Farm worker project on social justice in organic agriculture

Final Report for CNE06-011

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2006: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
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Project Information


CATA has made significant progress during the grant period (April 1, 2006 to October 31, 2007). The grant has allowed CATA to achieve the stated objectives of the project. First and foremost amongst these objectives is to build the capacity of the farmworker community to actively participate in the development of social justice labels, and the broader nascent domestic fair trade movement. During the grant period CATA has implemented the pilot of its Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) in conjunction with its project partners. A concrete outcome of the pilot is a functional, working model of social justice certification that can now be replicated and more broadly adopted. CATA’s working group has met on a regular basis to oversee the progress of the project and make any decisions needed to guide staff in all steps being made. Farmworker members of CATA’s working group participated in farm audits as part of the pilot certification, engaging both farmers and farmworkers in mutual dialogue about fairness and justice in the workplace. CATA’s members have also been active in the formation of the Domestic Fair Trade Association, bringing the workers’ voice into the process of transition from the Domestic Fair Trade Working Group to a more formal structure. This has helped to ensure direct worker participation in all aspects of the development of domestic fair trade labels, from vision to detailed technical decisions.

Project Objectives:
  • Build the capacity of CATA’s leadership and membership, who will then take an active role in development, oversight, and advocacy for this project.

    Form a permanent working group of our most interested members that will meet on a regular basis.

    Facilitate the direct participation of farmworkers in conferences or outside meetings whenever possible.

    Pilot the standards on organic farms, including site visits and communication with the farmers.

    Conduct outreach to its own membership and the broader farmworker community through its existing structure and popular communications network.

    Promote the dissemination of information about the project to the broader sustainable agriculture community through its participation in existing networks and coalitions.

    Educate the public regarding the potential benefits of social justice labels.


See Summary


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  • Carlos Diaz
  • Oralia Guzman
  • Ana Maria Vasquez
  • Jose Arturo Zavala


Materials and methods:

The methods used in this project are consistent with CATA’s general methodology. El Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas (CATA) is a non-profit, migrant farmworker organization governed by and comprised of farmworkers. In addressing the issues faced by farmworkers, CATA employs a four-pronged approach: 1) leadership development of the community, 2) capacity building through training, 3) building a broad base of support, and 4) educating the public.

CATA’s methodology in its work is to empower and educate farmworkers through leadership development so that they are equipped with the skills needed to effectively challenge the structures that oppress them. CATA’s work, which is based on Popular Education Methodology, provides the workers the forum in which to identify specific areas of concern, and facilitates group participation for developing and implementing action or educational initiatives to address their needs. The methodology used develops leadership skills and capacity building among farmworkers.

CATA involves farmworkers in every aspect of the project from program inception to development, implementation and evaluation. CATA engages farmworkers through extensive outreach efforts inviting them to participate in CATA’s programs and become members. In CATA’s annual Assembly, the farmworker membership sets the agenda, evaluates the past year’s work and the long-term work plan of the organization, presents mandates to guide the work of the organization, and elects farmworkers to the CATA Board of Directors, which develops the policies of the organization.

Programs and activities are evaluated by the actual participants and recommendations are given. The program is then evaluated and amended by the local Concilio. Finally, CATA’s Board of Directors reviews the program and communicates the work plan to the staff and constituency of the organization. This method of evaluation reflects the commitment of the organization to have programs originate at the grassroots level. It is through this process that the workers determine the needs of their community and develop and evaluate the means for addressing those needs. Through this process, workers also integrate their evaluation into mandates for future activities of the organization.

An integral component of this project in particular has been the project working group, consisting of CATA’s members most interested in this work. The working group met on average every two months, and more often as needed. The group also coordinated and communicated on a continual basis between meetings to advance its work. The working group advised and guided the work of the organization throughout the project, and served as a conduit between staff and the broader membership of the organization. This was facilitated by the fact that three of the working group members sit on CATA’s Board of Directors, including the organization’s President.

CATA also conducted outreach concerning this project to its own membership and the broader community through its existing structure and popular communications network. This included meetings and presentations, as well as the newsletter, Siembra, in both Spanish and English. During the grant period CATA also developed a webpage dedicated to the project on CATA’s website (in both Spanish and English), and worked with its AJP project partners to develop a separate AJP website. Articles were also published in CATA’s English version of Siembra to inform CATA’s supporters and the general public. In addition, presentations were conducted for CATA’s board of directors and for the general membership at CATA’s annual assembly in October, in order to ensure the whole organization’s involvement in the project.

A key component of this project was to develop the methodology to conduct audits (site visits) on participating farms as part of the pilot certification. Farmworkers from CATA’s working group took part in these site visits, giving these workers the opportunity to directly engage both the farmers and workers involved in the pilot project, in order to assess the labor relations and working conditions on the farm, as well as the fairness of the farmers’ contracts with their buyers. As follow up, CATA helped to prepare reports submitted to the farmer, with recommendations on how to further improve conditions for workers on the farm. More broadly, farmworkers’ input has shaped the overall model being developed for certification and verification. Workers’ direct involvement in all these stages proved to be invaluable to this process.

Research results and discussion:

As the farmworkers’ organization that is participating most deeply in this process, CATA plays a unique role, and is working to ensure that workers’ rights and priorities are held to a sufficiently “high bar”, in order to avoid false or unsubstantiated claims from being made about workplace justice. It is workers themselves who need to be in the lead of setting such a bar, and CATA’s work is facilitating this outcome, both in its own project (AJP) as well the broader Domestic Fair Trade Association (DFTA).

CATA’s involvement in the social justice label project has ensured that workers are fully participating in the pilot by helping to draft implementation procedures, conducting site-visits as part of a team to evaluate the reality on the ground on the pilot farms, and convening larger stakeholder meetings of organizations promoting domestic fair trade and social justice in organic agriculture. Workers are communicating directly with sectors of society they normally are unable to interact with on a deep level, such as family farmers and their associations, certifying agencies, fair trade organizations, and consumers’ associations.

Throughout the grant period CATA has been implementing its pilot project in conjunction with its project partners (including RAFI-USA, NOFA, and Florida Organic Growers). Six organic farmers around the nation are participating in the pilot project. All hire migrant and immigrant workers, and all have committed to negotiate with their workers over the terms of employment and to respect their workers’ rights, including the right to organize. This in and of itself is a unique achievement that will greatly benefit workers on those farms, over 120 workers in total. But more importantly, this pilot will serve as a model for other farmers around the nation (see discussion under Potential Contributions).

During the grant period CATA has held two meetings of AJP’s national Advisory Committee, which consists of eighteen people representing the entire spectrum of the food and agricultural supply chain: farmers, farmworkers, processors, retailers, and certifiers (as well as several technical experts). CATA also sent a delegation consisting of staff and members to the second annual meeting of the Domestic Fair Trade Working Group in 2006, and engaged in the planning process for the first official meeting of the DFTA (held in late November 2007). CATA facilitated ongoing involvement by other farmworker organizations in this process (see below) and worked with our project partner RAFI to ensure attendance and participation in the DFT meetings by a variety of farmworkers’ organizations and family farmers. Workers’ direct involvement in all these stages proved to be invaluable to this process.

We have deepened relationships with key decision-makers in the growing domestic fair trade movement, such as Equal Exchange, Organic Valley, and Farmer Direct, an organic farmers’ cooperative in western Canada. All three organizations are playing a leadership role in the new Domestic Fair Trade Association. Farmer Direct has decided to be certified as part of CATA’s Agricultural Justice Project, and a site visit took place this year to initiate this process. In the case of Equal Exchange and Organic Valley, neither organization has a history of addressing farmworker issues or including farmworkers in their work, so the ongoing dialogue with them has been crucial to ensuring that DFTA as a whole sufficiently represents farmworkers.

In October 2007 we held a separate meeting with representatives of Equal Exchange, Red Tomato, and Fair Food (affiliated with the White Dog Foundation), about ways to work together, as well as how, as farmer networks, they can begin to address labor issues in their work in the Northeast region.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

CATA utilized its newsletter Siembra, published alternately in both Spanish and English, to publicize information about the project to its members, the broader farmworker community, and the public. Periodic updates and announcements were also sent to CATA’s email list-serve.

CATA also developed its website material, also in both Spanish and English, as well as working with its partners to launch an AJP website, which is now partially translated and will be fully available in Spanish in early 2008. The URLs for these websites are:

During the grant period CATA also worked with its partners to publish an AJP brochure, also in Spanish and English. Additional, more detailed materials were developed for AJP participants, such as a pamphlet on workers’ rights under AJP and a “toolkit” for participating farmers.

CATA also collaborated on an issue of the NOFA newspaper, The Natural Farmer, for a special issue on Labor on Organic Farms. The issue was worked on in the fall of 2007 (and is now in publication), and includes articles about AJP, employer-employee relations, resources, and how immigration policy affects organic farms. There is also an article interviewing one of the AJP pilot farmers, and another interview with the workers on the farm, giving their impressions of how AJP has improved their workplace.

In August CATA co-facilitated a half-day “mini-conference” and then a shorter workshop on AJP during the NOFA summer conference in Massachusetts, with our partner Elizabeth Henderson of Peacework Organic Farm. CATA was also invited to participate in a Food, Race, and Class Issue Forum in Philadelphia sponsored by the Environmental Leadership Program (the event took place just after the grant period ended, in November 2007). As a result of these efforts we have identified several potential partners to expand our work in the Northeast.

In March CATA was invited to attend the Community Food Security Coalition’s Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Baltimore, MD. At the conference, attended by many individuals and organizations in the sustainable agriculture movement, CATA presented a workshop on “Farm Labor and Sustainable Agriculture”. The workshop focused on the current immigration debate and the failure of the sustainable agriculture movement to include workers and address labor injustice in its mission and work plan. As a result we established more contact with some key organizations, including Oxfam, World Hunger Year, and the Community Food Security Coalition.

As described above, CATA conducted outreach to organizations representing the farmworker community in other parts of the country. CATA worked closely this year with other farmworker organizations to plan the first ever Farmworker Conference on Fair Trade. The conference took place April 28-30, 2007, in Owatonna, Minnesota, where Centro Campesino, the local host organization, is located. Close to forty people attended. The primary farmworker groups present were CATA, Centro Campesino, and the Farmworker Association of Florida. As part of planning for the conference every farmworker organization in the country was contacted through personal emails and phone calls, so that even those organizations that chose not to participate were made fully aware of the work and expressed their support for it. This has significantly increased the farmworker contribution to the new Domestic Fair Trade Association.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The main focus of AJP’s work over the last two years has been preparing for and implementing the regional pilot and label launch. The team has developed the documents and certification tools required for the auditing process, and has built relationships with interested farmers, retailers, and farmworker organizations in several regions around the country.

Major AJP activities have included:

*Certification of participating farms and co-op retailers.

*Launch of a public marketing and educational campaign to raise awareness of the label.

*Certified and labeled product to hit the co-op shelves during summer of 2007.

*Further public outreach to cultivate interest in the project, and to identify future potential participants.

*A participatory evaluation of the launch process to identify lessons learned, challenges, and opportunities for future AJP expansion (held after the grant period, in December 2007).

The farms have all made progress; one very positive thing was that all the farmers had found the AJP “toolkit” that we had developed to be very useful to them in developing employee policies. In July 2007 we held a public launch consisting of various public events at two coop stores and two restaurants in Minnesota, including public ceremonies in which we presented AJP certificates to pilot participants.

Throughout the grant period CATA has engaged in leadership development both internally, (within the organization), and externally, with other organizations. Internally, CATA continued to develop the involvement of its general membership in the project. This project took a more prominent place during CATA’s 2007 Annual Assembly than in any previous Assembly, including plenary discussions as well as a small group discussion of CATA members who then reported back to the plenary with recommendations. These recommendations were then approved as mandates for the organization that will shape board and staff work plans, and included (1) general support for the project, (2) the encouragement of more CATA farmworker members to participate, and (3) more local farms involved in the project.

CATA also engaged in leadership development of its staff and its five working group members – those CATA members who have been participating in and guiding this project on an ongoing basis. One example of this leadership in action was seen on our most recent farm visit, to Honeybrook Farm in New Jersey (the largest organic farm in NJ and the largest CSA farm in the nation). During the farm visit, CATA’s board president, Carlos Diaz, and Luis Tlaseca, CATA’s Pennsylvania Office Coordinator, who has only recently become more involved in the project, participated actively in an interview with the farmer and took the lead in interviewing workers.

CATA has also begun to engage in training a group of volunteers who have supported CATA in the past, all of whom are prominent in the activist community in Philadelphia, and who are interested in aiding the organization to further the project in the city and outlying area. Once they are sufficiently trained in the workings of the project, they will take the lead in reaching out through their networks to farms, cooperatives, and other potential supporters.

Externally, CATA has engaged in leadership development of other farmworker organizations to participate more fully in CATA’s Agricultural Justice Project and in the Domestic Fair Trade Association (DFTA). In April 2007 CATA played a lead role in the first Farmworker Conference on Fair Trade, engaging in role playing, large and small group discussions, and workshops to build the capacity of the participants. More than thirty farmworkers and farmworker representatives attended, representing diverse regions of the country, including the Farmworker Association of Florida, Centro Campesino, the local hosting organization, and Community to Community from the Pacific Northwest. As follow up, CATA has been playing the role of main facilitator in regular communications through email and conference calls between the various organizations, and has facilitated the submissions of applications of the above groups to join the new DFTA. This will help to ensure that DFTA will include a core group of farmworker organizations that will have an influence in guiding its work.

The conference planning committee drafted a declaration based on the conference deliberations, which has been posted online and distributed through several internet listserves. The committee has also organized next steps and a follow up work plan. This has included outreach to the broader farmworker community to (1) increase participation and to spark more interest in piloting CATA’s AJP standards; (2) increase public awareness of injustices farmworkers face and the potential of domestic fair trade; and (3) to directly engage existing programs and those under development, as well as the new Domestic Fair Trade Association, to increase the participation of farmworker groups and to strengthen the labor component of their standards.

As an organization based in the Northeast, CATA is most interested in working with farmers and other sectors of the food system in this region. This year this groundwork. Significantly, the leadership of NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) has formally announced their support for the project and their desire to be fully involved. CATA has also begun to establish relationships with other member organizations of DFTA that are Northeast-based, such as Equal Exchange and Red Tomato, as well organizations and communities engaged in food justice issues in the greater Philadelphia region.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

This year CATA’s Agricultural Justice Project turned a corner, having completed a pilot of the standards on several farms and coop stores in the Upper Midwest. Working with our project partners, we have developed materials and trainings necessary for the program to serve as a working model of a participatory certification system of socially just working conditions for farmworkers, as well as fair prices for small-scale farmers. Throughout the grant period CATA’s farmworker-members have made invaluable contributions to this project and have helped to develop a working model that can now be used as a template to be replicated on a larger number of farms.

Now is the time to address the issue of social justice as it pertains to ecolabels. With the implementation of USDA’s National Organic Standards, we passed another important milestone in the long history of U.S. organic standards development. The organic label, the first mainstream marketplace-identified product of sustainable agriculture, has much to be proud of:
*Double-digit growth for over two decades
*Strong consumer confidence
*Standardized national and international environmental and humane food production and processing guidelines
*Verifiable third-party non-governmental and governmental certification and accreditation systems
*Marketplace rewards to farmers
*Reduction in toxic pesticide use, which lowers farmers’ and farmworkers’ occupational health risks.

Organic is the new benchmark to which all other labels will be compared. But with this success comes the challenges of dilution, co-optation, and concentration. This process also helps to focus our attention on the work that remains. The public is increasingly attracted to goods produced under socially just conditions. This is evident in the growing popularity of both fair trade and certified sweatshop-free products. While both of these programs have focused mainly on imported goods, chiefly from nations in the global South, the two concepts also can and should be focused inward on domestically-produced agricultural products.

The goal of the project has been and continues to be to build a model of an alternative food system by creating an economic incentive for social equity and just working conditions. The mechanism for this is the establishment of a “social justice” food label. The vision of this alternative food system is one of vibrant small family farms that provide well-being for the farm family and dignified work for wage laborers. The standards for such a label are based on the complementary principles of economic equity for the farmer and just working conditions for the farmworker, resulting in a win/win/win scenario in which workers and farmers – and ultimately, buyers – all benefit. Consistent with this vision, our goal is to build and maintain a mutually respectful and supportive relationship among the various parties. In this scenario, the farmer can count on a fair agreement or contract with at least minimum fair prices, and a well-trained and consistent work force. The worker can count on stable, dignified work and just treatment. The buyer can rely on getting high quality food products with added value.

AJP’s standards have gone through a collaborative and participatory drafting process and a series of forums to develop a universal baseline that can help define and set the scope for the use of a social justice label claim. The standards, currently in their fifth version, have also undergone several revisions based on a series of extensive public comment periods. During this grant period CATA has worked with its partners to achieve the materials and expertise necessary to expand the program to a much broader audience. This past year there has been a significant increase in interest in AJP on the part of organic certifiers, regional-based organizations, and farmers, including associations and cooperatives of farmers such as OFARM, Farmer Direct, and Organic Valley. Within the Northeast, several farmers, retail stores, and key organizations such as NOFA have begun to explore ways in which they can begin to adopt social justice into their practices.

Future Recommendations

As a result of the success of the project thus far, CATA now stands on a strong foundation and is able to look towards the maturation of the program: institution of a permanent, participatory governance structure, as well as promotion and widespread adoption. Over the next few years CATA’s goals and the broader goals of Agricultural Justice Project are to transition the existing Advisory Council to an oversight role, to institutionalize the standards and verification process, and to expand the program to farms in the Northeast. In addition, CATA seeks to:

*Play an active leadership role in the newly forming Domestic Fair Trade Association (CATA was elected to the DFTA steering committee at its first meeting in late November 2007).

*Share expertise with other organizations implementing similar programs.

*Increase the participation of marginalized stakeholder groups, including farmworkers in the growing domestic fair trade movement.

*Conduct consumer education to build support for stringent standards that adequately reflect the high bar inherent in any legitimate claim to social justice.

Now is a time of great strategic importance to this work, as multiple social justice claims are poised to enter the marketplace. Not all these efforts have had adequate stakeholder representation and transparency in their process; some claims lack robust standards to back them up. The recognition of the vital importance of an inclusive, participatory process sets AJP apart from many other label and standards-setting initiatives. By developing and piloting our standards into a regional working model of a just food chain, we now have in place a highly useful tool in responding to the claims soon to be introduced into the marketplace. Furthermore, AJP’s model is designed for maximum adoptability and adaptability in the U.S. and abroad, consistent with recognized standards as embodied in international conventions.

Some of the lessons CATA has learned from the project, that will help inform the work as it goes forward, include:

*Non-Federal, Marketplace-Based Claims. It is clear that the marketplace is the best “home” for this kind of initiative, avoiding the kind of political complexities that can be generated by linking the label to government administration or oversight.

*A High Bar Standards Approach. For the label to have true meaning and quantifiable impact, the bar for both social and environmental standards must be high from the very beginning. Downward pressure will always exist once standards are formalized; the experience with organic has taught us that it is nearly impossible to “raise” the bar once institutionalized.

*Rigorous Third-Party Certification and Accreditation. For consumers to have confidence in the integrity of the label, a third party certification and accreditation system must be developed.

*A Full Supply-Chain Approach. One of the limitations of international Fair Trade is that it only addresses one point along the supply chain – the price paid to the farmer or farmer co-op for their product. Workers on Fair Trade-certified farms, as well as processors and retail outlets, are all left out the process. For a truly just food system, every step along the chain must be held accountable to a high standard.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.