Home » Farm Labor at Swanton Berry Farm

Farm Labor at Swanton Berry Farm

When you grocery shop, too much is invisible. You can’t see the buildings that housed the farm animals, you can’t see the slaughterhouse, packing house, nor a day in the life of the people who picked the produce.

I truly believe that if you could know the FULL story behind every product on the shelf, the world would be a MUCH better place.

This invisibility facilitates exploitation. It likely ensures exploitation because the price point often becomes the major deciding factor in your purchase.

You want to support real change, but you don’t know the full story behind every purchase. You’re stuck wondering about various marketing claims on many labels. No one wants to be fooled into spending more money for a claim that may or may not be REAL.

USDA Organic certification has been called the “gold standard” for production, but it has never addressed worker welfare and has recently failed to enforce soil health and pasture requirements.

As our community explores the meaning of real organic, questions of labor standards are inevitably raised. Real Organic Project is engaged in this discussion, and we are beginning to include very simple rules as part of our standards. This is not simple to implement, but we believe it is important.

Swanton Berry near Santa Cruz, CA is certified with the Real Organic Project.
Swanton Berry near Santa Cruz, CA is certified with the Real Organic Project.

One of our Real Organic Project certified farms is Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, California. Swanton is the national pioneer in creating different relationships between farm owners and farmworkers. They have given numerous workshops, appeared in books, and spoken to the UN. They are also certified by the Agricultural Justice Project.

We are proud to have Swanton Berry Farm as part of our Real Organic community.

“What would be the point of farming organically if the workers were underpaid, overworked or treated without respect? Just carrying the California Certified Organic label did not address these important issues.” – Jim Cochran, owner of Swanton Berry Farm photo by Craig Lee

In 1983, Swanton Berry Farm was founded by Jim Cochran and Mark Matze becoming the first farm to grow organic strawberries commercially.

In 1987, Swanton Berry Farm was certified by California Certified Organic Farmers, becoming the first certified organic strawberry farm in California.

In 1998, Swanton Berry Farm was the first organic farm to sign a contract with the United Farm Workers, AFL-CIO.

In 2002, Swanton Berry Farm was awarded the EPA’s Stratospheric Ozone Protection Award for being the “pioneer…in developing the technology of farming strawberries…without relying on the soil fumigant methyl bromide,” a major contributor to the depletion of the Ozone Layer.

In 2003, Swanton Berry Farm was the single farm in the US selected to undergo a pilot audit of labor practices, toward the goal of establishing international labor standards for small farms.

In 2004, Jim Cochran and Sandy Brown traveled to Rome to make a presentation about labor standards at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

In 2005, Swanton Berry Farm began to offer ownership opportunities in the form of stock bonuses to career-oriented employees. Over time, key employees will come to own a substantial portion of the Company.

In 2011 Jim was awarded the National Resource Defense Council’s Growing Green Food Producer Award on behalf of Swanton Berry Farm.

In 2006, Jim Cochran received the Honoring Advocates for Social Justice in Sustainable Agriculture (Justie) Award from the Ecological Farming Association.

The employees of swanton berry farm
Swanton Berry Farm employees work year-round, earn a living wage, and have a medical plan, a pension plan, vacation pay, holiday pay, unlimited time off for family needs, and, for some, free housing and earn stock in the company.

Swanton Berry Farm is prominently featured in Dr. Annelise Orleck’s book about the international labor movement. They are celebrated as a real alternative to the labor practices of large corporate farms such as Driscoll’s.

“There was the big strike in Mexico in the Spring of 2015, in which 50,000 berry pickers walked out of the fields. Workers blocked roads on which berries were carried to the likes of Walmart and other big grocers. The strike ultimately resulted in a pay increase to between $9 and $11 A DAY.

There was also an agreement that Baja growers would pay into Social Security for their workers, and some attempt to deal with sexual harassment of workers in the fields.

“In the US, wages are higher, though undocumented workers get less than the minimum wage overall. But still, I was told that they usually made at least $6 to $8 an hour. As for how many workers are undocumented, it’s still most. Americans overall just don’t want the jobs, in part because the pay is too low.”

    – Annelise Orleck, in a personal communication.

“I’m really proud that I have employees that actually make really good money and can do things that perhaps they wouldn’t be able to achieve if they were working for someone else.

“I know my employees’ names and I get involved a little bit in their lives so that I know what issues they might be facing or how I can help. They’re not just a number for me, and they’re not just a group of people that are coming in for four months to pick all my strawberries and then go away. No. They’re people.

“When I was a farmworker myself, I wasn’t treated as I wish I would have been. I don’t want my workers to feel the same way. I want to make sure that they feel really good about doing what we do and make sure they can pay their bills so that if they wish they can build a home or send their kids to school, or have an apartment by themselves with their families instead of having to live in a trailer with other people.”

– Javier Zamora, owner of JSM Organics, a Real Organic Project certified farm.

“Unless you buy your food directly from a farm, the farmer receives a very small part of the dollars you spend – and farmworkers even less.

Although food is a daily necessity and farm work in the Covid-19 pandemic has been declared “essential,” farmworkers are still among the lowest paid workers in this country averaging $11.88 an hour ($31,000/year if the work were year-round, but much of this is seasonal, so average annual earnings are more like $17,500.

“In states like North Carolina, farmworkers only get $7.25/hr, the national minimum wage. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 guaranteed workers in most sectors time-and-a-half for overtime over 40 hours a week – but left out farmers and farmworkers. Only very recently has this started to change in a few states- CA and NY.

“So if you are enjoying cheap food, it is thanks to the unrelenting underpayment of farmworkers, most of them Latinx or other people of color and up to 50% of them may be undocumented immigrants.”

     – Michael Sligh, ROP Standards Board and Agriculture Justice Project Board of Directors

“Many organic farmers would like to do much better.

“But these same farmers lamented that constraints, in particular low farm gate prices, that did not fully cover their farm’s costs of production, prevented them from living up to their social justice ideals. Our current ‘food system’ pits farmers against workers and buyers against both. The Agriculture Justice Project was founded to demonstrate how farmers and workers can improve farms’ bottom-line by improving on-farm labor practices based on long-term, respectful relationships.

“The key missing ingredient for creating a real fair food system is for buyers, retailers, and consumers to reward farms that voluntarily strive for excellent labor practices. Swanton Berry is one such farm.

– Elizabeth Henderson, ROP Advisory Board and Agriculture Justice Project Board of Directors

We are addicted to cheap food. And the pressures to make food as cheap as possible are just fierce in this country. And that is the reason that we exploit farmworkers and that is the reason that meat animals are treated the way they are treated and down the line. And we have done an amazing job in this country since the ’70s of driving down the cost of food, to the point where our economy depends on it. It is really baked in. And it makes it very hard to advance a reform agenda that would inevitably, as it should, raise the price of food. Food is not cheap. It’s dishonestly priced because it assumes undocumented workers being exploited, and it assumes animal abuse. I mean down the line.

“The big challenge politically, and of course political leaders LOVE cheap food. It’s threatening. We saw in 2008, governments fell around the world because the price of grain doubled briefly. It’s very destabilizing when food prices go up. 

So how do we move toward the true cost of food without disadvantaging the poor and destabilizing the economy? I think all these moves have to be coupled with efforts to make it easier for people to afford food. So you improve the minimum wage on farms. You have a minimum wage on farms! And you, at the same time, increase the minimum wage across the country. We have to give people the money to pay the true cost of food.”


     – Michael Pollan, in a 2013 panel with Kathleen Merrigan

What would the world look like if business decisions were, first and foremost, based on what was best for people and the planet? If business owners weren’t financially rewarded for extracting, polluting, and underpaying their employees?

What if you could actually make an informed choice? Which system would you choose?

That is the goal of the Real Organic Project – to provide FULL transparency from the farm to your table. No more guessing!

Yours in the dirt,
Linley

Acres of strawberries growing at Swanton Berry. Rather than only growing strawberries, Cochran grows many crops, some which just break even for the business, simply to keep workers employed year-round.

Linley Dixon
Associate Director / linley@realorganicproject.org
Real Organic Project / realorganicproject.org