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UW study looks at CSA labor issues

posted: December 26. 2017 07:13a CST
by / Sara Bredesen, Regional Editor |

Community-supported agriculture is a model in which consumers buy shares in a farm’s production at the beginning of a growing season and receive a portion of the harvest as the season progresses. It is a model that provides an accessible entry point for beginning farmers in a time of limited access to capital, high land values and unstable markets, according to Wisconsin Farmers Union.

WFU hosted the Midwest CSA Conference Dec. 7-8 in Wisconsin Dells to give existing CSA owners an opportunity to network and to provide useful tips and guidance to those who are new to CSAs or thinking about beginning an enterprise.

CSAs are good at developing community involvement in local food networks and helping farmers avoid vulnerabilities of the commodity market, said Sarah Lloyd, special projects coordinator for WFU, but an area that isn’t well understood is the question of what constitutes decent work and decent wages. Lloyd is part of a team working with the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems developing a series of case studies that look at issues of labor and wages on CSA farms. The CSA study is part of a larger study on domestic fair trade and decent work.

For the study, Lloyd worked with Michelle Miller, Kelly Maynard, John Hendrickson and other researchers from UW-CIAS in focus groups and in-depth interviews of owners and workers on three Wisconsin CSA farms.

Previous studies have found that the CSA model isn’t fully understood by the public and is often idealized and romanticized, Lloyd said.

“It’s the same critique as organic. The consumer goes into the store and says, ‘I want to buy organic product,’ and then they ascribe all these other qualities and values to that label when really organic is only certifying the production practices,” Lloyd said. “It doesn’t have anything about labor, about how much a farmer is paying himself or things like that.”

Interviewers identified several themes running through discussions with the different groups. One was that the closeness of workers to their employers — some even lived on the farm — made them less willing to ask for higher wages or benefits. Lloyd said it really came out in the focus groups when workers said they realized how hard the farmers were working, so they didn’t want to push harder for themselves.

They also heard from workers that their seasonal jobs meant more worries over housing, off-again-on-again work, and low pay compared to other short-time seasonal work.

“We heard from the farm workers that it was really a point of stress,” Lloyd said. “They like working on farms — many of them had originally aspired to become farmers themselves — but a lot of them were rethinking it.”

Farms in the case study project were selected because they had done something special to improve labor opportunities for their hired workers, Maynard said.

Springhill Community Farm in northwest Wisconsin near Prairie Farm has been around for more than 25 years and started from the beginning with a core group of members involved with farm decisions.

“One of the things (owners Mike Racette and Patty Wright) really emphasize is that many of the good business decisions that they have made — better health insurance, better retirement plan, increasing the wage of their hired workers — have all been at the request of their core group,” Maynard said. “The core group has driven it.”

She said other studies showed that CSAs with a strong core group tended to be more profitable than those without.

Many CSA farms, especially early in their development, are unable to pay higher wages or provide benefits until the farm is on firm footing, Maynard said.

Some of the focus groups said they provided non-wage benefits, like excess produce and profit sharing to their employees. Even something as simple as being clear about work hours and expectations can be considered a perk by some workers.

Another concern early in the CSA development stage is that many farm owners aren’t paying themselves a decent wage.

“So when it comes time to think about what you should be paying people on your farm, you’ll be thinking maybe too low, because you’ve been working your way up to that fair wage for what you do,” said Michelle Miller.

When it is finally time to increase wages and perhaps increase the cost of a share to make it happen, the member customers need to have the facts.

Blue Moon Community Farm in Dane County went to its share members with a clear explanation of how money on the farm was spent so questions of wages and benefits made more sense.

CSA owners open their doors to members so they see firsthand what is happening there and so they can meet the people doing the work. Comments from case study interviews said that having members visit the farm on a regular basis had benefits when it was time to raise wages or improve worker benefits.

“They knew who (the workers) were, knew where that money was going and felt good about it,” Maynard said.

Consumers need to know that farming doesn’t provide a “well full of piled dollar bills” that can be drawn on during the winter, she said.

“As more and more conversations are happening societally about wages and things like that, if people are going to have this really romantic vision about our farm, that’s not a bad thing, but let’s include in that vision (the understanding) that ‘my dollar is going to pay my farmer well and their employees well, and I know that because I’ve seen the breakdown,’ “ she said.

Field work on the study has been completed, and participants are in the process of writing up the results. They plan to make them available as electronic files by June.

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