True Cost of Food and the True Value of Farm Labor?

It is often taken as gospel that the higher prices of food that has been “sustainably” farmed is a reflection of the “true cost” of food. As for myself, I haven’t questioned this particular piece of dogma either.

Until now. Not that I am rejecting the entire proposition. But I am thinking about the implied corollary to this statement, which is that if “sustainable” food  captures the “true cost” of food, then it must be paying “true value” for all of its inputs.

Which is why this article caught my eye. I applaud the initiative of the people described in the article; indeed I can see myself in their shoes. (I traded a career and a chunk of home equity to get into the farming business at age 35, the twilight of “young”.) But the article describes them earning $7 to $9 per hour, and in one instance working a month for free, since the farm could not pay them.

What is striking to me is that these wages are less then is commonly paid in my corner of California for farm labor, most of whom it is safe to say are not college educated. So is $7 to $9 per hour really the “true value” of farm labor? If that is the case, than Southern California farmers are apparently benevolent, rather than exploitative as is often charged.

The difference is that these neo-farmers are driven by passion, while for most farmworkers, the job is just a paycheck. So the question becomes, does this really mark a path toward sustainability? Like any industry, agriculture benefits from new minds and fresh energy, so this is a good thing. On the other hand, this newly found source of cheap labor, while “renewable”, is probably very finite. Will this resource last? Will the many small farms that rely on this type of labor continue to be able to attract volunteers as their model is adopted on wider scales?

In the long term, we will have to come face to face with two unpleasant truths.

Firstly, farming is not and generally has never been, aspirational. Sadly the history of mankind is the tale of people inventing ever more clever ways to get away from the farm. (A more detailed reflection on this point here.)

Secondly, much of the toil in agriculture is confined to entry level jobs that require few skills, no higher education, and in some cases, not even literacy in the prevailing language of the region. Such jobs are unlikely ever to pay very well, whether the worker holds a master’s degree or a green card.

9 thoughts on “True Cost of Food and the True Value of Farm Labor?

  1. Interesting post, thank you. Up here in San Francisco, we have limited visibility into farm economics, but it seems clear that relying on the passion of young people (and their resultant willingness to be underpaid) is not a sustainable model.

  2. I think you hit on it with that word “passion.” It can make the difference. I also think its generational… there are a lot of the under 45 crowd who simply don’t buy what was sold in their youth (e.g. “greed is good”) and have zereo faith in their elders. Doing the opposite of what they shoulod do (like these college educated going back to the farm) is appealing. Even if it does not pay well and holds only a lifetime of toil.

  3. Hey… Thanks for reading, AJ! Who’d have thought we’d be discussing sustainable agriculture (via computer no less) back in our Evanston days!

  4. Chris, I would not have thought it at all! But happy to read on and discuss. Its what X’ers do… they take the grand philosophies trupheted (but never actually followed) by the Boomers and turn it into actualy living, breathing lifestyles. Glad I found your blog.

  5. I’m a young farmer who has learned everything I know from two season-long farm apprenticeships. My salaries, not including the provided housing, food, internet and phone service, were $700 per month, and $600 per month, respectively. I generally worked 50 hours a week. When you compare that to the cost of my liberal arts education, it seems like a pretty good deal. What many assessments of farm apprenticeship salaries fail to take into account is the dramatic difference between the work performed in a well-run apprenticeship (where the emphasis is on a gaining the skills and holistic perspective to one day farm on your own) and the work performed in the strawberry fields of California by farm workers who receive minimum wage. If you are interested, I’ve written a longer piece addressing this concern here:

    Not all apprenticeship are equal, but I believe that my compensation has been more than adequate. Next season I will be farming on my own.

    • MK – Your article is excellent… I remember reading it when it was posted originally a few weeks back. You make the case that you were paid both in money and knowledge, and received a good value for your efforts. This is an excellent point, and one that I happily concede. I am a fan of internship type programs; my skepticism is limited to whether there are enough young people willing to undertake agriculture as a career, internship or not. In a way, your article provides evidence in support of this (admittedly pessimistic) view. It seems clear that most of your peers did not “get” your choice. If they do not, who will? If reinventing the food system means returning 10% of the population to the farm, will they go?

  6. Those two “truths” about agriculture certainly apply to the industrial model, but sustainable agriculture proves an exception to the rule. At the farms where I’ve worked, an unskilled, uneducated, and illiterate worker would have been useless. Farming – when it’s done right – requires curiosity, awareness, intelligence, and sensitivity. As long as agricultural work challenges mind, body, and spirit, people will aspire to it.

    • The reality of hard physical labor, low economic returns, and a population outflow from farms to cities predates the 20th Century Industrial system by centuries if not millennia. While it is popular to blame all the ills of agriculture on Monsanto and post WWII food policy, these are trends that have been in existence for some time. For all it’s faults (I concede that they are numerous) the chemical and machinery intensive industrial model has been an adaptive strategy to deal with the loss of manpower, which it in turn has helped to fuel.

      Yes, good farming does require the attributes you describe. And there are some people that aspire to it. You and I, for instance. But are we anywhere near the tipping point that brings about a new agrarian society? I see no proof that we are. Personally, I don’t think that means sustainable ag is a failure. The movement is a grand experiment in alternative crops and practices, new distribution channels, business models, and renewed consumer relationships with their food. These are filtering into the mainstream. My forecast is that the lines between “sustainable” and “conventional” are blurring (in a good way), and we are in the early stages of an “evolutionary” shift toward a more sustainable system, rather than a “revolutionary” turn away from the past.

  7. MK and Andrew: First off, Thanks to both of you for reading, which I appreciate. Please come back in a day or so, because I would like to post a more thoughtful response than time permits this morning. (The farm beckons, as I’m sure you can understand.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s