Photograph by Jim Wilson, The New York Times/Redux
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Workers pick strawberries at Swanton Berry Farms in Davenport, California.

Photograph by Jim Wilson, The New York Times/Redux
The Plate

Organic Farming Doesn’t Mean Fairer Labor

The first organic unionized farm in America, Swanton is among an increasing number of growers adopting a new label: Food Justice Certified.

Just ten miles north of Santa Cruz, a battered black-and-yellow pickup sits rusting in the grass along a gorgeous stretch of coastal California highway. From its bed rises a huge strawberry-shaped silhouette of red-painted wood with green tufts sprouting from its top to mimic leaves. A sign behind the truck says “Jam Tasting” and points past an aging wooden barn to the headquarters of Swanton Berry Farm—the first organic unionized farm in America.

The terms “organic” and “unionized” rarely appear together for a reason. Gaining organic certification and unionizing workers is expensive and time-consuming. To farmers already operating with tight profit margins, the prospect of doing both can be daunting. Bruce Goldstein, president of the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Farmworker Justice, estimates that of the roughly 2.5 million farmworkers in America, only around 25,000 are unionized. And only a small percent of those 25,000 work on organic farms.

“I have sympathy for farmers who feel they can’t afford to pay their workers better,” says farmer Jim Cochran, who founded Swanton in 1983 and is now a spry, white-haired 69-year-old. “I’m trying to prove that it’s economically feasible to offer good benefits and a living wage and still make money without any subsidies.”

The Direct-to-Consumer Solution

One way that he’s managed to do this is by selling roughly 75 percent of his produce directly to consumers. A quaint one-story shop located behind the barn sells Swanton produce and products. The interior strikes a familiar northern California tone of rustic chic: Antlers, giant pinecones, horseshoes, maps, and an antique clock decorate the wood walls. Glass jars of blackberry, olallieberry, and strawberry jam fill the shelves of a refurbished hutch; orange kabocha squashes are piled in wicker baskets; and slices of homemade pecan, apple, and berry pie line the shelves of a cooler.

But mingled with all the country whimsy is a more political theme. On the front counter is a bound 1969 magazine profile of legendary union organizer Cesar Chavez. On the wall behind the honor till—more on this later—hangs the distinctive red-and-black flag of the United Farm Workers, the open-winged eagle at its center a symbol that Chavez hoped would inspire courage in farmworkers. A sign beside the front door reads: “Everything here is homemade by union labor and can be purchased using the honor system.”

While the direct-to-consumer solution limits distribution to a smaller area, it also eliminates the percentage of each sale that benefits middlemen, resulting in more profit-per-dollar for Swanton. Swanton does sell some of its berries at Whole Foods, a store that Cochran says is willing to pay a premium price because it believes in the values of the farm. But direct sales—in the form of farmers markets, seasonal U-pick berry fields, and Swanton’s own store—are the most lucrative category. (See "An Eater's Guide to Food Labels")

Cochran has even eliminated the role of cashier from the store: Customers pay for pie, produce, jams, soup, and coffee by putting the right amount of cash into the “honor till,” a wooden box that sits at the front of the store. Bills greater than $20 are slipped into a small vault behind the till, but people are invited to make their own change from smaller bills that sit unguarded on the counter.

A Common Misconception

Swanton’s history is a collection of firsts: It became the first certified organic strawberry farm in California in 1987. In 1998, it was the first organic farm to sign a contract with the United Farm Workers, and its employees have been unionized ever since. In 2005, workers began receiving stock bonuses that let them gain partial ownership of the farm. Today, the 24 permanent employees at Swanton earn hourly wages that range, depending on seniority, from $10.75 to $15.50. They also receive full medical insurance, dental insurance, paid sick days and paid holidays, overtime, and bonuses. The average total compensation is around $18 per hour. (See "How to Update ‘Harvest of Shame’ for the 21st Century")

Most berry pickers in California are paid based on how much they pick—a system that incentivizes rapid work and favors the young and healthy. While it’s possible for fast pickers to earn a decent hourly rate, employees are usually given only seasonal work, forcing them to move or find other jobs for the rest of the year. All of the workers at Swanton, by contrast, are offered full-time, year-round employment, and many have been at the farm for years. In addition to berries, Swanton also produces green beans, pumpkins, squashes, broccoli, cauliflower, and other produce, so between planting, harvesting, maintenance, and processing, there’s enough work for the whole year.

The employee with the most seniority at Swanton is a 53-year-old man named Porfirio. He’s been at Swanton for over 20 years, and like 17 other employees at the farm, he lives in the housing that Cochran provides for only $90 a month. “I like that the fruit here is organic, and I like that Jim takes good care of people,” he says. He used to work at a non-unionized California berry farm that wasn’t organic. “The fruits smelled bad from the pesticides, and the season was shorter,” he says. “You work ten-hour days six days a week with no benefits, maybe for four months of the year. It’s much better here.”

Swanton is one of a small but growing number of farms adopting a new consumer label called Food Justice Certified. The nonprofit Agricultural Justice Project oversees the Food Justice certification of farms by monitoring and advising farms to ensure that they meet dozens of strict standards covering worker safety, compensation, transparency, and fairness. Co-founder Elizabeth Henderson, herself an organic farmer, hopes the label can correct a common misconception: that food labeled organic has also been produced by workers who are treated well and paid a decent wage.

There are currently six Food Justice Certified farms in North America, but more than 25 others are making the improvements and undergoing the inspections necessary to earn the label. “I’ve been doing organic agriculture since 1979,” Henderson says. “It took us 20 years to really get that term recognized. I think that Food Justice is today where organic was in 1979.” (See "Slinging Mud Over the Organic Label")

For his part, Cochran has managed to keep Swanton profitable over the years through personal sacrifice as well as innovative business practices. Roughly a decade ago, after a fungus wiped out an entire crop, he put his own home up as collateral for a loan to keep the farm running. He still lives a fairly simple lifestyle. Last year, he made around $45,000. While that figure could be considerably higher if he paid his employees less, Cochran is a true believer in the right of farmworkers to good compensation. “I want them to be middle-class,” he says. “They deserve it.”

Porfirio, who hopes someday to run his own farm in Mexico, was philosophical about why so few farms are as generous to workers as Swanton. “Each person has a different heart,” he says. “Jim has a good heart, but good people are rare.”

Nick Romeo is a regular contributor to National Geographic. He is based in Palo Alto, California.