Creating a Local Fair Trade Label

Final Report for CNE11-089

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2011: $14,956.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Nancy Apolito
Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, Inc.
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Project Information


This project has not succeeded in its central goal of testing the market impact of a domestic fair trade label based on a pledge due to lack of farmer-interest, though it found some evidence that the public would respond positively to a domestic fair trade label under the AJP Certified program. However, the project does provide some valuable information about small scale organic farms, their labor practices, and capacity for supporting on-farm human resources. It also demonstrates the level of staffing that a farming organization would have to provide to implement a fair trade pledge. In the process, the project developed procedures, a training for inspectors, and the documentation that is needed for a fair trade label, and helped two farmers strengthen their labor policies.

Project Objectives:

This project proposed to pilot the new Agriculture Justice Certification local fair trade label as a “pledge” program for small direct sales farms that use sustainable, ecological growing practices. The project took the Agricultural Justice Project labor standards as the basis for evaluating the labor practices of the farms involved.

The project aimed to recruit the participation of six Rochester area organic farms that sell direct to consumers. The hope was to find three farms that hired labor and three that did not have any employees. Eight farmers volunteered and were asked to fill out an application that included an affidavit swearing to uphold the principles of domestic fair trade embedded in the standards of the Agricultural Justice Project for fair pricing and labor practices.

The farms that qualified would be allowed to use the Food Justice Pledge label at their farm stand, farmers’ market stand, CSA advertising, and on their farm website. If the farm hired workers, a local farm worker organization, farm apprentice/intern group or social justice organization was to perform an inspection to interview the workers. AJP and NOFA-NY agreed to post the inspection reports on their websites so that the public would be able to read them. NOFA-NY staff would help promote the label with support from the most popular area farmers’ market managers and the proprietor of an area farm share business that distributes CSA-like weekly produce packets aggregated from a dozen farms. Through surveys of the farmers, their workers and customers, the project planned to gauge the impact of the new label on the farm enterprises and their community relations. The final objective was to measure whether using the Food Justice label helped the farms increase revenues and improve wages or benefits for their workers.


The concept of Fair Trade has gained in popularity over the past decade. Millions of US consumers are willing to pay a little more for farm products to benefit low-income farmers in developing countries. Total fair trade sales around the world reached over $4 billion in 2009. A study by Alter Eco USA showed that 71.3 percent of the US consumers surveyed were aware of the term “fair trade.” (Cooperative Grocer, Sept-Oct. 2010 p. 27). Meanwhile, right in these consumers’ own foodsheds, local US small-scale farmers are also struggling economically and farm workers earn poverty wages.

Under downward pressure from the dominant cheap food policies, farmers have trouble charging enough to cover the costs of production for the food they grow. Despite hourly farmer take home that is often less than minimum wage, many of these farmers pay living wages to the people who work for them. A domestic fair trade label could help communicate this to the consumer. In these days of successful buy local campaigns, consumers have shown that they support their local farming community, but understanding of the financial realities farmers face is rare. If local farms are to do more than barely survive, means must be found to increase public awareness of the fragility of the farm enterprises and to make the farms more economically viable. The good will of the local-buying public could translate into support for bringing the concept of fair trade home. Qualitative interviews with customers at the Rochester food coop in 2009 showed that a majority (11 of 15) would support and pay for a hypothetical local fair trade standard. *

The purpose of this project was to test that possibility with small-scale, direct sales farms in the Rochester, New York area.

*"Farmers & Consumers: A Local Fair Trade Label", December 2009, University of Rochester, Department of Anthropology, Local and Global Market Research Class.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Erin Bullock
  • Andy Fellenz
  • Sue Gardner-Smith
  • Elizabeth Henderson
  • Jerome Nathaniel


Materials and methods:

With the assistance of Elizabeth Henderson who had completed an earlier NE SARE Farmer project, “Preparing the Ground for Local Fair Trade: Helping Farmers and Their Buyers Improve Labor and Pricing Practices,” NOFA staff reached out to the list of farms in the Rochester, New York area that sell direct and might be good candidates for this fair trade label piloting project. Several of these farms had already agreed to participate and had made suggestions for the project. These farms had been through the workshop on labor policies and pricing conducted by Elizabeth Henderson and Robert Hadad and are using some of the workshop materials. In the early spring of 2011, eight farmers agreed to participate. Due to the late arrival of funding, the project was not able to begin on time and to conduct an initial meeting with these farmers before the busy growing season began.

A meeting with six of the farmers did take place in August 2011 to discuss the project and to finalize the wording of the pledge that farmers who want to use the label will sign. A first draft of the pledge had been written to form a basis for this discussion and help get the ball rolling. The new farmers at the meeting suggested changes in the wording about investments that would make it apply better to farmers who are building infrastructure and must retain as much money as possible to invest in their farms. NOFA staff made the suggested changes to the wording and sent out an announcement through the Cornell Small Farm newsletter inviting more farms to consider participation.

The next step was for the farmers to fill out an application to use the AJP pledge label. Leah Cohen of Florida Organic Growers and Elizabeth Henderson amended the application they had designed for AJP certification for use in the pledge pilot. The application includes information on the farm’s market, pricing, hired labor and includes a self-evaluation section where the farmer writes a plan for continual improvement.

Although eight farmers participated in the initial conversations, when it came to actually completing the application and committing to all the components of the AJP pledge—which requires full transparency of all labor practices, only two farms agreed to proceed with the project. These two farms had completed the earlier training and had hired labor in a fully legal way. These two farmers have excellent management skills, including detailed bookkeeping so that they have a firm grasp on expenses and the revenues needed to cover them. NOFA staff reviewed the applications and together with Henderson read through the farms’ written labor policies and safety plans. The two farms had good documentation of their practices, limited numbers of employees (no more than the 5 allowed for using the Pledge) and sold almost all of their production directly to consumers through a CSA. One of the farms also has a farm stand and a son sells some of the farm’s produce at a farmers market.

The other six farms withdrew from the project. Each farm had some hired or volunteer labor: one farmer paid a buddy under the table, another depended on volunteer WOOFers, a third used family labor, a fourth paid one worker but did not pay workers compensation, a fifth had an intern and also did not pay workers compensation. (This farmer later agreed that it was time to start paying workers compensation, but too late for this project.) The sixth farmer became farm manager on his own farm as an employee of the Good Food Collective.

Starting in August meant that it was not possible to complete applications and inspections in time to award the label and to promote it in area markets during the 2011 season. Due to this delay, hesitation from the local farmers, and changes in staffing at NOFA-NY, little progress on the project took place until a year later.

During this time, attempts were made to find additional farmers interested in participating in the pilot, but we were unable to find any farmers willing to participate. In mid-2012, NOFA-NY and NESARE agreed to curtail the scope of the project while committing to complete the parts of the work that had progressed as planned.

Meanwhile, Leah Cohen developed an inspection checklist with questions to ask during a pledge inspection, and designed the training for farm inspectors. Finally, while workers were still available towards the end of the 2012 season, Elizabeth Henderson conducted the inspections, accompanied by NOFA-NY project consultant, Jerome Nathaniel. Henderson and Nathaniel filled out confidentiality forms. Both farms passed the inspections. The inspection adhered to the planned process: the inspector held an initial meeting with the entire staff to explain that participation in the project is voluntary, that each employee would be interviewed individually, that all responses would be strictly confidential.

The inspections found that the farmers had shared information about the AJP process with their employees and that the farms were upholding the AJP standards. Both farms have clear labor policies, treat employees with respect, and have ways to resolve conflicts without retaliation against employees who have complaints or raise issues. NOFA-NY posted the inspection reports on its website and sent out a press release announcing that the two farms were the first in New York to qualify for the Food Justice Pledge label.

The plan included requiring that the farms that use the label agree to hold an annual farm open house when customers can visit the farm and do some work with farmers and meet their workers. However, both of these CSA farms hold regular work sessions with members, so a special open house is not necessary. Many of their members pick up their shares at the farm every week and are welcome to u-pick some crops. These are clearly farms that have nothing to hide from the community.

The original plan assumed that some of the farms would be selling at farmers markets. Since the two farms that remained in the project sell mostly through their CSAs, comparing sales before and after the use of the label is very simple – how many shares they sold last year compared with the numbers this year.

Project staff consulted with the farmers to find out what promotional materials they considered most useful and then provided marketing support: a banner with the label that the farms displayed at CSA promotional fairs, a new Food Justice Pledge Facebook page that tried to drive traffic in the two farms via social media, comments on the Mud Creek Facebook page, and an attractive flyer about the project to distribute at outreach meetings. Both farms posted the label on their websites. Mud Creek included the caption, “Mud Creek Farm is committed to making farming sustainable... for the farmworkers too!”

Despite increased competition – the number of CSA shares available in the Rochester area increases every year – Mud Creek filled its quota of shares even with a price increase, while Fellenz Family Farm was down 10% in the number of shares for its Pittsford CSA though holding steady in their Canandaigua and Geneva locations. The farmer speculates that the energetic expansion of a CSA at a nearby conventional farm that does superior marketing and features all kinds of on-farm tourist attractions may have caused the reduction in Pittsford shares.

The project suggested that the farms propose a voluntary 5% surcharge that they would promise to use to increase worker pay or benefits, but farmers did not want to charge any additional fees to their customers for this purpose.

Research results and discussion:

Since the project was limited to two farms and to only the beginning of one marketing season, it is hard to assess its impact, if any, on the farms involved. Mud Creek has a whole new work crew this season, so there is no carryover of employees that might have noted some change.

The farms invited customers to fill out an evaluation of this pilot project. Mud Creek sent the survey link out electronically and received ten responses.
10 respondents from Mudcreek:
1. 50% noticed the Food Justice Label while 50% did not
2. 57% said that they were influenced by the pledge while deciding to buy a share; 43% said the Pledge did not have a factor in their purchase
3. 87.5% of consumers paid a premium price to help pay for labor cost; 12.5% did not
4. 85% felt that the CSA charged the same prices for their products as other farms; 15% felt that it was more expensive than other farms
5. How would you define fair traded (open ended): (Below are top 3 sample responses)
a. “fair for the worker, farmer, sustainable for the earth and fair for the purchaser”
b. “Farmers and workers receive a living wage”
c. “Buyer and seller both benefit, fair wages paid, support of local business”
6. How much do you suppose farmers like the one you purchased from earn annually? About 50% say they don’t know, but hope it’s enough for a decent living; 50% estimated at about $30,000
7. When asked how much do you suppose the farm workers earn, about 33% estimated $8 or $9/hour, 25% guessed minimum wage, 12% guessed $12/hour, while the rest said they do not know.
8. 87.5% said they would be willing to pay a higher price if they were certain the profit would go towards improving living conditions for farm workers and interns while 12.5% said they would not.

The farmers did not regard the project as having been worth their time. A major factor was the project delays caused by starting after the beginning of the first season, last minute farmer participation drop-out, and lack of farmer-interest. These overall project delays also impacted the momentum in developing promotional support for the label in the marketplace as the project kept waiting for more farmer participants to sign on, before moving forward with promoting the label. Although the project resulted in many setbacks, there were some successes. One of the farms, has adopted several of the templates for labor policies, conflict resolution, and farm safety training that are provided in the Agricultural Justice Project Farmer Tool-Kit. This farm has also adopted the practice required in the AJP standards of developing a learning contract with each intern. The other farmer was very critical of the initial form of the Pledge application that was derived from the AJP certification application. As a result, NOFA staff revised the application and that is the form the second farmer used. The second farmer did not have the same criticisms, using the revised form.

The two farms make different levels of usage of social media. Erin Bullock has a web site, regularly blogs, and also uses a Facebook page for communications. The Fellenz Family Farm has a web site, but it remains quite static with no Facebook page. In Andy Fellenz’s view, the most effective/noteworthy experience of the project was the press release from which he received solid feedback and accolades from friends, community members, and regular customers. The banner was also useful for three events he participated in. Since he already had clear labor policies based on NYS and Federal law, he did not make use of the Tool-Kit.

How will the results make our community more sustainable?
We can only speculate on what might happen if the Food Justice Pledge were adopted by more farms. If successful, the Food Justice Pledge label could enable small scale ecological farms to realize a small premium for their products that they can use to improve their quality of life. Mud Creek invited customers to pay higher on their sliding scale fee with the promise that the money would go to pay workers better and some members voluntarily paid more. The survey of the Mud Creek members suggests that at least a small percentage of customers would pay more if they were sure the money went to improve pay and benefits for workers. The two farms that participated have improved their written labor policies, and their process for resolving conflicts. Half of the customers who responded to the survey recorded that the fair trade label made them reflect on who does the work of growing their food. By demonstrating to the buying public that the farms are using ecological growing practices together with socially just labor practices, this pilot project has solidified the prevailing good will for these two local farmers.

This project also brought to light the need to increase education for local farmers about labor practices, labor law, small business management, and human resources policies. Farming is risky business and difficult, especially for beginning farmers. Making sure farmers can afford to abide by the NYS labor laws is important, and more education is needed so they feel confident they can manage their businesses to abide by all labor laws and pay the farmer and farmworkers living wages.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Elizabeth Henderson has written regular reports on this project and other related domestic fair trade initiatives for the NOFA-NY news magazine New York Organic News, The Natural Farmer, and the Abundance Coop newsletter. Farmer Erin Bullock of Mud Creek Farm participated in a well-attended workshop on this project together with NOFA-NY staff and Elizabeth Henderson at the NOFA-NY Winter Conference in 2012. A workshop on farmer-farmworker relations is planned for the NOFA 2013 Summer Conference. NOFA also wrote a press release announcing the award of the label use and an op ed that was posted on the newspaper, The Democrat and Chronicle, Blog.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

There is a lot of enthusiasm for attracting new people to farming, and many fine young people (and some retirees) are heeding the call. This project’s experience with new and very small farms is that they are very fragile. Of the six farms that initially volunteered for the project and then withdrew, two are no longer functioning. The farmer that did not want to adhere to the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) standard requiring payment of Workers Compensation for their one intern gave expense as the reason. The cost turned out to be $800, a modest sum that loomed large in that farm’s budget. Health challenges almost forced another of the farmers to give up, but this farm is persisting in spite of two hip replacements.

Of the eight farms that agreed to participate, it turned out that none really had no hired helpers at all. Only two had practices that meet legal regulations and that stand up to AJP standards. The other farmers were hiring off-the-books, getting part time help from friends whom they paid under the table, or relying on visiting volunteers to do work. These farmers did not feel they could honestly claim to uphold AJP standards.

This experience has helped AJP define more clearly what is meant by hired labor and to clarify what qualifies as fair trade when a farm does not hire workers or have certified fair trade markets. The AJP application states: “All labor supervisors, farm employees, office staff, negotiators, temporary and permanent employees, members of farm family who receive cash or check.”

For the purposes of the AJP label, hired labor does not include:
• Immediate family members – parents, children, brothers, sisters and their children (unless they are on the official farm payroll)
• Volunteers – crop mobs, school, club or church groups who work for a few hours or a day, CSA members who do working shares in exchange for food or reduction in share price
• Educational programs and tours including short term work stays such as WOOFing
• Work trades or barter relationships with neighbors or relatives (or friends)

Hired Labor does include:
• Part time employees, even occasional employees
• Very part time employees if at the farm mainly to earn money rather than to learn
• Seasonal employees
• Full time employees
• Interns/apprentices
• Contracted labor – through Farm Labor Contractor or Crew Leaders
• Anyone paid in cash or check for work on the farm.

Despite the challenges, conducting this pilot project has helped NOFA-NY and the Agricultural Justice Project get a much clearer understanding of what is involved in administering a local fair trade label. For the few farms that do not have labor, a program of this kind would not require more than a few hours a week of staff time once staff had studied the AJP standards and policies and learned the pledge routine. However, if the farm has even a small number of workers which triggers the need for an inspection to verify the fair trade claim, the pledge program requires as much time as a full-fledged certification. Thus, it does not make economic sense for an organization to administer a pledge program, as inspection is required to be able to make labor standards claims. The cost of administering a pledge program would mirror that of a certification program.

The very limited use of the label by the two farms that qualified does not provide any conclusive evidence one way or another about whether it attracts additional customers to the farms that use it.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

In the next year, organic certification programs in the Northeast will join certifiers in other parts of the country in launching Food Justice Certified, the domestic fair trade labeling program of the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP). In late October 2013, AJP will hold a training for certifiers and farm worker organizations that want to implement this new domestic fair trade certification. Three outstanding farms and food businesses in Ithaca, New York, will participate in the training and become the first to be Food Justice Certified in NYS. Four other farms also volunteered to participate in the training. If this positive response is any indication of how farms and food businesses in areas like Ithaca—a progressive alternative food economy—will respond to the opportunity to become Food Justice Certified, it may be worthwhile to investigate if the certification program can be administered on sliding-scale payment system to enable very small farms to participate at a lower cost.

A strong promotional campaign for Food Justice Certification will attract the attention of the segment of the public that already purchases fair trade products and of people who are becoming more aware of the need to consider the people who do the hard work to produce their food. Already, there are more consumers becoming aware of farm and food business labor issues. An increase in public awareness of the negative impacts of low pricing on local farms and farm labor should result in an increase from consumers in supporting sustainable agriculture based on social justice, equity and fairness.

Future Recommendations

The responses to the customer survey suggest that consumers are interested in paying more for food that comes from farms that work to improve working conditions, pay and benefits. The AJP pledge does not prove to be economically viable for the administering organization, so it would be worth piloting the AJP certification program in the northeast to build consumer recognition of the label, under a system that is designed to support the level of necessary administration work. This project also brought to light the need for more education for small and beginning farmers about labor laws, employment management, bookkeeping, and small business management. More regular basic training in these areas should help build the capacity of more small and beginning farmers to be able to design on-farm labor practices that support living wages for both the farmer and farm workers.

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.