Parity for Diversified Family-Scale Produce Farms, Like Mine

Elizabeth HendersonFarmer Voices on Parity, Food Sovereignty

This year, in 2021, the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. I have been an active participant in the movement for local organic food and farming for over 40 years, and NOFA is  a member of this coalition. From its beginnings as a small group of would-be farmers and organic food enthusiasts with slim resources but a lot of energy, NOFA has been dedicated to supporting and promoting organic farming, gardening, and homesteading, and creating local markets that would enable family-scale organic farms to exist. Before Via Campesina created the phrase, NOFA worked for food sovereignty.

Members of NOFA share the following foundational values:

  • Love of nature and humility about the role of humans;
  • the health of the soil is key to plant, human and animal health;
  • the way we choose to live demands peace and justice;
  • everything is interconnected, resilience depends on diversity, cooperation beats competition;
  • and not only what we do, but that we do it with love and compassion is essential.

As a grassroots organization with more volunteers than staff, the 5,000 or so members of the seven NOFA chapters put most of our energy into the day-to-day work of spreading organic know-how through conferences, workshops, field days, newsletters, social media, and raising the money to keep afloat, always a challenge for small not-for-profits. We also publish The Natural Farmer, a quarterly: each issue with a special focus on topics like soil health, hemp, food sovereignty, and farm labor. In the early days, there was no university or government support.  NOFA was what is now called a community of practice; if you knew how to do something, you shared it with others, farmer to farmer, gardener to gardener, cook to cook. Helping new people get started with learning and resources has been a central goal.

Once a year, the NOFA Interstate Council, a group that lightly coordinates among the state chapters, takes the time to step back and think about the bigger picture: what organizational cooperation, political alliances, and policy changes would make the work of building local organic food systems easier? We have been learning about carbon farming, parity, and supply management, and the productive intersections that can result, and recently doing a lot of soul searching and action on white supremacy and racial justice.

On behalf of the Interstate Council, I co-founded the Agricultural Justice Project  (AJP) which seeks to keep fairness, a fundamental principle in organic agriculture worldwide, alive in the US since fair pricing, livable wages to workers, and respectful treatment were left out of the National Organic Program. AJP created a certification program, Food Justice Certified, that could be applied to any kind of food business in the US that qualified through fair and non-toxic practices. Along with the other members of that board, I have spoken and written about how food justice means more than access – it must include the people who do the work to bring the food to your table.

Though it is all too easy to lose sight of lofty principles when the bottom line for farming is so tenuous, we seek to recreate the agricultural system based on our shared values.  For this transformation to be possible, we need parity across the board. I share here some reflections based on my experience as an organic-farmer about how I’ve come to think about cooperative farming, the threat of corporate concentration, and the path to embodying the basic principles of worldwide organic agriculture in our way of life.

My Farm Story: Leaving Boston for Greener Pastures

In 1979, I chose to move to a farm seeking a safe, healthy place to raise my son where I could grow food that I knew for sure was free of additives. I was a refugee from traffic jams, parking garages where women were raped and robbed, and toxic spills that spread poisonous fumes through the neighborhood where my child went to school. Widowed and working as a an assistant professor at Boston University, I was tired of schools and classrooms and wanted to find a way of life where I could be true to my values of care for the earth and social justice for the people who live on it. As a leader of a successful strike, Boston University was unlikely to give me tenure (the professional guarantee of freedom of speech). Anyway, I did not care to make my career at a school headed by a Academia did not seem like the place where I could live out my values.

I was well aware that a farm crisis was underway, yet somehow that did not deter me at all. The beauty of working close to nature while living in the country drew me. I soon discovered that I enjoyed physical labor the way I had as a teenager at Putney Summer Work camp where I had my first experience on a farm. I thought I would be able to continue teaching through a prison education program, Beacon University’s school without walls, and as a widow with a young child, I received social security so I did not need to earn much more. the life of my childhood sweetheart and the father of my child.

Learning the Limitations Put on Produce Farmers

Within a few years at Unadilla Farm in Gill, Massachusetts, my farm partners and I were covering farm expenses through produce sales. Those expenses did not yet include wages for me, the main farmworker, or health insurance. But homesteading did not require a lot of cash.

We had the time to do things for ourselves. We ate well, mostly food we raised or bartered with farm friends. If the food co-op did not have it, we did not eat it, and we heated our solar house with firewood cut on the farm and made a solar water heater in the greenhouse. This was a very different way of life from university teaching.

Farms that produce fruit and vegetables do not receive the kinds of federal supports given for storable crops like corn, soy beans, wheat, etc. Produce farms must sink or swim in global markets that put family-scale producers in competition with shipments from all over the world. While most food co-ops give preference in purchasing to local farms, most big chain groceries do not, or may offer a little as a nod to appease consumer preference. (Take the head produce manager of a Hannaford’s grocery store who once defined local as “accessible by air freight within 24 hours.”) Smaller co-ops may curtail local sales in order to meet the minimum order required by the ever fewer and bigger distributors of organic vegetables. Distributors of West Coast produce often demand year-round purchasing if co-ops want to buy from them in the winter. That was what I encountered in the marketplace when I became a full-time organic vegetable farmer.

The first few years of farming I tried out every kind of market I could find. I sold to grocery chains and some independent groceries near Greenfield, MA. I sold to restaurants. I sold to farmers’ markets, learning valuable lessons from every kind of sale.

In the mid-80s, my farm was one of the first organic farms to sell to Bread & Circus grocery stores, which had branches in Boston and Northampton (it was soon after gobbled up by Whole Foods). The store advertised that it carried locally grown produce, but when a California supplier offered organic lettuce for one penny less a head than I was asking, I learned that they would (and did) drop my lettuce with no explanation.

I learned that if I visited restaurant chefs between the lunch and dinner rushes and gave away some samples, explaining how I grew them, that I could get chefs to place an order. The best restaurant I found was Common Ground, a worker-owned cooperative in Brattleboro, VT. Larry Jacobson, the chef, organized an annual meeting of all the farm suppliers so that we could coordinate our sales and take turns with crops like green beans that required a lot of labor.

I joined the Pioneer Valley Growers Association where I was the only organic farmer and the only woman.  I took a lot of razzing – one farmer liked to tease me by saying “I drank Captan [a fungicide]for breakfast.”  But I learned a lot about industry requirements for packing.

 I sold at the Greenfield Farmers Market that my dear friend and mentor Juanita Nelson initiated and inspired. The lesson I learned there was that I should market as much as possible of my farm’s production directly to customers so that my farm’s budget could take the markup charged by the middlemen. By pricing my vegetables just slightly less than the retail price, I could attract customers by the saving of a few pennies.

Working on a farm and homesteading as much as possible is a satisfying way to live. But you should not have to take vows of poverty to become a farmer. It was acting on that conviction that led me to seek alternative models of farming and to become involved in agricultural policy.

Community Supported Agriculture: A Cooperative Farming Model for Farmer and Consumer

In the mid-80s, I did a lot of reading on how to organize a farm that was ecological in practices but also financially successful. I read NOFA’s The Natural Farmer, the books of Gene Logsdon, “New Farm” magazine, and Booker T. Whatley’s "Handbook on How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres." Whatley’s book especially was full of great suggestions for additional value-added enterprises if you had the skills, such as running a small dairy, raising chickens and bees, and for luring subscribers to your farm with u-pick vegetables and berries.

Due to the ongoing farm crisis, there were many farmers struggling with the same thorny problem: how to make family-scale farms economically viable. Through NOFA conferences I met the visionary farmer Robyn Van En, who introduced me to the concept of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Robyn was exhausted by trying to make a living running a farm and from hearing about the struggles of other family-scale farmers. She and the circle of Biodynamic adherents she was close to were determined to design a model that would shift the financial burden from the fragile shoulders of farmers by building a community around the farm. CSA goes one step beyond Whatley’s subscription model by asking the members to share the risks with the farmers. Consumers opt in at the beginning of a season to pay the costs of running a farm upfront, and in turn get farm goods – or ‘shares’ – throughout the growing/raising season. When crops are abundant, members get more. When bad conditions reduce crops, members get less for the same amount of money. No refunds are provided when drought or flood hits the farm.

When I moved back to my home state of New York in 1988, my farm partner and I agreed to run our operation as a commercial enterprise and to make our main source of income. In Wayne County, NY, we were not located close to a farmers’ market where we could expect sales of more than $100 a week, and we could already see that much larger organic farms in CA would undersell us in grocery stores like Wegman’s. We needed to sell direct so that we would have some control over the prices we received and so we decided to try the CSA model. As an experiment, we proposed that to keep the price of the shares as low as possible; everyone would participate either in the farm work, in distribution, or by doing administrative jobs as members of a core committee. We set the share price on a sliding scale so that no one would be excluded because of inability to pay, and the farm was already authorized to accept food stamps. Share pick-up was at the farm and at the Abundance Food Co-op in Rochester. (Cooperation between cooperatives, Rochdale’s 6th principle of cooperation, has proven its value over and over.) The farm work turned out to be as popular as the vegetables, and even when I moved, starting over as Peacework Organic Farm, and the CSA grew to over 300 households, members continued helping with the harvests and serving on the core group.

As the CSA became a more significant portion of our farm sales, we began to share the farm budget with the members to educate them about the realities of farming, but it had an unexpected result: members were shocked at how little we farmers earned and that there were no lines in our budget for health insurance or retirement. I sat in amazement while the core group, the tone of indignation in their voices rising, discussed how much less “their farmers” were earning than they were themselves! They decided to increase the share price by $1/member/week so that my partners and I could purchase health insurance and have a small retirement fund.

That doesn’t happen when you sell wholesale. In fresh produce, there are no written contracts and there is constant downward pressure on prices because of competition from distant bigger farms with lower costs per item. The core group advocated for making the contract between the farm and the CSA members something more resembling a fair deal. Even after my retirement and the leasing of the farmland to new farmers who no longer have a CSA program, the former core group from our farm continues to facilitate shares to members with produce from another farm.

In 1989, we were the first CSA within 300 miles of Rochester. Today, there are more than 20 serving the Rochester area. Through the preaching of Robyn Van En, a lot of farmer-to-farmer sharing and many conferences and farm tours, the number of CSAs swelled into the thousands in the ‘90s and then spurted again in the early 2000s. Steven McFaddens’ “Farms of the Future” and Robyn’s and my book “Sharing the Harvest” helped spread the how-to of CSA organization.

In 2007, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) agricultural census asked about CSA for the first time. Unfortunately, the way the question was phrased led to an overestimate: any farm that contributed even one crop to another farm’s CSA was included in the count. The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) repeated that wording in 2012 and announced that there were 12,617 CSAs. However, when NASS surveyed direct sales in 2015, they came up with only 7,398 CSAs. That figure is probably more accurate and suggests that about 10 percent of the 68,377 farms that sell vegetables for the fresh market are doing CSA. Farms that do a good job of explaining to their members why loyalty to their little farm or group of farms is so important, stick to risk sharing and invite participation tend to retain members more effectively. Nevertheless, the low price of vegetables in groceries limits what a CSA can charge.

Elizabeth, the discrepancy between state-sanctioned organic accreditations and the USDA Organic label is confusing and there needs to be some clarifying language about how they’re defined. I think the USDA Organic label came into being in 2002, but you talk about organic certifications beforehand? I think that should be explicit for those of us who are fuzzy on the details and differences.

Creating Organic Certification and the Value of a Loyal Customer Base

Part of my learning as an organic farmer was through a study circle with other farmers in the early 1980’s. We met monthly, took turns leading discussions of issues we wanted to learn about and visited one another’s farms to help out. One session I led was on botanicals, and from my research, we learned that the insecticide Our study circle led us to start the NOFA chapter in Massachusetts in 1983 and to create a statewide organic certification program, one of several dozen programs set up by grassroots organic farming associations before the 1990 Farm Bill authorized the National Organic Program when then took another 12 years to get started. Judy Gillan, the founder of the New England Small Farm Institute and a member of our study circle, had contacts with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and when our circle confronted fraud in the marketplace – conventional carrots were being sold as organic – Judy recommended organic certification for our farms. We started from the IFOAM Basic Standards and then modified them to meet our situation in MA. Since then, almost all organic standards in the US have taken the IFOAM standards as their template.

To arrive at our standards, we used a highly participatory process with meetings around the state where dozens of people discussed what should be included. The meetings went on for hours and were often contentious and heated. Consumers wanted no botanical pesticides. Farmers said they needed a small amount until there was more information available about how to manage pests without them. We decided not to allow bat guano since it had to travel 3,000 miles. Farmers did not want to include split operations, part organic and part conventional, but the biggest organic farm in MA was split and we could see that gradual conversion was the only way they would get to 100 percent organic, which they eventually did.

Our brand-new NOFA chapter was able to get a small federal grant through the MA Department of Agriculture to start our organic certification program. My farm was one of a dozen certified that first year, 1985.

The low prices set by global food markets, and the concern to not only sell to the wealthy, set limits to how much premium a direct sales farm could charge. And it meant that we never could afford to hire enough workers to keep everyone’s work day at eight hours. Dedicated organic shoppers, like the NOFA members who threw their energies into hammering out the standards, were willing to pay a little extra for food that was certified as organic and could be trusted. They understood that using organic practices cost the farms more than using the shortcuts provided by chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and they wanted us to be able to stay in business. That was the origin of the organic premium.( Though I doubt that many organic shoppers went deeper to investigate whether the prices they paid meant that organic farmers could earn a middle-class income or even the hourly minimum wage.)

Those who became our regular customers or CSA members often expressed appreciation for the effort that they saw us farmers put into their food. That appreciation and the satisfaction of providing the best food we could grow to people we came to know as friends made up for the many hardships.

The Co-opting of the Organic Label

By 2002, when the National Organic Program established control over the forty or so private sector organic programs, many shoppers were already familiar with the organic label. By 2018, double-digit growth year after year snowballed into $50 billion in organic sales in the US. As a CSA farm, we could have opted out of organic certification, since we were selling direct; we chose to certify as a way to stand up and be counted by the USDA. The members of our CSA told us many times that the certification was reassuring and they did not want us to give it up. Along with thousands of other family-scale farms, Peacework Organic CSA benefitted from the legitimacy that federal government approval gave the Organic label. And organic farming has brought environmental benefits – healthier soils, freedom from toxic pesticides and herbicides – to over four million acres in this country.

But the USDA Organic label is in trouble – from reports of fraud,[1] from agribusiness pressures, and from the National Organic Program’s failure to enforce the standards with rigor. Conventional corporations have bought up organic brands and taken over the Organic Trade Association. Entrepreneurs for whom profit is more important than being true to the Principles of Organic Agriculture have figured out how to use loopholes in the National Organic Program regulations. As a result, mega dairies and hydroponic vegetable operations are underselling real organic farms, among other issues. 

The lack of contracts between retailers and farmers puts farmers in a precarious position, leading to uncertainty and reduced negotiating power. Since there are so few written contracts in fresh produce, organic farms that sell, for example, soil-grown berries, tomatoes, and peppers to big grocery chains could lose their informal agreements at any moment. Because there is no way for customers to distinguish between soil-grown and hydroponically grown produce that all bear the organic label, many soil-grown sales have already been lost since they are more expensive.

While the verbal contracts for produce are not characterized by the blatant unfairness of the contracts that the big meat processors force on chicken, pork and beef farmers,[2] there is little room for negotiation or the recognition of the farmer’s freedom to associate with other farmers to bargain for a better deal. As far as the terms of buying and selling go, trade in organic products is all too conventional. While organic dairy farms receive a higher price than conventional, the farmer’s share of the final retail dollar is lower. A few of the bigger organic brands are generous in giving out grants to organic farming associations, yet no one ever stops to question why those brands have extra cash, a luxury most farms do not enjoy. The same pressures from corporate domination that have driven out so many conventional farms threaten organic farms too.

Parity Pricing and Supply Management Must Be Accessible for Fruit and Vegetable Farmers

Farms that grow fruit and vegetables, what Farm Bill language calls “specialty crops,” need parity pricing and supply management as much as grain and dairy farms. But because these crops are highly perishable, we have to design a parity system specifically for them. The goal should be to solve at least two of the problems that produce farms face: fluctuating prices and enough skilled labor. At harvest time, every farm in a given area has the same crops to sell, so the supply swells and prices go down. To remedy this, there must be investments in value-added enterprises, preferably farmer or worker-owned co-ops in every county where these crops are grown.

Limiting the supply that is sold fresh would stabilize the price, just as CSA pricing does by charging in advance for an attractive bundle of crops. When excess supply threatens to lower prices, the fruit and vegetables would be frozen, canned, or dried, or made into products that can be stored for use year-round. In addition, investing in local and regional processing would stimulate local economies and provide jobs. Under the Capper-Volstead Act, farmer cooperatives can legally limit supply to ensure that a bumper harvest does not drag down prices and farms. Marketing orders can perform the same function. In designing this new parity system, we can take inspiration and practical pointers from the rich history of cooperatives in this country, especially among African-American farmers who have been able to preserve their farms through the Federation of Southern Coops, despite the hostile, racist environment. We need to delve into that history for ideas for decentralist design, community organization and mutual support.

Produce farmers continually complain that they have trouble finding enough workers who are skilled and reliable, but in most of the country, produce farms need more hands at only certain times of the year. Even where climate allows for year-round production, labor needs fluctuate resulting in jobs that are seasonal, and low-paid to boot. Organizing value-added enterprises could make year-round work possible: part of the year on farms, part spent on processing.  As an example, a group of five apple farms in Wayne County, NY created the Empire Fruit Growers Cooperative, an apple processing facility, to provide year-round work. Some of the workers pick apples or prune trees part of the year and then join the processing team the rest of the year.

Of course, raising wages to livable levels, paying time-and-a-half for overtime and providing a decent package of benefits, health insurance, a day of rest, paid sick and family leave, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and retirement funds would do wonders for attracting and retaining workers. Like farmers, farmworkers need freedom of association so that they can form groups or unions to negotiate fair pay and working conditions. If the farms were guaranteed prices that cover production costs – including these higher wages and benefits, as well as living wages for the farmers themselves – farm work could become the respected and desirable vocation that it deserves to be, especially considering the importance of farm products to human existence and the pleasures of working closely with nature.

To rectify the injustices of the New Deal parity system that allowed landowners to keep government loan money instead of giving sharecroppers their fair portion,[3]  all farmers must be eligible for parity and supply management programs, whether they own land, rent it with cash payments, or farm through sharecropping. It is critical that we find a way to ensure that there is a democratic and participatory system on the county and state levels where stakeholders can hash out decisions about what supply of each crop is optimum, what loan levels are fair and who should get the benefits.

If we hope to build a movement that will have the force to replace the neo-liberal economics of cheap food, corporate concentration and “free” trade agreements and to transform the industrial food system, we farmers need to work as allies with all the other sectors, from seed to table, to provide parity for all farmers and food workers alike. NOFA’s foundational values hold that everything is interconnected, that resiliency depends on diversity, and that the way we choose to live demands peace and justice. Farmers and food workers united in a movement together will have the power to create a new parity system shaped by these values.

2. Conventional contracts include patently unfair clauses: farmers cannot share contract details with other farmers, there is no time permitted for reconsidering, farmers must invest in the capital improvements the buyer requires and are left holding the bag if the buyer reduces the amount purchased or drops the contract altogether, basically, the farmer must take it or leave it.