Advice for Young Farmers from Swanton Berry Owners

IMG_2307 In a recent talk for Seattle Arts & Lectures, Wendell Berry told aspiring young farmers to “listen to the old-timers.” I’m taking the revered American poet, philosopher, and farmer up on his recommendation, and I’m especially interested in veteran farmers’ views on farm labor practices, one of agriculture’s more sensitive issues.

Everyone – eaters and businesses included – has a role to play for farmworker rights. Farmers, however, have the added responsibility and challenge of trying to treat workers fairly within a system that demands cheap, industrial food. I do believe, however, that the combination of experienced farmers and the emerging crop of young farmers known as Greenhorns has the potential both to revitalize agriculture and instill fairness in the fields.

I know at least one veteran farmer who is successfully navigating the tricky topic of farm labor, so I decided to pay him a visit. Jim Cochran (photo, left) of Swanton Berry Farm is one of Bon Appétit Management Company’s 1,000-plus Farm to Fork partners who we’re immensely proud to support. The recipient of a prestigious Growing Green Award for Food Producer this year from the National Resources Defense Council, Jim rebels against the assembly-line approach to growing food, and his definition of sustainability goes far beyond just environmentally friendly practices. Not only does Swanton Berry Farm grow some of the most delicious strawberries I’ve ever tasted, it’s the poster-child of the fair food movement.

In 1983, Jim started doing what everyone thought was impossible: growing organic strawberries on a commercial scale, in Davenport, CA. Then in 1998, inspired by one of his grandfathers, a union man, Jim made Swanton Berry the first organic farm in the country to negotiate a United Farm Workers contract. He decided to sign the union contract in order to formalize the farm’s commitment to the “human side” of farming and go beyond just practicing informal goodwill as an employer.

“As we know from the history of political movements,” the Swanton Berry website explains, “a ‘benevolent’ king can be followed by a not-so-benevolent king. From the Magna Carta forward, ordinary people have come to require that their leaders follow certain standards of conduct, which protect their rights.” The United Farm Workers agreement adopted by Swanton includes everything from workers’ basic rights and benefits rarely seen in agriculture as paid time off, unlimited time off for employees to take care of their children’s needs, health and dental insurance, and a retirement plan.

Swanton_2b&w Inspired to give aspiring farmers at a chance at farm ownership even if they don’t have any capital, in 2005 Swanton Berry achieved another first: the first farm to create an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). The plan gives workers management authority, incentives to think like entrepreneurs, and the right to inherit and take ownership of the farm. Today, 12% of Swanton Berry is owned by its 45 employees, many of whom are migrant workers who would otherwise be unlikely to build equity through jobs. (To learn more about their ESOP, check out this piece in Orion Magazine.)

Left: Swanton Berry employees Aquileo and Porfirio. Photo: Ansley West 

Last week I asked Jim and Swanton Berry’s Human Resources Director Sandy Brown, two of the farm’s “co-dreamers,” for tips for aspiring new farmers on creating socially just farms. Here are five they shared with me:

1. Do your homework and create a sound business plan

Farm labor costs can be upwards of 65% of total farm costs, so successful farm financing goes hand in hand with what you’ll be able to offer your farm employees. Being completely legally compliant (e.g., paying workers’ compensation, following all wage and hour laws) can be a financial challenge when first starting out, so you’ll want to create a business plan that builds compliance into your price and cost structure and is painfully honest about all the details and added costs that go into production. (Remember to factor in even those small runs to the hardware store.) Figure out the true cost of what it takes to grow and where and what you can sell so that you won’t have to sell below cost often. This will be better not only for your employees but also for your farming operation. You don’t want to be in a business that cuts corners.

2. Communicate regularly around health and safety issues

Hold short and frequent “tailgate meetings” and maintain records of what was discussed. Even if you’re repeating what’s been previously said, health and safety issues should be continually reviewed and emphasized.

3. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

Use the boilerplates (e.g., Illness and Injury Prevention Plans) and other online resources such as the Toolkit of Materials and Resources for Farmers from the Agricultural Justice Project.

4. Consider partnering with a farmworkers union

…such as the United Farm Workers, Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United, or Farm Labor Organizing Committee. While many people think of traditional collective bargaining as a combative practice between workers and farmers, this isn’t always the case. In fact, Jim and Sandy say that farm unionization doesn’t actually take that much extra work if you have a good existing relationship with employees. That said, there are many benefits to creating a formal contract. Here are some of Jim and Sandy’s reasons:

  • A union gives you the potential to aggregate and share labor across several farms.
  • The union provides a program with 100 years’ worth of collective human resources wisdom.
  • Much like organic certification does for your farm’s agricultural practices, the union label clearly defines your farm’s labor practices – from the conditions in the fields to the benefits that employees receive.
  • The union brand provides clear definition of your labor practices not only to your farm employees but also to your customers. There are increasing numbers of consumers thinking beyond organic and seeking out social justice standards. And while unionized farms do not guarantee any sort of price premium, they are likely to provide customer loyalty, and thus a price floor, which will go a long way for your farm business.

5. Consider a partnership with the Agricultural Justice Project, a Domestic Fair Trade label in its pilot stages that will be the gold standard for social justice in agriculture, third-party certification, and a system based on the experiences and input of the farmers, farmworkers, and business owners. Farms of any size and type can apply to become “Food Justice Certified” farms.

Swanton_2 Left: Photo by Ansley West

Jim said that when he first started selling strawberries, only about 30% of his customers cared that they were organic and 10% that it had union label. Today all of his customers look for the organic label and 40% (and growing!) care about Swanton’s union label.

According to Jim, when Swanton Berry first started growing organic strawberries, it owned 100% of the California organic strawberry market. But today, Swanton controls just 1%, which means that more growers are making organic production profitable and thus building the organic movement.  Hopefully, someday Swanton Berry will account for only 1% of the organic plus social-justice standards market.

I believe that we can get there and grow the good food movement to include farmworker rights, as long as we keep on learning from veteran farmers, help create new visions, and put them into practice. I’ll leave you with a final piece of advice from Jim and Sandy: Try to have a good time! While farm work is hard work, it’s made easier by good companionship and humor.

Wendell would agree. He said: “Young people are sometime too serious and need to remember to have fun. Decent fun.”

IMG_2299Making strawberry jam in the Swanton Berry Farm kitchen

Swanton_3Swanton Berry employees Esther and Susana. Ansley West photo