an organic farm. So what do we do? Do we say: “If you’re US-born we ask you these questions and if you’re Latino or otherwise foreign we ask you those?” Do we just ask everyone the same questions regardless of relevance and call it a day?

With regards to farmers, we expect/hope that most will be honest with us, but not every business wishes to make all of its operating practices entirely public, and I’d be naive to think it’s any different in the farming world. So, how do you differentiate between those who are completely upfront and those who aren’t, and what do you do if/when concealment happens?

Part V: Ah, questions

“A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than knowledge that is idle.”

-Kahlil Gibran

The questions will keep coming, I’m sure. But for now I guess I’ll just have to put my trust in Kahlil Gibran, and keep on truckin’.

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