Forty Stolen Acres and a Volunteer Mule: Free Labor, Free Food, and the Illusion of Freedom
By Karina Lutz
Volunteers working on small organic farms are so common they deeply impact farm economics. Many farmers I know, all I've worked or volunteered for, and the farm I co-owned as a cooperative have all relied to some extent on free labor to make ends meet. Organic farms “need” WWOOFers, CSA workshares, and, apprentices. Even food justice organizations usually use teams of volunteers to work harvests, manage farms, or distribute food.
Of course, no one makes a volunteer volunteer. This free labor really is free. Moreover, one cohort of people who can afford to work without pay is often on the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum — they are white, have well-to-do parents, and can afford to get experience for free. But they are then better poised than their peers to become farm managers or owners (if they're fortunate, in this land economy), and other positions where volunteer experience will be advantageous.
Apprenticing on a French sheep farm was so lovely — I had a touchstone learning experience volunteering and an enjoyable summer eating hyper-local handcrafted crottin chèvre — and years later, I greatly enjoyed teaching and hosting WWOOFers who came to live, work, and eat at my co-op. I adored connecting urban dwellers with rich soil, gorgeous plants, and the flows of weather and seasons. Most of the time, the volunteers seemed to think it was a fair trade — room and board and a little learning for 20 or more hours of unskilled labor. The food was incredibly good, and the room was at a gorgeous farm in summer (even if it was sometimes a tent).
Another cohort who farms without pay is, ironically, farm owners: since 95% of farms in the US don't break even year to year, those folks are self-subsidizing their farms or homesteads, often with off-farm jobs.
Much worse, though, is a third group of people whose work subsidizes the structural economy-- skilled migrant farmworkers who are obscenely underpaid and grossly mistreated. They aren't able to go home to a nice middle-class life after a summer break on a farm, nor do they think of farming as a hobby. Once concentrated in the giant farms of California's Central Valley, Latinx migrant workers are now working throughout the country, even on the smaller farms of New England. Undocumented migrants or those with H2A visas are targets of vacillating immigration policy and enforcement, which allows bosses to use the threat of deportation to underpay and mistreat workers with little to no legal consequence. This mostly benefits agribusiness, but it also depresses the pay structure for all farmworkers. And so do volunteers.
How did the economics of farming become so screwed up? It's easy but near-sighted to blame what Wendell Berry called the “unsettling of America” when Earl Butz's USDA accelerated the transition to agribusiness dominance, and to see the mechanization of labor and the increasing size and cost of machinery as driving that.
But on a civil rights tour through Alabama this winter I smacked my white head with a “duh!” when it struck me. It's slavery, stupid.
It's Indigenous land theft, too, of course. That I remember from my Sociology of Small Farming class in college in the '70s. But even that class didn't delve into the nefarious economic legacies of slavery and sharecropping., Never corrected, the legacies of land theft and slavery remain the crooked cornerstones of America's food system.
And for all our organic grooviness, our co-op's beneficent offer of free room and board was only a few steps removed from the lie slaveholders told themselves that they “treated their slaves well” — gave them food, housing, and clothing. (Of course, that delusion willfully ignored their extremely bad treatment of enslaved people’s bodies and families and the fact that slave labor grew the food and cotton and made the housing and clothing.)
What worries me most at this moment in history is the slippery slope. With food insecurity on the rise and housing increasingly unaffordable, more people may be tempted to work for free for room and board. It is survival, not "experience." Isn't that too close to slavery, even without ownership, whips, and chains?
This slippery slope really hit home when our cooperative housed WWOOFers during the COVID lockdown. Coming and going was no longer a matter of hippies cruising through for a few hours of weeding, a dip in the pond, and a farm-to-table meal. It was an actual matter of life and death. Two-week quarantines before people could move in or out felt eerily unfree.
How much worse was it for the “essential” but still grossly undervalued farmworkers?
A wholesale restructuring of farm economics is necessary. Labor and land have been stolen for so long that the persistent effects are invisible to policymakers. Time to remove the blinders from the mule. And to think more radically about work and the humans doing it.
So what would just and regenerative farm economics look like?
Karina Lutz, she/hers, has worked as a sustainable energy advocate, as an editor, reporter, and magazine publisher; and making food, clothing, shelter, and poetry. She was co-founder of Listening Tree Co-op in Chepachet, RI, and now lives in Shelburne Falls, MA.