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Securing a Labor Force at Sweetland Farm

A vegetable farm raised wages to $15 an hour and lived to tell the tale!

by Elizabeth Henderson

Early in 2016, Evangeline Sarat at Sweetland Farm, in Trumansburg, NY, announced that she would paying wages to her employees at the Tompkins County living wage level.  Evangeline explained, “For me, it is very pin pointed: if my employees work, they should make a living. Especially, with food. If they’re working to grow healthy food, I don’t see how it’s logical that they not get enough to live.” Her declaration set off a flurry of emotional discussion among farmers and foodies that has not died down, especially with Governor Cuomo agreeing to gradually raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.   Paul Martin, current manager of Sweetland, explained the consequences of Evangeline’s decision for Sweetland.

Paul Martin of Sweetland Farm

To afford to pay higher wages, Evangeline raised the price of her farm’s CSA shares by $100.  The immediate effect was that member numbers dropped from 380 to just 300.   Paul still paid their four workers $15 an hour for the 2016 season. After completing financial calculations for the season, he reports that things were “a little tight,” but worked out. The drought made it harder: there was only enough crop for summer shares without the extra he had planned for summer wholesaling.  Nevertheless, Paul is determined to make things work and says, “At Sweetland we are still experimenting on how to have an economically sustainable farm.  The farm has to be thriving enough, an attractive business model so that my kids or someone else would want to buy the business.  I still feel like it is important to pay labor, but it is just as important to pay the farmer a living wage and that has to come first.” He has set out to achieve the balance among pricing to customers, the needs of his employees and his own needs.

Farmer-owner Paul began his farming career in 1997 at Simple Gifts Farm in Lancaster County, PA. He had grown up in that county, surrounded by farms and working in his mother’s garden at a time of unrestricted development.  Seeing houses “going up on beautiful dark soil” upset him so much that he told his mother, “When I grow up, I am going to stop them from putting houses on farmland.” After graduating from college, he decided to take a year to learn how to grow his own food.  He was looking for work that “gave something back for me and the community.”  Simple Gifts had a CSA and did some wholesaling.  “It felt good,” Martin explained. “The community component of CSA really attracted me.” After three years, Martin took a job managing a farm for Good Will Industries.  The 1999 CSA conference, where he met a lot of other people in their twenties who were excited about CSA, was a turning point for him.  There he met Evangeline and a bunch of the farmers who are now his neighbors in Tompkins County.

Sweetland Farm in Trumansburg, NY, will have its 10th anniversary in 2017.It is primarily a CSA farm. The farm’s mission statement emphasizes the mutual benefit for farmers and supportive customers:

“A CSA is a farmer-friendly model. The farmer develops a stable, long-term relationship with reliable customers. This economic model benefits both the consumer and producer in its stability. This makes it easier for the farmers to plan yearly crops because they know what, and how much product their customers want. Additionally it allows the consumer to plan their food budget. The CSA model also enables farmers to do most of their marketing in the slow winter months, so that when the growing season rolls around they can spend more time producing excellent produce. It provides the farmers with a viable business, an essential element in sustainability.”

Although the farm has enough land for 400 shares, for the 2017 season, Paul plans on 300 plus members for summer shares and 80 winter shares and is engaged in an energetic social media campaign to attract them.   Last season, they introduced half shares at half price, but this year the price will be 3/4s of a full share.  Members get a lot of choices.  For 2017, Paul has found a drop off point at a school in New York City.  Regional Access will make the weekly delivery.  They will start with 30 shares and hope to grow to 80. Paul also does some winter wholesaling to distributors in the Finger Lakes region. The price from wholesaling is about half what the farm gets for CSA shares, but it is worth it when he can sell a few thousand pounds a sale and the additional revenues help cover labor costs.

Sarah Koski, one of Sweetland’s members, commented :

“It’s important to me that our kids not only eat whole and healthy foods, but to know where the food comes from. It’s priceless to see them eating handfuls of sweet cherry tomatoes straight from the vine and crunching into carrots and turnips before we even get home with our farm share. Walking through the fields on a beautiful day, picking food I know my kids will eat, and greeting new and old friends, are things I look forward to every week. Our family has a sense of pride and ownership in “our farm,” and in turn are excited to try new vegetables. Buying our food directly from a farm down the street makes sense on so many levels – we are supporting a friend and neighbor, keeping the land around us healthy and productive, and investing in the health and well-being of our family.

Creating jobs that maintain work/life balance and pay well is a totally noble goal. Sweetland’s commitment to providing these jobs means that they can hire and retain farmers who care about the farm and its mission. We are proud to support a business that cares about its employees. All things considered, the price of our farm share isn’t a huge factor for us. We would be happy to pay a little more if it meant the farm was a better place to work. With lots of payment options, most families could make it work within a budget.”

Jen Wofford, who has purchased summer and winter shares for five years, lives less than a mile from the farm and finds Sweetland convenient. She explains: “We like being part of community that loves good food,” and adds, “I’m glad Sweetland Farm has committed to paying a living wage. That said, Sweetland Farm has been and continues to be my CSA of choice, regardless.”

For 2017, Paul intends to continue paying all four returning employees $15 an hour. The discussion over whether or not to pay time and a half for overtime is not an issue for Paul.  He feels very strongly that the work day should be 8 hours and no more so that, as he puts it, “they can continue to have life outside the farm.” He would rather hire another worker than increase the hours. Paul wants a balance between life and work and believes that his workers need that too, and also that people are more productive if work time is limited and they have time for rest and recreation.

Plowing a field.

The work day at Sweetland starts promptly at 8 am. When workers arrive, he has pick lists ready and off they go.  On harvest mornings, Paul and the workforce of four pick hard from 8 to 10 am to get ready for distribution. Then they have a 15 minute break for which the farm provides coffee and an angel supporter brings baked goods. Five people do the harvesting for 300 shares – 60 members per worker.  He designed the barn to maximize efficiency with an outdoor truck delivery dock.They use a lot of pallets, pallet jacks and two fork loaders. Most weeding is done mechanically, so the crew can plant and harvest.  “You don’t need a wheel hoe,” Paul insists.  “If you are weeding a lot, you have not figured out your tractor cultivation.”   The Sweetland ratio is 1 worker per 4 acres while Eliot Coleman has 1 per 2 ½ acres.

Paul also does his best to respect the other end of the day –  4:30 sharp.  An 8 hour day with half an hour for lunch.  Occasionally, when rain is threatening, Paul will ask workers to stay later, but he says that is rare. He sits down with each worker at the beginning of each season to learn if they have issues from the previous year and get a commitment to the season to come. He has a written worker agreement for each employee and conducts an extensive and detailed introductory meeting each spring to be sure the terms and conditions of work are clear to everyone

I asked Holly Taylor, who has worked at Sweetland since July 2015, what she thinks of Sweetland’s labor policies. She says that Paul is a great boss, very aware of employee morale and making sure no one is overworked. She appreciates the consistent work hours and the 8-hour day. “If you want to stay and finish a job, Paul is cool with that,” she explains, but if they have something else to do, Paul does not put employees under pressure to stay after 4:30.  Getting a raise to $15 an hour made a huge difference and played a big part in her decision to return to the farm for two more seasons: “We work hard all day from April to the end of November.  Knowing you can live on what you earn is so helpful.  You are not working for nothing.  I try to live frugally.  Last year, I took a winter job, but this winter I am working part time at Sweetland.  Knowing I get a living wage for the whole season, I am grateful.  I can make it through the winter even if I don’t get other work, but it would be awesome to work year round at the farm.  I love working outside and being involved in helping grow quality organic food that I am proud of for people in my community.  I have entertained the idea of farming on my own, but right now, I am happy working for Sweetland.”

Paul finds this a good way to stay friendly with his employees.  As a result, the retention level is high.  Most employees stay for 2 to 4 years.  He has only had to fire one person in ten years.

A benefit of focusing on the CSA, Paul says, is that they get to stay together on the farm with less driving around and less hassle.  By planting fall root crops to fill the farm’s refrigerated trailers for winter wholesaling, Paul is able to extend the season for his crew.  They fill out days in October and November harvesting for winter sales.  Whatever is left once the weather gets too bad, Paul leaves in the ground – this year, some radishes and Hakurei turnips. This winter, he had work for 1 worker part time.  Winter wholesaling offsets labor costs.

Instead of maintaining the higher share price from 2016, Paul is lowering the full share price to $580, just over $25 a week, hoping that he will attract more members.  He also offering additional sliding-scale payments as a voluntary option to pay $600 – $750.  Paul justifies the pay option as a way to encourage those who can afford more to do so: “Part of that is our commitment to pay living wages, but also an investment by CSA members who want to be investors in preserving the farm and have the means to pay a little more.”  He admits that growing enough to cover all expenses and living wages for himself and his workers pushes him “to farm a bit more than we would like.”

Although Paul does not claim to have hit the perfect balance yet, he remains true to the values that attracted him to CSA farming.  He considers bringing people to the farm a special gift. The drought of 2016 actually helped members to feel more a part of them farm, to feel that they were “vested” in it. That connection is vital to Paul: “We want to be an important part of the community, preserve the farmland and grow in a sustainable way. For me, a key thing is I always enjoy the farm. There are few farms where people come to the farm and get to relate to one another over food.  That is really important.  I try to sell the farm as a way to get away from the day to day chaos and be real.  We need to limit our time on social media.  Reality has been hijacked.  Let’s declare media-free Sunday and make boundaries.  A CSA farm gives a place where people can be real, pick food, and be part of the weather.”

Elizabeth Henderson is lead author of Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture (Chelsea Green, 2007) and Honorary President of the international CSA network Urgenci. She can be reached at elizabethhenderson13@gmail.com

A longer version was published in The Natural Farmer, Spring issue 2017, “Farming for a Living Wage.”

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