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What is a Just Agriculture System and Why Does it matter?

By Elizabeth Henderson - The Prying Mantis, November 13, 2012

Panel discussion at the Annual Meeting of the Domestic Fair Trade Association with Nelson Carrasquillo, Michael Sligh, and Elizabeth Henderson, November 13, 2012

My presentation: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 over 6 million farms. There are only 2.2 million today. The local foods movement has reversed the trend and the number of small farms is actually growing. Nevertheless, something like 84% of the existing farms are in debt. Prices do not cover farmers’ costs of production. Many of the farms that do not have labor do have a family member who works off the farm so that the farmer can have health insurance or the farmer works a regular job and spends evenings and weekends doing farm work. While there are some outstanding examples of farms that do not have labor and are doing well financially, most of the family scale farms I know about 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 a marginal population in the US and all of North America. These are fragile small businesses.

Taking a market-based approach, domestic fair trade seeks to 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. The Agricultural Justice Project hasassembled 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. The goal is to change relationships so that everyone benefits. The reality is that family-scale farmers as well as farm workers in this country are in desperate need of fair trade.

Our society as a whole looks down on jobs that get people dirty. Vocational studies are for youngsters who do poorly at academic courses. We call picking vegetables “stoop labor,” and the majority of the people who do this work are undocumented migrant farm workers whose average annual wages amount to less than $13,000 a year, according to the United Farm Workers. NYS law requires farmers to pay hired helpers minimum wage, soon to rise to $7.65 an hour, and federal law requires paying legal H2A “guest workers” $9.60 an hour, but there is no requirement for time and a half for work over 40 hours a week, and even if you work 60 hours aweek year round, minimum wage is poverty pay.

And there is no protection for farm workers who want to organize. The National Labor Relations Act excludes two groups of workers – farm workers and domestics. Farm workers are not covered by the limited protections afforded to other workers by the National Labor RelationsAct, particularly the right to form unions that is so much under attack these days. And protections for farmers in negotiating contracts with buyers are lacking too.

Since 911, the Department of Homeland Security has increased its operatives along the NY northern border from 341 to 2000, and farms complain bitterly about raids and arrests. There is a critical need for immigration reform and passage of the AgJobs bill.

A major squeeze or speed up has been underway 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. Contracts, including those given by organic processors, are poor. Most farms are not profitable, and many are in debt.

A fair food system would pay high enough prices for farm products that farmers could pay themselves and everyone working on the farm true living wages – that cover shelter, high quality, culturally appropriate food, health care, education, transportation, savings, retirement,self-improvement and recreation.

We need to redistribute the land to break up the big holdings and recognize that smaller scale highly diversified farms are more productive and also offer higher quality work. On a farm like mine, work is varied and interesting, you rarely speed 8 hours in a row doing the same task.Organic methods buffer the effects of climate change – rotations, cover crops, soils building through compost, reduced tillage, biodiversity with less exposure to toxics for farmers and farm workers, and for the soil, environment and customers.

A fair food system cannot be founded on stolen land and enslaved labor. We must make reparations for the theft of land from the indigenous people who have lived on Turtle Island for centuries before Europeans arrived. We must honor the promise made to the liberated African-Americans of 40 acres and a mule, and make up for the interest and value that would haveaccrued on that land had it not been violently snatched away again before the ink had even dried on the promises.

For farming to become worth sustaining, farm work must become a respected career path, properly remunerated with a good benefits package. The farm is a center not only of production, but of training and cooperation with the community. A high bar domestic fair trade certification like the Agriculture Justice Project Food Justice Certified changes the relations on the farm.

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 manager.

There are two aspects to food justice: access to high quality food and fair livelihood for food workers. 17% of the population of the US is engaged in food related work. We need to change pricing and shift subsidies from the largest industrial farms to low income families. If the 17% made living wages – it would make a good beginning to a just food system.

Conclusion:If we are to have a local food system that reliably provides most of the food needs for the population of our region, we must shift our spending priorities. The people who grow our food, farmers and farm workers, must get a fair share so that they can go on producing and lead decent lives. They do not need or even want to live like corporate CEOs. Many of the organic farmers and homesteaders I know would be happy to serve as models for a living economy based on the principle of ENOUGH. The Nearings, Helen and Scott, projected an ideal of four hours a day for bread labor, four hours for creative and artistic activities and four hours for conviviality.Because of economic pressures, these days, people trying to make a living farming are so far from that ideal it is not funny. But if we at least begin demanding that farmers and farm workers should make a living wage with full benefits, (health care, compensation for injuries and unemployment, and retirement) from a 40 hour week, we may start moving towards an agriculture that will sustain us into a future worth living

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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