Organic harvest

Better for farm workers

Sound Consumer | September 2005

by Cameron Woodworth

In honor of September as organic harvest month, we salute the people who harvest our food and the growers who make life in the fields better.

(September 2005) — Many of us have long believed that organic food is excellent for our health as well as for the environment. But there are many less obvious benefits to supporting organic agriculture. Chief among these is the positive impact organic food can have on the lives of farm workers.

It’s largely a hidden benefit, that millions of farm workers around the nation will reduce their risk for short- and long-term illnesses because they work in organic fields, instead of working closely with pesticides on chemically farmed land.

Historically, farm workers endure difficult and challenging working conditions. The majority are illegal immigrants. Many don’t speak English, fear being deported, and are vulnerable to exploitation. Migrant farm workers often live in sheds, dilapidated trailers or motels, with many people sharing a single room, and typically earn less than $8,000 per year.

Supporting organic agriculture is essential to creating improved working conditions for farm workers. Organic growers are often innovators not only when it comes to finding ways to work better with the land but also in finding ways to treat farm workers better. PCC works with a number of organic farmers who pay their workers more than the industry norm, work side by side with their workers, and offer better housing than is typical.

Despite the best intentions of these organic growers, some observers want the organic movement to do much more for farm workers and create a truly sustainable and socially just system. As the organic market continues to grow, there’s a growing debate over whether to incorporate social issues, such as quality of life for farm workers, into organic standards and certification requirements.

The organic difference
It’s arguable that organic farming already is having a most positive impact on the lives of farm workers by eliminating use of highly toxic chemicals.

Effects of pesticide exposure from chemically farmed land may be acute or chronic. In the short-term, workers may suffer flu-like symptoms or headaches. Chronic health effects may include increased risk of cancer or reduced fertility. Their children are especially at risk for birth defects and neurological learning disorders.

Juan Rios, a farm worker who handles pesticides in vineyards, was instrumental in bringing about a monitoring program to test workers for pesticide exposure in Washington state by filing a lawsuit. He used to get sick from handling the pesticides, suffering pains and dizziness.

“I remember the first time I worked with pesticides, I was wearing a full mask while we were spraying, but it filled with blood; my nose, it wouldn’t stop bleeding. I was worried,” he told environmental writer Rebecca Clarren. “I went to the doctor but he didn’t give me anything. He just told me to stop working with the pesticides.”

“I know the only way things will change is if I stop working in the fields,” he adds. “But agriculture is such a huge force here. There really are no other options.”

More than 100,000 migrant and seasonal farm workers plant, nurture, harvest and otherwise work on farms in Washington state, according to the Seattle-based Farm Worker Pesticide Project (FWPP). An estimated 1.3 million children of farm workers or farmers live on or near farms in the United States.

For safer working conditions for farm workers and their children, the more organic farms, the better. The FWPP, the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network, the Washington Toxics Coalition, PCC Natural Markets and other groups would like to see Washington state phase out the most dangerous pesticides.

“As a community, we need to say this is absolutely unacceptable, what is happening to these farmworkers and especially what is happening to their children,” says Carol Dansereau, executive director of the FWPP. “It wouldn’t be tolerated in any other community or workplace. It’s a huge problem, and most people don’t know very much about it. These farmworkers and their families are largely invisible to most of us.”

Working conditions
Yet while organic standards forbid toxic, synthetic pesticides and provide that measure of relief for farm workers, the standards do not address workplace conditions. Goldie Caughlan, PCC nutrition education manager and a consumer representative on the National Organic Standards Board, explains why.

“There’s just no foundation for it, although my heart wants it to be,” says Caughlan. “The truth is that it’s beyond the authority of the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA), passed in 1990. According to the government, organic is a marketing program. It’s doubtful that the organic standards ever would have passed through Congress if workers’ right were included. It’s not a pleasant thing to think about. Could it be in the future? It’s possible, but it would mean going back to Congress and opening up OFPA again.”

Researchers at the University of California at Davis conducted a survey of 188 organic farmers last year to explore their thoughts about incorporating social standards into organic criteria. The results showed growers agreed philosophically that farm workers should have fair and healthy working conditions, but they disagreed that organic certification is the best way to ensure protections.

Gail Feenstra, a food systems analyst with the University of California’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) and a co-author of the study, explained the economic reality. “We found that even though organic products often bring higher prices, in most cases it doesn’t make enough for small and mid-sized farmers to be ‘socially sustainable.’ Organic growers themselves may not have health insurance and often can’t pay for worker insurance.”

Nonetheless, the SAREP study found more than a third of the organic growers provide either health or dental insurance, paid vacation or sick leave. The study also found a number of important examples “where organic systems can be environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.” Research into these models continues.

It’s worth noting that Oregon and Washington have the highest minimum wage in the country. “So, when farmers like Harmon and Noreane Walker of the Pride of the Umpqua Farm make a conscious move to compensate their workers above minimum wage — in an industry where that is not the standard — that is really something to honor,” says Natasha Spoden, of the Organically Grown Company, a key supplier to PCC.

Noreane proudly says she and Harmon have “no turnover” within their seasonal workforce, that “mutual respect” is key to their relationship with crew. As Noreane puts it, “Harmon doesn’t ask his workers to do anything he wouldn’t or doesn’t do.” You’ll find Harmon and Noreane’s delicious organic red and gold slicing and cherry tomatoes at all PCC stores this month with the Pride of the Umpqua, Ladybug label.

A number of other growers that PCC works with also are finding innovative ways to make a difference in the quality of life of their workers. The Inaba family farm in Northeast Washington diversified its crop mix to extend the growing season to provide a longer term of steady employment for workers. The Inaba farm also is one of the few that provides housing for seasonal workers. “People are amazed at how nice it is,” says Lon Inaba, the operations manager.

Apple and George Otte grow huge, crisp Lapin cherries for PCC, as well as apples and pears, but they once were pickers themselves. “We tend to pay as much or more than most orchardists,” says Apple, “because George was employed for so long as a picker and he knows it’s hard work. Also, we believe if you treat people fairly, they’ll do a good job. Working with PCC has enabled us to pay workers more so they can survive and want to come back. Workers like working on organic farms for health reasons, too.”

When Scott Leach’s apple and pear orchards were devastated during a freak hailstorm in 2002, he took a job off the farm so there would be more work hours available for his farm workers. “When you ask people to grow and build something with you, you can’t let them down,” he says. One person has been at Leach’s farm on salary year-round for 25 years. Another person is full-time in season. His workers tend to be part of the community, bucking the historical trend.

When he was young, Leach says farm workers came from Arkansas or Oklahoma. Later, as those people acquired farms, workers came from Mexico. As they went on to other work or got their own farms, workers then came from South America. Recently, Leach has heard contractors talk about bringing workers in from Thailand. He notes that the United States always has relied on workers from poorer nations, whether for railroads or tobacco farms.

The cost of cheap food
The issue certainly stems from the intense pressure to provide Americans with cheap food. American consumers on average pay only 10 percent of their income for food annually, the lowest among industrialized nations (Finland is next at 16 percent). Organic farmers, to stay in business, need to remain competitive in a fiercely brutal marketplace. Whether or not they sell their produce often comes down to one penny per box, higher or lower than other growers.

As a result, growers cut costs to remain competitive and farm workers, especially seasonal workers, are a variable. This puts the issue of poorly paid farm workers right at the consumer’s plate. American consumers also should be aware that the United States is projected in 2005 to import more food than it exports for the first time since 1959, meaning our growers are competing against cheap foreign labor.

In fact, the most ambitious efforts to support farm workers are in the international organic community, including several U.S. groups. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), with 750 member organizations in 108 countries, has adopted a new chapter on social justice for its Basic Standards.

The SAREP study draws an inescapable conclusion. It says, “We suggest that to create production conditions that are favorable to a broader conception of social justice, change is needed in the entire food system, not just at the point of production.”

“We need to address labor, packaging, shipping,” says Creek Hull, program coordinator of the Ecological Farming Association in Watsonville, Calif. “The whole conversation is expanding as people realize that there’s more to address than just the pesticide issue because the industry is growing astronomically.”

As consumers, choosing organic foods is nonetheless a key part of the solution. In this organic harvest month, we can celebrate that our purchasing choices are having a positive impact on farm workers. A full 90 percent of PCC’s produce offering is now organic. Organic choices mean healthier fields for healthier worker families. We’re also encouraged by what organic farmers are doing to extend the growing season, provide decent housing, and pay a fair wage.

Dansereau hopes that Sound Consumer readers who are involved in food and environmental issues will invite farm workers to participate in regional events. Farm workers need to have more of a voice, she says. “We want to build bridges with the sustainable agriculture community.”

Sound Consumer will continue discussion of fair labor practices, beyond organic, in October’s cover story.

Navigation