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.

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.

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.