ORGANIC LABOR Even the weakest area of the movement’s evolutionfarm laboris at last making gains. Jim Cochran, an organic strawberry grower near Santa Cruz, California, is a leader in pushing the movement to get this part right. He is the first organic farmer to sign a United Farm Workers Union contract with those who labor on his farm. It provides wages of $8 to $12 an hour, medical and dental care, a pension plan, and paid vacations. “Farmers need to see that it can be done,” he said. “We need to go from saying ‘I’m doing the best I can’ to realizing that we should do more.” Michael Sligh, a third-generation farmer and the founding chairman of the National Organic Standards board, heads a coalition of farmers, farmworker advocacy groups, and others that is developing a social justice label for organic production. The foods will carry a sticker certifying that the producer meets the standards of fair treatment for workers, which includes providing decent wages, health care, and the right to unionize. Like fair trade labels and the organic label itself, the social justice sticker will educate consumers, literally bringing home the message that labor issues are central to the very concept of “organic.” Not only can social justice labeling help workers, but it will also help to distinguish the participating farmers from the Wal-Marts that are trying to muscle in on the organic trade. The giants want to claim that their products are organic, even if they’re grown in China under abominable labor conditions. The justice stickers up the ante on the global conglomerates, setting a standard of wholesomeness that their business model won’t let them even try to achieve. It puts more power in the hands of consumers to shape the economy. As Sligh said, “Every time we go to the grocery store, we’re choosing what kind of food system we want.” of business by the mass-produced machine tomatoes, and some fifteen thousand farmworkers lost their harvesting jobs. Your tax dollars at work. And what about consumers? Well, in the process of interviewing policy makers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] for our book, DeMarco discovered that the agriculture research establishment relegated consumer concerns to the “little ladies” [remember: it’s 1971] who taught home economics. Rarely were these women consulted when the plant breeders, engineers, and mechanics got together to “design” a food product. The official line was that while the new machine-harvested tomato was not cheaper than nature’s own, at least consumers could buy it year-round. In an interview with a USDA official, DeMarco commented that the off-season supermarket “tomatoes” she’d tried had no taste andother than shapebore no relationship to the luscious tomatoes she’d grown up with in New Jersey. The officialin a sincere, life-moves-on tonedismissed this concern as a minor drawback: “Your children will never know the difference.” Wrong. Even as he spoke, people were paying more attention, getting more concerned, and asking more questions than the aloof agribusiness power brokers could possibly imagine. Afood awakening was already beginning to take hold. It’s understandable that the establishment would have been clueless about this, since it was driven by ordinary people, not by “leaders” \(nearly all of whom were in harness and pulling mightily for the indusFoods empire \(the company didn’t exist when people began to move; it only came along later to ride the commercial wave of DeMarco and I were in touch with this emerging movement through our work in the 1970s as codirectors of a public interest group with the unwieldy name of Agribusiness Accountability Project. In addition to research and writing, we did a lot of speaking in cities around the country. Some of our friends were baffled that we were going into urban areas to raise what they assumed were farm issues: “Why are you talking about agriculture?” We weren’t. We were talking about power. We asked consumer-minded audiences, “If you can’t even control what’s in your dinner, what can you control? Who decided to take the flavor out of tomatoes? Why are breakfast cereal prices so high? Who says it’s ‘necessary’ to dump eight billion pounds of pesticides every year on America’s croplands, with the poisons contaminating the strawberries you give your kids as a treat?” We were also talking about the emergence of a fledgling populist political alliance that had enormous potential to upset the best-laid plans of the food giants. Discussion of economic structure is usually a boring snore producer, but we found that people quickly and easily “got it” when we merely held up a box of Wheaties or a can of Campbell’s soup, products that most people in the seventies had in their kitchens. We then described what these packages held for the following: Farmers: On average, only 184 of the consumer’s food dollar goes to the farmer \(there’s less than a nickel’s worth of wheat in 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 4, 2008
You May Also Like
The documentary in Falfurrias is sinister and spiritual.