Better Off on Big Farms
For workers in agriculture, size matters.
However a large farm hires workers, it's more likely than a small one to have its labor conditions audited by the government. These visits are unusual for any grower, but they almost never happen to the small-timers. The government simply doesn't have enough manpower to enforce workplace regulations in every nook and cranny of American agriculture. In California, for example, there are just 250 inspectors to check up on all the state's workplaces, including its 75,000 farms—so the department must prioritize its use of staff. A place where a couple of workers have complained about being underpaid may not seem as important as a farm with dozens of workers facing the same problem.
Bigger farms, too, tend to have a business office and someone whose job it is to handle staffing issues, while small farms may have little infrastructure besides a cell phone and a desk crammed into the living room. That makes a difference when it comes to labor inspections—it's difficult for the government to check things out if the farmer never picks up his or her cell phone and isn't listed in the phone book. A mom-and-pop operation can also benefit from its small geographic footprint: A handful of acres hidden back in farm country might be hard for inspectors to track down.
The result is that working conditions on a small farm are essentially up to the bosses' whim, more so than at bigger operations. Modestly sized growers may be conscientious and principled, of course—they might pay on time every week, provide what benefits they can afford, and shut down on the big holidays—but the survival of their businesses in no way depends on it.
There's a danger in gushing over small farms: It conflates the form of food production with the process of it. The local growers who feed your neighborhood CSA can do just about anything as badly as the big ones do, whether it's skimping on workers' paychecks or failing to follow food safety practices. Their labor practices should be of special interest to those of us who are concerned with buying sustainable food. Organic production, for example, may protect workers from certain chemicals, but it otherwise has no bearing on work conditions like wages or sanitation facilities. Smaller growers also have smaller economies of scale, so they've got less of a budget to play with; keeping prices competitive means finding creative ways to keep costs low. Farmers may not be able to control the price of land, seeds, and equipment, but they can squeeze what they pay for labor.
The last time I talked to Manuel, in late October, he was plodding through the annual dry spell for farm workers, which he hoped would end in January with work in grapes. I asked him if he was going to be out with the same contracting company where I'd met him, and I heard the smile in his voice when he said no. He was going to work directly for a large grower with vineyards throughout the south Salinas Valley and expected to have steady work for several months. Big,he said, is better.
Tracie McMillan, a freelance journalist whose work centers on food and class, is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Her first book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, was published in February 2012. Learn more on her website.
Photograph of farm workers by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images.