Why big farms can treat their workers better than small farms.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Nov. 2 2009 12:10 PM

Better Off on Big Farms

For workers in agriculture, size matters.

Farm laborers. Click image to expand.
Farm laborers

I love food, but I've never been much into farms. I've ignored friends' repeated encouragements to travel the world picking organic vegetables or do a cow-milking internship. But this summer I sucked it up and headed for the fields—the big ones in California's Salinas and Central valleys, where half the country's fruits and vegetables are grown. I went there to start research for a book, for which I aimed to work my way through America's food system, from farm to table. At the outset, that meant spending 50-plus hours a week under the hot sun hoeing weeds, sorting peaches, and cutting garlic. I knew going in that I'd learn unexpected lessons, but of all the new thoughts crowding my head, none have surprised me as much as this: God bless big farms.

I should probably credit the idea to one of my co-workers, whom I'll call Manuel. We were surveying the garlic field in which we had been picking all morning—an expanse of yellowed stalks and dirt clods flanked by a gravel road. I found the landscape bleak, and I told Manuel that I'd visited a small farm—Stone Barns, in upstate New York—that had a very different feel, with lots of trees and animals. Where did he prefer to work, I asked, at small farms or big ones? Without missing a beat, Manuel chose the latter.

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Like many of my peers, I'd always assumed that the little mom-and-pop growers were more praiseworthy than their large, industrial competitors. We've all heard how big-time farmers waste prime farmland on grain bound for feedlots and gas tanks, or churn out a massive surplus of corn that ends up in unhealthy processed foods. Small farms, on the other hand, are better suited to the kind of diversified agriculture that can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and chemical pesticides. To Manuel, though, the big farms are far more appealing: They are more likely to give him a full-time job, and even when he's only working on contract, they offer longer gigs. It turns out there are plenty of other reasons why laborers might be better off in a large-scale operation.

For one thing, sprawling farms like the one where Manuel and I were picking garlic have bigger budgets than the little guys, and that gives them more freedom to furnish their workers with nice perks. Just as Starbucks may offer a better health plan to its workers than does your local neighborhood cafe, a multimillion-dollar peach farm will often deliver superior benefits than a boutique heirloom grower eking out a profit from 30 acres. In California, about two-thirds of farms with more than 25 employees provide health insurance to their year-round workers, compared with just one-third of farms with five employees or less.

Larger enterprises also hire more of their work force directly, rather than picking them up through farm labor contractors. By going through a middleman, farmers—and the food companies they sell to—can distance themselves from their legal obligations, like paying minimum wage or banning children from the fields. This practice ramped up significantly in the 1980s, after immigration reform began to require employers to grapple with workers' legal status; union victories in the 1970s also made subcontracting more appealing. Today, about 60 percent of all growers contract out some of their labor. But among those farms, it's the small ones who make the heaviest use of outsourced workers—more than half their labor budget, on average. Large growers using contractors, by comparison, keep the share to about one-third.

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