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Farm Work –the Agony and the Ecstacy

By Elizabeth Henderson

Like many TNF readers, I chose to become an organic farmer because I enjoy farmwork. When people asked me and my partners at Peacework Farm whether we hired any Mexicans, we answered that we chose to do the stoop labor ourselves. We saw ourselves as “blue-collar” farmers. One of the (many) challenges NOFA faces as part of a movement for a healthy environment with clean food and food sovereignty for local communities is who will do farmwork and who will determine the conditions of that work.

What makes a small or mid-sized farm a wonderful place to work is the great variety of jobs and the chance to be outdoors in all weather. Some jobs require technical training; others are simple and repetitive, though skill and experience can greatly alter the pace. There are always new things to observe, problems to solve, more to learn, and changes to try to understand. Truth be told, however, there are never enough hands to do all the work needed, and there is never enough money to pay them well. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics, off-farm earnings help support 89 percent of the farms in this country. The unpaid labor of the farm family is essential. When the workload swells beyond what the family can manage, farms must find a way to lure volunteers (technically, not legal on a for-profit farm), take on trainees (apprentices, interns – these words are used interchangeably, although strictly speaking, internships are connected with college courses and done for credit), or shoulder the expense of hiring workers. Once you decide to hire, you confront the history that defines the status of farmwork in the US, as well as the complex realities of the legal structures and requirements for employers, not to mention the economic pressures on farm production and sales that limit how much you can afford to pay.

Family Work

Living on a farm blurs the line between life and work — a lifestyle choice usually means less cash, fewer consumer amenities, and more physical labor. People should enter farming knowing this and should not be surprised and disappointed when they find they cannot earn as much as in most other professions or take paid vacations to exotic places. Compared to what I could have earned as a teacher, I knowingly took a sort of vow of poverty when I became a farmer. As in other small businesses, farmers must pay for their health insurance and retirement plans. All the more reason, then, to learn how to work smart and use your labor (and that of anyone willing to get involved with you) as thoughtfully and efficiently as possible.

Farmers have been putting the family to work ever since Adam and Eve. Yet the very idea of unpaid family labor makes agricultural economists squirm. Rarely calculated or remunerated in dollars per hour, family labor is basic to the whole economy of an integrated farm, where one of the main “products” is the people. Sure, some people who grew up on farms look back in horror at their childhood “slavery” and swear, “Never again.” They barricade themselves in a life of office work or whatever else is as far as possible from picking beans on the farm. But many more farm-raised people feel nostalgic about the hours spent close to their parents, remembering the many sensual pleasures of sounds and smells that folded in with the work. Doing chores and being expected to take on responsibilities is good for children. When they are needed, they rise to the task. Old-fashioned as it may sound, having to work builds character. How else are we going to raise fewer couch potatoes and more active citizens? Learning that physical labor is good for the body and for the soul and seeing parents involved in meaningful activity never hurt anyone.

However, there are limits, and the economic pressures on small farms have often forced farmers to overload themselves and their families. Many love relationships have turned sour under the strain of picking too many vegetables for market. (The real dirt behind The Real Dirt: Farmers Tell about Organic and Low-Input Practices in the Northeast, edited by Miranda Smith, is that few of the farm families we interviewed back in 1990 remained together.) Should we then conclude that the work itself is the problem? Or rather, we change the economics and learn how to organize the work better? In a conversation about the push to save people from the drudgery of small farms, Wendell Berry exclaimed:

“Farming is a hard life. That’s what these rural sociologists were talking about at the start. It’s a hard life, therefore nobody ought to live it. What a remarkable conclusion. There are several steps left out. What causes the difficulty? Does freedom come out of it? Does family pride come with family coherence? Does some kind of idea of community come with it? Does some kind of idea of stewardship, of essential, irreplaceable, indispensable stewardship - that come with it? Do ideas of affection or love or loyalty or fidelity come with it? The basic question is, how hard would you be willing to work to be free?” (From an interview with Wendell Berry conducted by Elizabeth Barham in 1996.)

Working with Others

On the mythical family farm, husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and neighbors all work together in cooperation and harmony. Mutual respect and appreciation govern relations between sexes and generations. When differences of opinion occur, the people involved take the time to sit down and negotiate a mutually acceptable resolution. If only we could live up to this myth! In reality, all too often, tempers flare; in the pressure of the moment, people who care deeply for one another say angry or thoughtless things, and feelings are hurt. How can we move our reality closer to the myth?

There are volumes to be written about how people work together on farms. Figuring out a fair division of work and responsibilities is extremely challenging. Different people do not think about the same things or in the same way. Ideally, this should be a source of strength for a working partnership where different approaches complement each other. Too often, these differences are a source of friction. I have talked to farmers who run successful farms in partnership with close relatives. When I asked them what was most important for working together, their answers were similar: the ability to forgive and to place the family ahead of the farm.

Hard experience has taught me that every farm needs a conflict resolution process that everyone knows about, understands, and agrees to use when conflict arises, as it inevitably will. The process can be very simple. Here is an outline from the Agricultural Justice Project Farmer Toolkit:

Step 1: Confront the problem: find a place to talk the conflict over with the person directly involved.

A. Choose a time when you are not arguing or angry and a quiet and comfortable place away from either party's turf. Check with yourself to ensure this is the best time to have this conversation.

B. Define the conflict: describe the conflict in clear, concrete terms. Be specific – when, why, what, where, who. Describe the behavior, feelings, consequences, and desired changes. Be specific and start sentences with "I," not "you.”

C. Listen to really understand the other person's feelings and needs. Explore alternative solutions.

D. Almost all conflicts between individuals have the potential to include or trigger social power imbalances. (Social power issues include class, gender and gender identity, race, etc.) Try to remember that it is always better to acknowledge the impact of social power imbalances than to pretend they don't exist.

E. Keep the goal of resolution in mind – what will resolve this conflict? What do I need, what can I accept? Reach an agreement on a workable solution you both understand and can live with. Make realistic commitments. An agreement is only as good as the ability of the individuals to implement the agreement.

F. Evaluate after some time: check how well the solution is working and adjust if necessary.

Step 2: If step one does not result in a workable agreement, meet with a third person (farmer, farm manager, neighbor) who will hear the case and try to mediate a workable solution.

Step 3: If you cannot resolve the conflict, turn to the services of a Center for Dispute Settlement (there are mediation services, some of them free, in all NOFA states) and benefit from the help of trained mediators.

Exciting work is going on that goes way beyond the basic Cooperative Extension approach of “managing” hired workers. The Food Project pioneered what they initially called “Straight Talk” and then renamed “Real Talk.” Versions of “real talk” are used at farms like Soul Fire Farm and Rock Steady Farm, both in NY. Another method, “Courageous Conversations,” provides a method for confronting and negotiating the social power imbalances that, left unmentioned, can turn minor conflicts into painful, major ruptures.

Farmer Polly Shyka of Villageside Farm in Maine advises us to develop a “relational system for our farms. In “The Next Build in the Small Farm Sector: Resilient Relational Systems,” she writes, “The way in which we relate to the people around us is every bit a system as these other “hard” or conventionally recognized systems. A system is defined as “a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method….Relational connotes an interplay, a journey, a commitment. So these skills are not about how to “talk to” employees or your partner with greater ease and efficacy but how to connect, how to relate, how to grow in a complex, human system.”

Interns, Apprentices, Trainees

Some smaller farms supplement the family’s work by taking on interns (apprentices, trainees). Please note that training interns is not a way to get cheap labor! If you do not want to spend time explaining why you are doing what you are doing on your farm and just want to do a quick training and assign tasks, you should not entertain the idea of interns. While under the “at-will” laws that prevail in 49 of the 50 states, an essentially adversarial relationship is assumed to exist between employers and employees, with interns, by contrast, the farmer has the obligation to instruct. Interns are preparing themselves for a vocation or at least learning how to grow their own food. To manage them fairly means assuming a major responsibility to teach and share what the farmer knows. Paying only minimum wages can be fair if you write a learning contract together and provide the desired instruction and skills.

When you find the right people, interns lighten your workload and make the work more pleasant. Working with someone who is enthusiastic about learning what you are doing can transform an otherwise routine task. When you explain to your intern how a repetitive job fits in the context of the farm’s systems, you keep alive for yourself the interconnections that are so essential to a sustainable farm. I still keep in touch with many of my former interns. Several have gone on to farm on their own, so our paths continue to cross in mutually beneficial ways.

The New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI) has developed high-quality resources for training new farmers. Most organic farming associations around the country support farmers in the training needed to be good mentors to new farmers. There is rarely any compensation to the farmer for the value of the education provided and labor laws don’t recognize interns as being any different from other hired workers, requiring at least minimum wage. Taking on interns also has broader importance since you can’t really learn to do organic farming without hands-on experience. For family-scale organic farming to continue to expand, experienced farmers must learn how to pass on their knowledge. “We need thousands, tens of thousands of new farmers!” exclaimed Paul Bernacky in a 1997 Northeast CSA Conference presentation on apprenticeships. Currently, there are national networks of farm beginnings and farm incubators.

Hiring Help

When you decide to hire workers, you enter a maze of state and federal regulations. There are federal laws governing farmwork that you have to pay attention to (the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA), and each state has additional laws that cover wage rates, supplementing wages with food or other benefits, housing, etc. Fortunately, there are many resources to help you, starting with your state Cooperative Extension. Farm Commons, a not-for-profit founded by lawyer Rachel Armstrong, has developed state-by-state guides to farm employment legalities and Neil Hamilton’s “The Legal Guide for Direct Farm Marketing” is a helpful resource for hiring and other issues. Remember that Rachel and Neil are lawyers and give the most cautious interpretation of each situation.

The simplest course for getting started might be to consult with a neighboring farmer who handles the paperwork for employees or can direct you to a payroll company that will take care of most of the detail for you. Each state also has its own peculiar tax requirements. Calling the state tax number should furnish the appropriate regulations and forms. Employers must fill out an I-9 form for each employee to document citizenship, legal alien, or visa status and keep it on file for at least three years. Federal law requires that all employers must also purchase workers’ compensation insurance, which varies in price from state to state. Although the rates are set at the state level, various farms have different risk pools. An uninsured employer is liable for the costs of medical treatment for a job-related injury or illness and risks fines for failure to carry insurance.

To fill out the many forms properly, you must have an Employer Identification Number (EIN), which functions like a Social Security number for tracking you through the system. Fill out the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Form SS4 to get one. You can complete this process over the phone in a few minutes. Special laws regulate hiring youngsters under sixteen years of age who are not members of your immediate family. You must ensure they have working papers and do not ask them to do jobs that are forbidden by law, such as driving equipment. The fines for violating these regulations are very heavy. Putting your own children to work may not look like a bad alternative after all!

The Agricultural Justice Project can provide you with guidance and resources to go beyond being a legal employer to a fair one, including a model employee handbook that you can easily adapt to your own farm, templates for all the regular forms you need to keep track of training and evaluations and a guide to creating a comprehensive health and safety plan for your farm along with guidelines for implementing it.

Finding really good, steady help is not easy. The pool of U.S. citizens willing to do farmwork is shockingly small. An ideal employee is a local person whom you can train and keep for a long time. Hiring H2A workers is a possibility, but please read the other articles about H2A in this issue of TNF before making your decision.


We can experience farm labor as an ecstasy of oneness with the Earth. In “Global Effects of CSA Participation,” an unpublished article in 1991, Josh Tenenbaum, a Genesee Valley Organic CSA member, wrote, “When we dig our hands into the brown, damp soil, does not the entire Earth tremble? When we plant seeds and eat green, living food, does not all the Sun’s light intermingle with our own? We see that planting and weeding, building a community around sustainable agriculture, is the most fundamental peace work, no matter what our political beliefs or ideas.” Or we can experience this labor as spirit-crushing, unrelenting drudgery. The challenge is ours to make of it what we will.

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