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Labor on an organic farm – harmony or harm


Patrons of organic production stress the importance of environmentalism and animal rights in agricultural practices.

But are they as concerned about human rights? Would they buy an organic product which used laborers who were abused and underpaid?

All food for thought in Elton Robinson's weekly blog.

A young, unmarried friend of mine is leaving his corporate job to travel across America. Like a lot of young adults who are having trouble settling down these days, he wants more than the cubicle, the couch and ESPN. A little downtime from the rat race is lubricant for the soul, all that.

My friend has expressed a desire to work on an organic farm. One organization he’s looked at, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is an association of organic farm operators all over the world willing to give free room and board to people who are willing to work and learn about organic farming and lifestyles. There are no wages or benefits. The operations are typically small and run by families.

A cynic might see this as marketing at its lowest – a modern day Huck Finn bamboozle. When people receive nothing but room and board in exchange for their work on a farm, it’s akin to 1930s-era tenant farming.

On the other hand, most farmers experience the labor crunch during the year. If you can convince someone to work for room and board, more power to you. While working for nothing may seem like Huckleberry’s whitewash, seeing some actual dirt going down the shower drain at the end of the day can swell the chest a bit.

I did a little research on organic farming to see what my adventurous buddy was getting into. I was stunned by the incredible amount of misinformation floating around out there.

One organic blog commenter was under the woefully-mistaken impression that there was a terminator gene “out there” in conventional farming that precluded farmers from re-planting seed. It is amazing how persistent this claim continues to be.

And there’s also quite a number of people who believe that organic farming will eventually replace conventional agriculture because they think it yields better, and its bounty safer and more nutritious, all of which are proven fallacies.


See this Scientific American blogfor more on organic farming myths.


And then there’s the little problem of labor. If you supersize the organic model, you’re going to need more than a volunteer work force.We would all like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, but geez, at some point people have to make a little money.

Which takes us to the bigger organic farms – where wages are paid to workers.

My Web research turned up quite a number of complaints about abuse on these operations. After investigating one such farm, a United Farm Worker spokesperson said of the organic business. “There’s a common conventional wisdom by a lot of consumers, especially at the higher-end stores, that just because it’s organic, the workers are treated better. And that’s simply not true.”

Something to think about. By the way, if you run into my young friend working on an organic farm, please ask him to stay in touch with friends and family.



Discuss this Blog Entry 3

Nick Naranja (not verified)
on May 3, 2013

We could kill 2 birds with one stone by implementing organic agriculture across the country. First, we would eliminate welfare programs and we would ship poor urbanites and suburbanites to the heartland to work on organic farms. Since obesity tends to be a problem in poor urban areas, we would also fix that problem since spending all day with a hoe in your hand tends to burn a lot of calories.

Organic Farmer (not verified)
on May 4, 2013

This is simply pure nonsense! We do not employ WWWOOFers but will not listen to tripe either. The folks who do this find it more as opportunity, exploration and research than work. While serious farms may support the service the majority of the labor is hired or family.

This is another in the long string of a disinformation campaign orchestrated by a troubled industry! You do not find real organic farmers blaming everyone but themselves for their lot in life. We also do not live off the government dole.

Farm girl (not verified)
on May 5, 2013

Nick Naranja, your comment brought tears of laughter to my eyes, as I recounted the first year we went back to using local labor for cotton harvest. (as opposed to the H2A guest worker program, ie legal Mexicans) One man quit after 2 hours. A couple more quit after their first paycheck--they left at lunch on a Friday and never came back. Of the ones who stayed, about half of them showed up for work drunk or hungover on the weekends. And one in particular nearly got run over by a tractor when he curled up and went to sleep in a grassy area beside the field. Holding high ideals and expectations is all well and good, but then some of us must deal with reality. LOL

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