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Farmers Sign on to the Agricultural Justice Project

by Elizabeth Henderson

“As my workers and I learned together about AJP’s social justice standards, I became even surer that I had made the right decision for my farm and the people who work alongside me and my family here,” said Farmer Jordan Brown. “We’re taking a big step together, being the first farm in the southeast U.S. to participate in this program,” said Brown. “I’ve learned a lot from the process and am excited to see the program grow.”

Farmer Jordan Brown owns and operates The Family Garden in Gainesville, FL. Jordan is focused on efficiently growing affordable veggies for the Gainesville community. As he puts it, I want “to pump out the produce and keep it affordable for working people.”

In the Northeast, the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) has been providing technical assistance for farmers and food businesses, including workshops on creating a fair work place and certification for the Food Justice label. The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) is a founding partner of AJP, a collaborative, non-profit initiative to create fairness and equity in the food system through social justice standards for organic and sustainable agriculture. NOFA’s partners in AJP are Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI – USA), Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas/Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), and Florida Organic Growers/Quality Certification Services (FOG/QCS).

Logo for Food Justice Certification

Logo for Food Justice Certification

The AJP mission statement reads:  “The AJP works to transform the existing agricultural system into one based on empowerment, justice, and fairness for all who labor from farm to retail.  Central to the AJP mission are the principles that all humans deserve respect, the freedom to live with dignity and nurture community, and share responsibility for preserving the earth’s resources for future generations. …By focusing on the need for fair-trading in farm products and fair treatment of food workers, AJP contributes to shifting the dominant system towards greater equity and justice.”

A passionate commitment to social justice is one of the core values that inspired Ben Shute of Hearty Roots Farm in Hudson, NY, to become a farmer ten years ago. As Hearty Roots has grown, Ben found himself an employer, so he turned to AJP for technical assistance in creating employee policies for the farm.  At the advice of AJP, Ben created a written set of labor policies for the farm, set up a file on each worker and instituted regular check-ins that are now monthly.

At these check-ins, he or his farm manager review the goals that the employee has set for learning and for improving performance, and ask what further support they need to meet their goals.  This process gives the managers the chance to provide regular feedback to the workers and for the workers to give the managers feedback on their management style.  The check-in also allows some time to talk about the bigger picture of what is happening with the farm.

AJP standards also require that every farm has a conflict resolution process that every worker understands and knows how to use it. Ben reports that one result of these regular conversations is that they have not had to use their conflict resolution process. They are able to address emerging problems before things get out of hand.  Food Justice Certification is on Ben’s to-do list.  This year, he certified the farm organic, and thinks that FJC may provide a way for the farm to differentiate its high bar labor practices in the marketplace from farm aggregators with CSA-like services. Ben writes, “We hope to train a new generation of farmers who gain experience by working with us; and we pay our workers a fair wage and maintain worker-friendly employment policies.”

The Piggery, a farm and retail butcher shop in Ithaca, NY, has been Food Justice Certified for two years. Heather Sandford, one of the owners, explained why they decided to invest time and energy in FJC: “There is so much media attention to land and water, to organic and how seeds are grown, but not enough about the people who do the work.” When asked why she puts such a strong emphasis on workers, she answered, “Because I am one. Technically, I own the business, but I do not think of myself as a boss.  I work with the employees as a team.  It is important that the public understands that things will not get done without us. Food Justice Certification is helpful in opening up conversations with our customers about job security and wages.  The FJC logo on the doors of the stop helps reinforce why customers shop with us.”   The biggest plus of FJC, according to Heather is that it “makes our workers feel honored.  They realize that we are trying to make an effort to give them a good work environment.”

Old Friends Farm is owned and operated by Missy Bahret and Casey Steinberg, and is located in Amherst, Massachusetts. Cut flowers are one of their cash crops.

Old Friends Farm is owned and operated by Missy Bahret and Casey Steinberg, and is located in Amherst, Massachusetts. Cut flowers are one of their cash crops.

Alyssa Bauer, who works at Old Friends Farm, a 28-acre certified organic farm in Amherst, Massachusetts, heard about AJP two years ago from farmer friends who initiated the Agrarian Action Network, a group of young farmers and farm workers who want to improve working conditions on area farms.  Alyssa had never heard of domestic fair trade and was excited to learn that there was a national movement to improve farm prices, and labor policies and practices.  She read the Food Justice standards and realized that Old Friends Farm was already compliant with most of them.

The standards include:

  • Fair pricing for farmers’ products
  • Workers’ and farmers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining;
  • Fair wages and benefits for workers;
  • Fair and equitable contracts for farmers and buyers;
  • Clear conflict resolution policies for farmers or food business owners/managers and workers;
  • Workplace health and safety;
  • If on-farm housing is provided for workers, it must be clean and safe;
  • Learning contracts for interns and apprentices;
  • No full-time child labor, but rather carefully supervised participation of children on farms.

The AJP website offers the full standards, policy manual, and a tool-kit with resources to help farms comply with the standards, all available at www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org.

Alyssa sat down with farm owner Missy Bahret and fellow worker Ona Magee and reviewed the FJC checklist.  Whatever was missing, they added to the employee handbook for the farm, and Alyssa highlighted these with the other workers at their spring orientation. Since they did not have to change much, the process was easy.  Old Friends is interested in certification and is hopeful it will be part of a broader campaign for labor rights in the area.

Like Ben Shute, Jordan Brown has found the materials in the AJP “tool-kit” helpful as his farm has grown: “The growth of our farm, from being a real small operation to where we are now, is closely tied to Food Justice Certification; it helped me get more organized because FJC standards required me to start running payroll, get Workers Comp, file taxes, and start keeping better records. It took some time to get everything in order and get organized because we do have to meet a lot of guidelines, but at the same time, I think that organizational component has greatly benefitted the farm. There are lots of farms that are already very organized and keep records the way we do, but they wouldn’t meet the FJC standards because of their on-farm practices.”

Although fairness has been a basic principle in organic agriculture throughout the years (see the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements Principles of Organic Agriculture), organic standards in the US have focused on production practices for farming and processing.  The Food Justice label brings attention to the importance of fair pricing for farm products that fully covers the cost of production and the need for respect and living wages for all jobs in the organic supply chain.

Farmers who pay as much attention to the quality of life of their workers as they do to the quality of their soils are finding ways to pay living wages, though at some sacrifice to the farmers own income.  As Jordan Brown notes, “Pricing is the biggest obstacle to providing more benefits to workers. Right now, in my experience as a family-sized farm in the South, there is no retailer who is willing to pay more for produce for this certification. At least in the wholesale market, there’s no buyer who is willing to pay extra for produce that is grown without mistreating people.”  Brown concludes, “Success for us comes from the folks who come to our stand or sign-up for our CSA because they know we’re a FAIR farm and want to support good work.”

Brown sums up the hope of movement for domestic fair trade that as the public becomes more aware of farm worker realities, more people will be willing to pay the few extra pennies a pound and dollars a year that add up to a significant improvement in farmer and farm worker wages.

Elizabeth Henderson can be reached at elizabethhenderson13@gmail.com

The AJP process has earned positive evaluations from the Domestic Fair Trade Association (DFTA, http://fairfacts.thedfta.org/full-comparative-analysis), and from Consumer Reports (www.greenerchoices.org/eco-labels/label.cfm?LabelID=323).  If you think you farm is ready or if you want more information to get you started, contact the author of this piece.

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