The Growth of Domestic Fair Trade
05 Apr, 2012
At Gathering Together Farm, in Philomath, Ore., owners Sally Brewer and John Eveland sit down with all their employees three times a week for an all-farm lunch. At the height of the growing season, Gathering Together Farm employs as many as 100 people, so Brewer and Eveland bring in employees on those days especially to cook. It’s no small expense, but it’s a way to ensure that the field crew gets face time with the irrigation crew, the office employees, and the farmers market crew.
“It’s a huge meal, and it’s part of the benefits package,” says Rose Mahoney, who helps manage the farm. “It really has a family feeling.”
The organic farm offers a community-supported agriculture (CSA) box, offers their produce at eight different farmers markets around Oregon, and they are known, says Mahoney, as a farm that treats its workers well. Brewer and Eveland have long prided themselves on respectful communication with all their employees; they also make extra produce available to take home — no small deal considering the fact that farmworkers can, ironically, rarely afford healthy food.
All this said, the farm’s owners hadn’t put too much thought into whether their customers thought about labor — after all, they figured, who worries about worker rights when buying from small, organic farms?
Then last year Gathering Together was approached by its distributor, Organically Grown Company, and encouraged to apply for the Food Justice Certification. The label, which is still nearly unknown in the marketplace, is a product of the larger “domestic fair trade” movement, and is similar to the Fair Trade label for international food production. Because certification is expensive, and farms like Growing Together run on a tight margin, it helped that the distributor offered to pay for the certification.
Now, a year later, Growing Together and a second Oregon operation, Spring Hill Farm, have joined the small ranks of Food Justice Certified farms. How small is small? Well, according to Elizabeth Henderson of the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) — the coalition of four NGOs behind the label — there are now 70 farms certified in Canada and eight in the U.S.
Based on a rigorous set of standards developed over four years, and a lengthy process that includes confidential interviews with each farm’s workers, the Food Justice Certification label, says Henderson, is an effort to “reward the people who have the best practices.”
Why would it matter that small handful of farms producing a very small percentage of the nation’s overall food supply would carry the Food Justice Certified label?
Well, for starters, it creates a point of comparison for the rest of the food system. We live in a time when consumers don’t have to dig too hard to find examples of really terrible farm labor practices. From documented cases of slavery and other human rights abuses in Florida’s tomato fields, to workers dying from heat exhaustion on California farms, and new data about the plight of women on farms and people of color in the food system at large, the national picture is pretty grim.
And while the assumption that organic farms are generally better to their workers might be borne out anecdotally, actual organic certification includes one word about the way farmworkers are treated. And to be fair, food production in this country has relied on a cheap (often undocumented) labor force to keep food prices low for so long that even farmers who want to pay their workers well are rarely in a position to do so.
It might sound obvious, but the people you see selling produce at the farmers markets are not — in the vast majority of cases — the same ones who plant, harvest, weed, irrigate, and pack that food into boxes. In other words, even most farmworkers who are treated well are still invisible to eaters. So any small, perhaps symbolic-seeming steps towards engaging eaters in the larger discussion about their rights has to be worthwhile.