Make Farmwork a Viable Occupation

NOTE:  when you buy food from big box stores, you are supporting an industry that exploits farm workers so that you can have cheap food.  The following letter from a food industry leader, asks for higher wages and better working conditions for farm workers.

By Fedele Bauccio – CEO at Bon Appetit Management Company – July 28, 2016

farmworkA crisis of epic proportions looms in American farming — and thus American food. A labor shortage is “all but guaranteeing that crops will rot in the field on many farms this year,” according to Zippy Duvall, American Farm Bureau Federation president. The Farm Bureau has just released a video in which farmers criticize the government’s delays in processing H-2A applications. “We’re going to have to make a choice,” Duvall says in the video. “We either have to import our labor — workers to harvest our crops — or we’ll have to import our food.”

With respect to Mr. Duvall, as one businessman to another, yes the H-2A process needs to be fixed — including making sure it meets grower needs without sacrificing worker protections — but I think we have another choice.

    We can choose to make farmwork a viable occupation. We can recognize that our food supply rests in the strong, weathered hands of workers who deserve not only our respect, but also year-round employment, cross-skill training, competitive wages, overtime pay, workers compensation, and freedom from sexual harassment and other abusive practices.

    I don’t say this out of some pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. We are facing a shortage of skilled labor in our own industry, food service, and I am focused very much on attracting and retaining good workers. I also recently spent a day on a farm that is doing exactly that, under the auspices of the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI).

    EFI is a 501©3 nonprofit that has brought together worker, grower, retailer and consumer groups for a “one-stop-shop” certification covering labor, pest management, and food safety standards.

    Joining me at Andrew & Williamson’s Sundance Berry Farm in Moss Landing, CA, were United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez and National Vice President Erik Nicholson (who also chairs EFI’s board), and A&W President Fred Williamson.

    We headed to the fields. The workers all wore long sleeves, hoodies, and bandannas over their faces to protect themselves from the sun and dust. Watching them work, I was amazed at how fast their fingers moved through the rows of green plants, plucking the ripe berries and nestling them carefully into a plastic clamshell at high speed. Theirs are the last fingers to touch the berries before the consumer’s. The responsibility for both how much we enjoy this sweet, ripe fruit and how safe it is for us to eat rests in their hands.

    Shortly after, in a conference room in the grower’s offices, I spoke with Ernie Farley, A&W’s head of fresh produce, and Chief Operating Officer John Farrington. Andrew & Williamson grows berries and tomatoes up and down California and the Baja Peninsula for distribution through Costco and other large buyers, including Bon Appétit Management Company. Ernie saw the value of EFI early on, and worked to sign up several farms to be certified. In its Mexico operations, A&W has already faced competition for labor and has responded by offering subsidized childcare, medical clinics, and housing to workers. Because it grows year round on its various farms, A&W has been able to bring some of its most skilled Mexican workers north to California on H-2A visas in order to give them more months of employment. Ernie acknowledged that the system was cumbersome, and so expensive that they tended to deploy those workers only on their premium organic line.

    Then we met with 10 farmworkers, about half of them female, who have volunteered to be on the farm’s EFI Leadership Team. They receive 40 hours of paid training in problem-solving and conflict-resolution techniques, to help communication across cultural and language barriers, and they also learn to apply EFI’s multifaceted standards.

    Through an interpreter, the workers told us what the EFI training had done for them. The words “respect” and “quality” came up over and over — how the respect they now feel on the farm between supervisors and workers, and also amongst the workers themselves, inspires them to focus on the quality of the berries and take more pride in the quality of their work.

    Farm Director of Operations Jackie Vazquez interjected at that point to confirm that berry production was up that year, which she attributed in part to workers’ training to remove the strawberry runners as they go, and other methods to help boost production.

    One worker said that he had used his improved communication skills at home, with his family, being more patient and not “blowing up.” The women made a point of saying they felt safer now at work because they knew that EFI’s zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy would be enforced. (Even though all women are technically protected by U.S. law from sexual harassment, no matter what their immigration status, the reality is that most female farmworkers must frequently endure it.) Because of this, they had told their friends, and Sundance had a much higher ratio of women working than elsewhere because of it.

    I was extremely moved by these stories, and by how these growers are taking the long view. The reality is that most U.S. produce is still dependent on being harvested by hand. Passing smarter immigration laws and fixing our guest worker program are inarguably important. But I believe it is also up to those of us whose companies depend on that food to take action.

    I call upon other large food retailers and restaurant companies to join me in urging their suppliers to treat farmworkers as skilled, essential parts of our collective business operations — and find a way to attract and retain them. Not only is it a smart business move, but it’s the right thing to do.

    Fedele Bauccio is the CEO and cofounder of Bon Appètit Management Company, a food service pioneer serving 200 million meals annually and a founding member of the Equitable Food Initiative.


    The Sustainable Food and Farming major at UMass Amherst helps prepare young people to build a local and sustainable food system.


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