$15/Hour Minimum Wage: Disaster or Opportunity for Family-scale Farms?

By Elizabeth Henderson

The growing momentum of the campaign to raise the minimum wage presents those of us who are farming with a serious challenge.  How are we going to respond?

If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation, the $1.60 of 1968 would be $10.96 today, so workers’ demands for raises are getting serious consideration. The fast food workers’ Fight for $15 has pushed the NY Labor Board to back a plan to phase in this new minimum over the next 6 years.

If we want to make real progress towards a more resilient and sustainable food system, we have to do a much better job of linking justice for farm workers and justice for farmers.

To many organic farmers, $15 an hour looks good – as a wage for us farmers, though as employers it puts a lot of strain on our businesses.  The question farmers need to ask is – how do we turn this into an opportunity? Can we inspire a campaign to raise prices for farm products so that we can act in solidarity with other food workers instead of joining the Farm Bureau litany – “this will wreck farming in NYS”?

Elizabeth Henderson

If we want to make real progress towards a more resilient and sustainable food system, we have to do a much better job of linking justice for farm workers and justice for farmers.  It is difficult to make the finances work on a family scale farm.  The number of farms in the US has shrunken by over 4 million during my lifetime.  When we talk about food justice, we are not just talking about something we need to do for others – for exploited farm workers or undocumented dish washers.  Farmers need food justice too.

Would-be farmers need to understand that they will probably spend years as employees – working for other farmers, working as hired farmers.

We need a system that supports fair pricing – remember parity? price supports? a minimum wage for farms?  That ceased to exist in the 1950’s. Farmers should know this history and join in the movement for justice as our own agents.  Once you start to think this way, it is not too hard to see that farmers alone are not going to get very far.  By cooperating and working in solidarity with other food system workers – 17% of the entire work force – there might be a chance to get somewhere.

Most organic farmers I know are painfully aware that the current cheap food system coupled with “Free” Trade makes it difficult to keep family-scale farms afloat. Over the years since WWII, family scale farms have been going out of business at a steady and alarming pace until very recently. In 1943, the year I was born, there were close to 7 million farms.  There are only 2.2 million today. A major squeeze or speed up has been underway in farming that has been especially hard on dairy farms and farms that produce commodity crops.  Rising costs, global warming (droughts, floods) and low prices due to concentration in markets that reduces the number of possible buyers have all contributed to tight budgets for farms.  Prices of commodity crops, especially soybeans, corn, and wheat, have been under pressure because of expansion of large-scale export-oriented farming in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Russia, and Ukraine. Contracts, even those given by organic processors, are poor.  Most small farms are not profitable, and many are in debt. Legal protections that would allow farmers to form associations to negotiate contracts with buyers are weak.

The sustainable agriculture and local foods movements have reversed the downward trend in farm numbers -the number of very small farms is actually growing. Nevertheless, something like 84% of existing farms are in debt.  Prices do not cover farmers’ costs of production.  Many of the farms that do not hire labor do have a family member who works off the farm so that the farmer can have health insurance, send children to college and save for retirement, or the farmer works a regular job and spends evenings and weekends doing farm work.  While there are some outstanding examples of farms without much hired labor that are doing well financially, most of the family scale farms I know are struggling to make ends meet, or are run by people who have chosen to live “simply.”  Often, farmers are so discouraged about the money aspects of their farms that they do not even try to calculate costs accurately.  They farm for the love of it, and either eek out a living that would qualify as below the poverty line or make money doing something else to support their farming habit. Family scale farmers are fragile small businesses, a marginal population in the US and all of North America.

As farm commodity prices fall again, more farms are likely to go under. At the end of August, 2015, the Department of Agriculture predicted that farm incomes will drop to less than half the peak reached two years ago. The USDA projected farm incomes this year will come in at less than $59 billion, down 36 percent from last year and 53 percent from a record high of $123.7 billion two years ago.

By contrast, the organic market is growing quickly, though that does not translate into profitable sales for US organic farms. According to the USDA Census of Organic Farms, “63 percent of U.S. organic farms reported selling products to wholesale markets. These sales accounted for 78 percent of U.S. organic farm sales. Wholesale markets, such as buyers for supermarkets, processors, distributors, packers and cooperatives, were serving as the marketing channel of choice for U.S. organic farmers to get organic agriculture products to customers.” The census shows that sales of organic crops and livestock at the farm-gate reached $5.5 billion in 2014, up 72 percent from 2008, and according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA) overall organic sales in 2014 were $39.1 billion, up more than 11 percent from the previous year.  In analyzing the census results, Edward Maltby of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Association (NODPA) points out that the number of organic farms and acreage have been shrinking:  “There were 14,093 organic farms in the United States last year, accounting for 3.6 million acres, with another 122,175 acres in the process of becoming organic, according to the latest National Agriculture Statistics Survey. However, in 2008 there were 14,540 organic farms making up 4 million acres with another 128,476 acres going through transition.” According to Maltby, there has been attrition even in organic dairy farms as they get caught in the squeeze as input costs rise faster than organic milk prices.

Processors are importing more organic ingredients. In part, this is to make up for the insufficient expansion in US organic production. The lower prices of imported organic crops, however, may  be more important than the US shortage, and the availability of cheaper imports creates a downward spiral, discouraging US conventional farmers from transitioning to organic. Klaas and Mary Howell Martens identify exchange rates as an additional factor:  “A big factor in organic imports right now is the currency exchange rates.  One Canadian dollar equals about 75 cents US making a $20 per bushel grain in Canada convert to $15 US.  The sharply rising value of the American dollar causes commodities to fall equally sharply.  That makes importing grains very profitable for brokers.  Anybody living near the Canadian border right now can find lots of cheap grain being offered to them from up north.  Eastern European and South American grains are equally cheap to import right now.”

Over the past three years, the Domestic Fair Trade subcommittee of the NOFA Interstate Council has done a survey of organic farms to learn what labor policies they use and what wages and benefits they are paying hired workers. (You can read Rebecca Berkey’s analysis here: http://www.northeastern.edu/nejrc/) The survey disclosed that most labor is done by the farmers themselves and their families.  Those who hire labor expressed the desire to pay good wages and benefits, but most were paying no more than $9 or $10 an hour. Many commented about the obstacles to living their values – low pricing, lack of markets.

Three members of the board of NOFA-NY have been involved in a dialogue with Rural Migrant Ministry and other members of the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign about the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Bill, the focus of a multi-year campaign.  NOFA-NY polled NOFA member farmers to find out which provisions of that bill are acceptable and which ones farmers would like to see modified so that NOFA members can wholeheartedly endorse the bill. NOFA-NY plans to continue this dialogue and broaden it to include more stakeholders.

I would hope that we organic farmers can agree on a long term vision that will solve our economic stresses together with the problem of who will be available to work on our farms in a holistic and humanitarian way that honors the Organic Principle of Fairness.  At stake here is what in policy discussions of labor supply is being called the “future flow” – who will be allowed to enter the US and under what conditions.  For the past half century at least, industrial scale agriculture has depended on a steady supply of immigrants from other countries. And nowadays some of the small farms that employ labor also depend on immigrants. Most of those who have come to work on the farms in the US were people who had been driven from their own land by economic hardships and political upheavals.  (See film, Harvest of Empire)  The Free Trade Agreements, especially the NAFTA, have increased the numbers of desperate farming people coming to the US from Mexico and Central America.  Most of them would not come here if they could make a living on their own farms back home.

Do we want to imitate the labor practices of monocrop industrial agriculture? The structure of those farms resembles in a chilling way the structure of the old slave plantation.  Is this what we want for the organic/agroecological farms of the future?

I suggest that instead, we highlight that smaller scale highly diversified farms are more productive per acre and also offer higher quality, more diverse work.  On a farm like mine, work is varied and interesting, you rarely spend 8 hours in a row doing the same task.  And besides, organic methods buffer the effects of climate change – rotations, cover crops, soil building through compost, reduced tillage, biodiversity – with less exposure to toxics for farmers and farm workers, and for the soil, environment and customers.

For our farming to be worth sustaining, farm work must become a dignified, respected career path, properly remunerated with a good benefits package.  The farm becomes a center not only of production, but of training and cooperation with the community.

For our farming to be worth sustaining, farm work must become a dignified, respected career path, properly remunerated with a good benefits package.  The farm becomes a center not only of production, but of training and cooperation with the community.

With our eye on the long term, we must shift from an agriculture that depends on the constant influx of desperate, low paid workers to a domestic work force.  We need to elevate farm work to the place of respect it deserves.  That means pushing in every way we can imagine to remunerate farmworkers adequately, starting with the farmers ourselves.  Everyone working on our farms deserves living wages with decent benefits, health care, retirement, funds for professional development. When new immigrants arrive, they should not be regarded as a source of continuing cheap, unskilled labor but, if they want to stay in the US, as additional recruits and reinforcements for our campaign for new farmers.

We need to provide access to the resources the new generation of would-be farmers requires so that they will be successful.  That means higher farm gate prices, access to land and credit. There needs to be a diversity of farm-related jobs – not everyone wants to be a farm owner-manager.  Farms operate better with a more cooperative structure whether that is several members of a family, a formal legal cooperative or a group of farmers working together.

Whatever merits capitalism may have in other sectors, the laws of corporate capitalism are totally inappropriate for food production, distribution and sale. The food system of a new economics will have to be fair, apportioning the food dollar up and down the food chain – or throughout the food web. What we need is domestic fair trade where buyers pay farmers enough to allow them to use sustainable farming practices, to earn a living wage for themselves and their families and to pay living wages for the people who work on their farms. Living wages include   shelter, high quality, culturally appropriate food, health care, education, transportation, savings, retirement, self-improvement and recreation. The Agricultural Justice Project has assembled farmers, farm workers and other stakeholders to compose high bar standards for fair pricing, and decent working conditions for people who work throughout the food system that is a useful guide for fair trade.

To fulfill the vision of feeding our population locally, we need many more farms and many more farm workers. This will require radical redistribution of land – either breaking up big holdings, or creating land trusts by county or state, holding the land in common and leasing it to people who work it – a return to usufruct. And the public will need to change their diet to rely to a greater extent on what we can grow in our region – a new mixture of annuals and perennials.

To fulfill the vision of feeding our population locally, we need many more farms and many more farm workers. This will require radical redistribution of land

So how do we get there?

If we want our movement to have the strength to replace the industrial food system, we farmers need to work as allies with all the other food workers from seed to table.  Despite owning significant amounts of land and equipment, the earnings of farmers like me and many of you are more like those of industrial workers than captains of industry. The profits in the food system go almost exclusively to the other sectors – “… the agricultural family unit is only a subcontractor caught in the vise between upstream agroindustry… and finance… and downstream … the traders, processors and commercial supermarkets.” (p. xii, Food Movements Unite!) Family scale “sustainable” farmers will only break this vise by taking our place alongside other working people in the food system in solidarity with their struggles which are really our struggles as well.

If we at least take our stand with other food workers and begin demanding that farmers, farm workers and all food workers make living wages with full benefits from a 40 hour week, we may start moving towards an agriculture that will sustain us into a future worth living. Local organic agriculture should serve as a model value chain, changing relationships to bring alive the Principle of Fairness that is fundamental to organic agriculture all over the world. Let’s take the opportunity that public attention to raising the minimum wage presents to us and raise our voices for justice for farmers and farmworkers together.

Elizabeth Henderson has been organic farmer for decades, she is the author of Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture. She farms at Peacework Farm in Newark, New York. She is one of the board members of the project of Food Justice Certified.