Farm Journal: Reflections on Labor in Organic Farming

I turned down seven farming positions at the beginning of the 2013 season. All across the United States I’d submitted applications and received offers from California, New York, Vermont, and Minnesota. In January, I declined an offer to attend an elite apprenticeship program in California. Though this experiential learning position had been my dream since I could say the words, “I want to be a farmer,” I couldn’t afford the tuition of three thousand dollars, plus housing, airfare, books, tools, and shared food expenses.


In the months following, I said “no thank you” to a small farm an hour northwest of the Twin Cities that offered me six dollars an hour, a bed in a dirty camper, and on-site port-a-john privileges. I declined an offer in Vermont that offered housing, four hundred dollars a month, and all the veggies I could eat in exchange for twelve-hour days and every other weekend off. In New York, I almost took a job working with draft animals, a raw milk CSA, pigs, chickens, and beef cattle, a butter churn, and a diversified vegetable farm. But I couldn’t rise at five every morning, trudge and ache and work until six in the evening Monday through Saturday, and never work out the kinks in my neck and soothe the stiff muscles in my back for five hundred dollars a month. 



When I was farming at Phillies Bridge in New Paltz, New York in 2011 and 2012, I received only a little more compensation in the form of a stipend, education, and housing, but I was a student my first season and fresh out of college the next year and the grace period on my student loans hadn’t ended, I hadn’t worked up the courage to buy a car, I hadn’t broken my glasses, ripped a hole into my work boots, lost my favorite hat, or hungered for a hug from my grandmother who lives all the way in Alabama. For two years, I could stomach the low pay and the tiny room and the filthy shared kitchen. I also loved my boss and my co-workers and the cute kittens I sometimes snuck into my room.


When little cash rolled in and all of my savings began flying out for student debt and car insurance and miscellaneous necessary expenses, my ability to work for next to nothing crumbled and I almost decided I wouldn’t be able to farm in 2013 or maybe ever again. Now don’t get me wrong, no one ever told me there was money to be made pulling carrots and picking cucumbers. I never worked my hands to raw blisters and hard calluses because of the promise of a biweekly fat paycheck. I always knew my mid-July sock tan would last longer than any money I ever made on a farm. But after college, after living away from my family and the southern humidity for five years, I ached for a visit home, something my meager paycheck never seemed able to give me.


When I interviewed for my job with Gardens of Eagan, farm manager, Linda Halley, reflected on the tendency of young farmers to build their agricultural enterprises with the labor of poorly paid workers whom they compensate with farm vegetables, occasionally sub-par housing, and “education” in lieu of a regular, accurate paycheck. And she spoke further about her belief that farmers should pay their labor, intern, apprentice, or seasonal worker with a fair living wage. All too often new farmers believe that their employees should survive on low wages because they had to do the same.




So often, I feel anger toward the system, our government that keeps the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour and almost always lower for agricultural workers depending on the business income, a practice that grew from a history of money-hungry racism and a compromise made by FDR to appease his political adversaries. Laws surrounding wages, overtime dues, and other employee practices in the agricultural field differ greatly from other service positions, in that employers can legally pay their labor less. Apprenticeships and internships, common avenues for young farmers to first get their hands in the earth, operate differently from other employee models by offering housing and education, even though they still run a similar business.


Beginning farmers in the organic and sustainable movement blossom from a radical ideology that the current food system in the United States is functionally broken, displaced, and unfair. Through a diversity of crops, a lack of nuclear chemicals give the finger to the “pesticide man” and fight the agro-business systems of power. At the same time, though, they often leave their employees financially broken and barely scraping by. Simultaneously, they discourage certain groups of people from entering into the sustainable agriculture movement as farmers, by favoring a class of typically young people, with no student debt, no children or families, and no medical expenses or other largely monetary needs.


How can we, as young (young meaning new, beginning, burgeoning) organic radicals, work to fight the system and change our food ways if we cannot pay our employees the wages they so rightfully deserve? Should we not challenge ourselves to break out of the cycles instituted by corporate conventional agriculture instead of clinging to the laws that cause workers to struggle and leave the season with little savings and a body of sore muscles and callused skin?  



I understand that our food systems are broken, that most farmers, conventional or organic, struggle to make ends meet and keep their tractors running. I understand, also, the privilege I have earned to bunch kale and pack broccoli at Gardens of Eagan.


From the pens of Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Barbara Kingsolver, and Eric Schlosser, we’ve read that fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy grown and consumed in the United States are one of our biggest undervalued commodities. Statistics argue that in this country, we use only a small fraction of our income to put food in our bellies.



New studies, stories, and my own lived experience tell me that a large percentage of the population struggle to make ends meet. We live paycheck to paycheck and would likely starve or turn to more highly processed, less local foods to satiate the grumbling hunger pangs booming within. In a recent news report, I learned that 7 billion dollars in public assistance attempts to help support our underpaid and overworked fast food service workers, while their industry brings in a profit of 7.4 billion dollars a year, enough to give our minimum wage earners the raise they deserve.



The food system in this country sickens me, pushes my stomach into my throat, makes me pull out my hair, sends me wandering and lost into coops and grocery stores, unsure of where and how to spend my little hard-earned money.


Gardens of Eagan was a blessing – it’s the best money I’ve ever made and the first position that fully realized and appreciated the work and commitment that I and everyone else pours into the job. But if I didn’t get ten bunches of free kale and twelve heads of free broccoli and four cases of free red peppers every week, or even every day, I couldn’t eat organic, locally grown food. I wouldn’t have money left over (and sometimes I don’t) to buy delicious pastured butter or organic olive oil or fair trade locally-roasted coffee from my neighborhood coop. I would have to get over the feelings of embarrassment and hypocrisy and buy my groceries from Rainbow or Cub Foods. Because, farm workers often cannot afford the food they grow. And the blame is rooted so deeply in history and systems and government policy, I have nowhere and everywhere to point the finger. As much as we coop swooners love to believe, shopping on a coop budget is impossible. Though budgets are tangible, the value of time, convenience, and cultural relativity cannot be calculated.


Because these root systems grow deep, underground, often invisible to the people of this country, I am unsure where to begin digging and where and to whom I should direct my anger. So I call on you, dear readers, to help me process and sort out the tangled roots I’ve attempted to lay out for you here. How can we begin working toward solutions and rebuilding a food system in which compensation is fair and no one goes hungry? I welcome your comments and discussion.


Katie Willis is a native of Birmingham, Alabama, where she grew up with NASCAR, twangs and drawls, and lots of fried okra. Her farming career began on an urban farm in Birmingham, where she ate arugula and swiss chard for the first time in her life. Eventually she moved to rural New York to work with chickens, goats, and really strong women. She enjoys a rowdy round of arm wrestling, discussions on all things related to heternormativity, seasonal food preservation, long bike rides, Toni Morrison, and ice-cold beer. Katie recently moved to the Twin Cities with her girlfriend, Lily. They live in Powderhorn and eat lots of butter, maple syrup, and frozen kale. This year marks her seventh season with soil underneath her fingernails and a bounty in her fridge.  Her last post for SGT was Farm Journal: Preparing for the End of Things.