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Author Topic: a farmworkers lament........
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a farmworkers lament........    (Posted Thu, Jul 19 '12 at 04:56 UTC)

so i don't know if it's the heat/drought or the fact that i just turned 41 that has got me so introspective, but i want to air some thoughts here.

i've been a farmworker on vegetable farms of varying sizes all over the country and i'm currently working on one in wisconsin.

i recently attended a field day on a farm here in the midwest and it was all about efficiency on the vegetable farm. i guess that triggered my need to write. so much of what you hear now in this industry is the need to be efficient and to get your workers to work faster and smarter. well i help manage a modest sized veggie farm here in wisconsin and i think we are lucky just to find young people just to do this kind of work. maybe, one of these people will get hooked (like i did) and want to come back and learn how to work, but it's a real challenge to expect it right off. i mean, of course someone who is writing the paychecks at a farm can comment here and won't really need to explain to me the economy of the whole thing, because i realize it quite well. i'm just coming at it from a foreman's perspective. i don't want to be the hard-ass all the time especially when the thermostat reads 102! besides it seems as though you can explain to someone how to do something over and over and then they go right back to working slow again! that's why i say that i think it may take a season or two for it to become a lifestyle to want to work on a farm.

i've been working on farms for 16 seasons now. of course the trend is for a person to try to farm for themselves after a few seasons, but i guess i never had this ambition enough to want to go into debt to realize it. out of everyone that tries, maybe a handful will have longterm success.i do ,however, see my peers on farms around the region making a go of it and following all the prescribed (mostly elliot coleman approved) methods.
farm beginnings offer another avenue to help visualize the dream.

however it all leaves me to wonder about my future. how will i compete with an ever younger work force with my ever aging body and reptitive work/body problems?

well i'm running out of time here at the library so i'll have to post more later!

Re: a farmworkers lament........    (Posted Fri, Jul 20 '12 at 04:44 UTC)

the longer i stay in this field the more i realize the need to feel appreciated for what i'm doing for the people i work for. as i mentioned above it is not easy to find anyone to do this work, let alone someone who is knowledgeable about what they are doing.who is responsible. who has a good attitude. these are the traits that corporations look for when they hire, and yet the economics of farming kinda preclude being able to do this as much as we would like. add to this the fact the the labor pool can be kinda sparse.

i feel like i come from a unique perspective. i've been a field worker for long enough that i can comprehend these complex issues. plus i understand labor issues from the farmers point of view , but also from my point of view, which i think is seldom heard. only from some books about immigrant field hands is the issue addressed and i don't feel like i'm in this catagory. for starters, i'm a citizen of this country and am not likely to be taken advantage of in the same ways. also the farms that i work on are not these big-ag farms. they are small family farms. like i said, there are not many people out there in my true peer group. people who have just been farm workers and never owned or managed there own farm and are as well travelled as i am. i think there are probably local people who have worked for a place for a long time, but i don't think they look at things from the same perspective i do.

i don't really know where i'm going with all this. are laments supposed to have a destination?

the current farm i work for...i think i'm valued in one sense. but when it comes to me feeling like i have i real voice about anything. well that's another issue. a good example: this winter my partner and i were away and the farmer made his entire seed purchase while we were gone. yet he refers to us has managers. it seems to never have crossed his mind that we might have some input. same goes for field operations; tillage weed control. i may point out something and if he is thinking the same thing (which does happen quite often) then i will at least feel validated for what i said, but woe to me if i mention something he doesn't want to hear, like he need to mineralize more or add more compost or oragnic matter , or just work out the rotation better so that we can get better weed control.

i find more often than not that labor issues start with the farmer. at our farm here we don't cultivate the paths. why? no time. if we mow it once we're lucky, but the point is that lots of weeds go to seed. how is this not creating more work? are there other farms out there like this one. you bet your life there are. i've seen others. worked on others. so you get this dynamic where the farmer puts pressure on his/her workers to weed faster when they are reponsible for using methods, or not using them, that create the weed problems in the first place. same can be said in other areas. i once worked on a farm where the farmer corrected my partner for filling seed trays with hers hands rather than using a scoop which the farmer thought was more efficient,thus faster. well we didn't think so, and ye, evebn if it was faster, how much time would you really save? seconds ? the same farmer lost money too weeds. we never weeded. it was the only farm where i never touched a weed. strange. we mulched, but there where whole crops that got lost to weeds. is that not inefficient? she had us do things like set up a trellis for cucumbers in the field on;y to not be sure of how they would perform this way. we never took the time to train them up it. that was two hours of time lost, but thank god we used the scoop and not our hands to fill flats!!

there are endless amounts of these anecdotes from me and others. i know there are. i've heard lots of them. i'd like to invite folks to share theirs. i think it's time to call to light the ugly, dehumanizing side of this business. we don't have a union, no voice. we have to give ourselves one.
have you ever been literally berated by your boss because you are picking radishes too slowly? just insert the situation here because it could be any number of things.

i heard a farmer complain once that he wanted people to stay til the work was done. if there was one more box of melons to be picked he wanted the people to stay, but how much does he pay for this demand? is it a living wage? how does he treat his crew in general? this field day a went to , the guy said that he pays his workers $8.00 an hour and that was at least what they should make working out in the hot sun all day. holy hell! that's just a hair above minimum wage!! they could work at mcdonald's or wal-mart and get that! see it's this kind of arrogance that i want to expose for what it is. i'm sick of all the media attention some of these farms get and all the other credos. what are they like to work for is my first question!! anyone out there actually work for elliot coleman? or who the rock star farm in your area? what are they like. don't get me wrong. i know there are good people in this industry. i just want to start a conversation about it, because i think there points are valid. then again, maybe i just have heat stroke!

Re: a farmworkers lament........    (Posted Thu, Jul 26 '12 at 05:53 UTC)

this is the only job i've ever had where i am constantly aware of the money. how much it's costling to pay me and others versus how fast we are getting things done. it's kind of neurotic. can't anyone else see it? above i was writing about the need to feel valued, and putting that in terms of monetary payment. i swear though, sometimes i just want to work for a farm for free. just cover my essentials: food, shelter, etc. that way i would be valued in a different way. i could bring something truely unique to the table, years of experience for free. plus the farmer wouldn't have to go crazy worrying about paying me.

are there any farmers out there that are making a go at this, i wonder? are you paying your staff and yourself a wage? i have worked for two farmers now you have told me that they do not make an income. after their help is paid and all the other overhead accounted for, they don't have an income the claim on taxes. meanwhile i have to pay 10% of what i make. which seems pretty excessive for what i get in return. now if i got full healthcare, hell i might even be willing to pay a bit more. the whole thing just brings up a lot of questions about the economy of everything. by this economy, i don't just mean a monetary one, but one in which we value our time, our spiritual/mental development, the earth, etc.

Re: a farmworkers lament........    (Posted Thu, Oct 18 '12 at 08:47 UTC)

well, i see no one's commented here on anything that i said above, which means they either think i'm crazy or spot on about a lot of the issues. or perhaps they were just to busy farming!! the heat has passed so i just re-read all this to see if there was anything that i regret saying.

not much. i feel like i reasoned everything out pretty well. i do wish there was some kind of forum that people could go to for support as farm workers!

well, i plan on working at the same farm next year, plus up to four others so i guess i didn't get frustrated enough to quit!

have a good winter!

 Laurel Highlands PA
Re: a farmworkers lament........    (Posted Mon, Oct 22 '12 at 11:02 UTC)

Hey Kevin,

I actually just saw this post today, thanks for updating or I may have missed it.

I think a lot of your critiques of small farms are spot on, especially those that rely on volunteer or paid help. I've managed a few farms as well, and understand what you are saying about newbies in the fields....

Labor is a constant struggle on most small farms that don't have a large family base to rely on for labor. On my farm, currently only a few acres, it is just me and my partner. She works a part time job to keep a steady income coming in. The farm pays for itself, operations, costs, etc...

I do not pay myself a wage per hour, but rather the profits of a sole proprietorship are my income. So it does pay me, certainly not more than minimum wage right now. My goal for next year is to be at $10/hr, and I believe that is attainable.

Weed control, ugh, I've fought with other farmers/owners about this as well. Some suggestions for weed control in the paths... I've done well with sowing hairy vetch and clover into the paths in the early spring (I mark the rows out first, even before any plow work is done... ) and that allows for foot traffic throughout the summer and minimizes weeds. Another option if I have enough hay or straw available, is a 1-2' mulch. It stomps down over the season...

I commend you on 16 seasons of work, I hope you continue to negotiate w/ your current farmer/employer for added benefits (a few extra days off, as you are seasoned), more pay, or something to make it more enjoyable... Perhaps being given the freedom and a fixed budget to take on a new farm enterprise that will give you something else to work towards that could be more profitable for the farm (in your eyes) and can be a lasting part after you decide (if) to move again. Best of luck !

Re: a farmworkers lament........    (Posted Fri, Dec 28 '12 at 04:07 UTC)

it seems as though one of the biggest assets i have to offer at this stage of the game is the ablility to network with other growers because i can grasp their goals and concerns. there is definitely a common thread there. this coming season we will be returning to the same farm in addition to working on possibly five other places. i know it seems over ambitious, but this is all sporadic and part-time!

we are also searching for our own land and our on terms. we want to work out partnerships with others as much as possible. i posted on the farmlnad section of this forum, so if you're in southern wisconsin and are looking for farmland check, go and check that out!

Re: a farmworkers lament........    (Posted Fri, Dec 28 '12 at 04:22 UTC)

Kevin - There is work to be done in maintaining your skill set. You can also work on increasing the crop varieties to deal with rapidly accelerating climate change. Once the empire implodes, people will value your work. Until then they won't. I give away thousands of dollars of food every year and very few people appreciate it. It sticks in my craw too.

Catering to the unique Ferndale perspective.
 Paw Paw
Re: a farmworkers lament........    (Posted Mon, Feb 10 '14 at 09:35 UTC)

Kevin-- This reply is meant to address the relentless worker efficiency issue only: see if you could get your employer to pay for crop harvest on a piece work basis. You will find some workers drop out -- others speed up. In the end you only pay for what gets done. It is the only way to go in some cases, it is nearly impossible to keep a group of workers all going at a good speed --and it is fair --everyone knows and understands right up front what is expected. I grow large amounts of beans and tomatoes for the regional Food Bank --my margin is tight --we keep the price low because this is free food to the people that can't buy food for themselves. I have to keep the pay for harvest within budget or I'll go broke, so I know ahead of time what I will get paid per pound and figure a fair harvest price per pound into it.

Mark Walker
Re: a farmworkers lament........    (Posted Tue, Feb 11 '14 at 12:52 UTC)

WOW! I didn't even know this was still an active thread!

Mark, thanks for digging it up.

However, to address your comment, piece-work pay would not work at this farm. It is a CSA farm and thus, it seems, better suited to an hourly wage. Also, to this mind, it seems that we should be encouraging the development of new farmers. People come to farms not just to work, but to learn. They typically do not have the background in farming that would build the type of swiftness in one task that piece-meal pay scales demand.
The fear is that we would be driving folks away to adopt this type of pay-scale.

I glad that your system works for you. Whether or not it is a truly fair pay arrangement to the folks that work for you, I am sure that you have gone into for yourself and you explained some of it above.

Good luck and peace,


 Paw Paw
Re: a farmworkers lament........    (Posted Tue, Feb 11 '14 at 03:35 UTC)

We are a CSA farm too. We do not use piece rate for all work performed --just for bean and tomato harvest. The rest of the work is paid by the hour. We do grow larger amounts of beans and tomatoes for the Food Bank, and it would be difficult to motivate several people at a time to pick --the piece rate system provides an atmosphere of self motivation and the opportunity for the worker to earn more per hour than what they might make with an hourly wage. They like it because they are able to take a break when they want, and they are able to regulate themselves --it sort of gives them some freedom, and they are more tied into the success of the operation than with hourly wages (it matters much more to them how the crop is yielding and how many weeds are present etc.)
Not trying to sell you --just providing a full picture.
You (in my opinion) need to alleviate some portion of your personal burden --- it is too much to expect a person to constantly be responsible for many other peoples performance year after year.
In regard to training other people to farm -- I would say that less than 1 person out of 100 that come to work here could ever make as good a living farming for themselves as they can working for a farmer. I consistently make less dollars per hour than I pay my employees. I don't see that changing under the current cheap food mentality our nation is pervaded with. There is a great deal of sense in your decision to work for others instead of farming for yourself --the risks are great, and the rewards financially are low, and hard to win.
There are other rewards for farming in terms of freedom --and the 'kick' you can get out of being the decision maker --if it weren't for those rewards this would not be worth doing.
I look back on my working life and of all the jobs I ever had, I was happiest when I had a position like yours. I made very little money, but life was good and I enjoyed doing what I did. I worked each day to keep my boss in business, so that my job was secure(not for fear of being fired - but to ensure our operation was competitive and stayed in business).

Mark Walker
Re: a farmworkers lament........    (Posted Tue, Feb 11 '14 at 04:40 UTC)

Thanks, Mark for your additional thoughts and for clarifying.

I am in "negotiations" with my boss right now to see if it feels right to return to the farm next season. I have come to the conclusion that there are certain things that must improve on this farm. Up to this point I have been called a "field manager" but I have not felt like I was in charge of anything really, just doing work that others could not or did not want to do, among them my boss. I have never really felt like I have had a voice, but this process that I am going through right now has shown me that it has been self-afflicted to a certain extent. Only to a certain extent.

Recently I saw a cartoon depiction in the book of comedy released by John Stewart some time ago called EARTH. The cartoon showed 4 stages in the development of farming. 1.. Cartoon farmer out in field turning soil by hand with the thought bubbles: "This is hard!" 2.. Cartoon farmer now having switched to plow with the thought bubbles: "Better, but still hard!" 3.. Cartoon farmer replacing his own labor with slaves, now show him out in field as an overseer with whip in hand. Thought bubbles:
" A lot better, but now have the feeling that this is somehow destroying my soul!" (or something to that effect) 4.. Last box, the picture remains unchanged except that now instead of a whip the farmer now hold a cell phone. Thought bubbles: "Much better!"

Of course I realize this is way over simplified and inaccurate in ways, but the similarities to me and my current job were pretty striking at the time, and I have been challenging myself ever since to find things about it that weren't similar.

Anyway, this is still the life-style that I want to live so I'll just let life happen and update you when it does!

Thanks all for reading and letting me vent!


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