Toward a Broader Vision of Sustainability: Social Equity in Sustainable Agriculture

Final Report for SW06-033

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2006: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Ron Strochlic
California Institute for Rural Studies
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Project Information


The goal of this project was to raise awareness among growers in California about the relationship between positive farm labor practices and increased labor retention, quality and productivity. The project offered tools and information about positive farm labor management practices and the growing market for “socially sustainable” food via 10 workshops reaching 206 growers. A companion manual, “Keeping Your Employees Happy and Your Production Profitable: Positive Practices in Farm Labor Management,” has been disseminated widely to growers throughout CA and is available at no cost to download on both the CIRS and National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) websites.

Project Objectives:

Workshops highlighting information on improved farm labor management practices were offered to growers throughout California. Expected outcomes include:

1. Participating growers will exhibit increased awareness of the importance of positive farm labor management in the success of their farm operation.

2. Growers participating in these workshops will be able to identify at least three improved farm labor management practices.

3. An estimated 25% of workshop participants will implement one or more new farm labor management practices, as presented in the workshops.
Growers implementing new farm practices will report a more stable and dedicated farm labor force.

4. Growers implementing new farm labor management practices will report increased access to niche markets seek food from sustainable farms with positive farm labor conditions.


Sustainable agriculture is often compared to a three-legged stool, resting on the three “E’s” of Environment, Economy and Equity. Whereas the environmental and economic aspects of sustainable agriculture have benefited from significant research and technical assistance, issues around social sustainability have been largely ignored. In order for sustainable agriculture to be truly “sustainable,” it is vital that this aspect of sustainability be strengthened. While social sustainability encompasses a range of issues, farm labor management is perhaps its most visible manifestation, and is often the principal indicator consumers use to assess the social sustainability of a given farm operation. Several factors make this an opportune time for promoting increased social sustainability on sustainable farms.

Growing consumer interest in food from farms with positive labor conditions is creating promising opportunities for farmers able to meet emerging market demands. Recent years have witnessed the development of supply chain codes of conduct including farm labor criteria among actors including McDonald’s and Taco Bell. The Kaiser Permanente hospital system has adopted a Food Policy expressing a preference for food from farms that treat farmworkers “fairly and justly.” In collaboration with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), they have recently implemented a pilot program sourcing hospital food from family farms and will be increasingly including farm labor conditions in their purchasing criteria. Food Alliance is a Portland, OR based third-party certifier that helps connect the farms it certifies with markets. They include farm labor conditions in their certification criteria as well. Food Alliance is currently poised to enter the California market and will be seeking sustainable farms that can meet their certification criteria.

At the same time, approximately 43% of all California farms use hired labor, while 58% of those employ one or more workers for at least 150 days during the year. California has experienced severe farm labor shortages in recent years, due to border restrictions and increased competition from industries such as construction, landscaping and services. Labor shortages have resulted in significant losses for many farmers. For example, many citrus farmers suffered losses during the recent freeze in January 2007 because they did not have access to sufficient labor to bring in their crops before the freeze. Growth in the organic and specialty crop sectors has also resulted in increased demand for hired labor in recent years, with increased need for a skilled and stable workforce that is familiar with the production requirements of these crops and dedicated to producing high quality products meeting exacting market standards. These trends highlight the growing importance of attracting and retaining a skilled, dedicated and stable farm labor force.

Numerous California farmers have expressed an interest in providing improved farm labor conditions. Nonetheless, many do not know how while most feel they cannot afford to do so. A recent CIRS study of 300 organic farmers in California, “Labor Conditions on Organic Farms in California” (Strochlic et al, 2008), reveals that 32% of respondents did not have access to sufficient labor at some point during 2006. A majority (86%) of respondents believe that worker retention is “very important” for the success of their farm operation, while 98% believe that good labor conditions will result in benefits for their farm. Over half of the respondents (58%) expressed an interest in information about improved farm labor management practices, while a similar number (59%) expressed an interest in “fair labor” labeling or certification programs.


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Materials and methods:

This project is an educational outreach program targeting growers conducted via workshops developed in collaboration with local and regional agriculture organizations. These organizations included: the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, the Agricultural Futures Alliance, University of California Cooperative Extension, Ecological Farming Association, UCSC Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, Napa Sustainable Winegrape Growers Association, and Farm Bureaus.

Several keys to the success of the workshop design included:

1. Grower-to-grower communication: Central to the format of our workshops was active participation and discussion amongst growers. It was often the suggestions, ideas, and examples from workshop participants that spawned lively discussion and learning within the group. We included ample time for small-group or paired discussion about topics and encouraged the group to generate examples of positive labor practices they were already implementing before presenting examples from our research.

2. Tools and information for continued study and support: Workshop participants often have different needs and concerns related to labor management. While our workshop touched briefly on a large number of labor management topics, we could not go into great detail about all strategies and issues in one to three hours. Instead, it was critical that we provided participants with numerous resources that could help them to learn more about the particular topics they were interested in after the workshop ended. We also offered technical assistance to attendees after the workshop had ended.

3. Time for reflection and self-evaluation without undue criticism: We continually challenged workshop participants to reflect on their own labor management practices. At the beginning of the workshop we asked participants to write down their greatest labor management challenges and the things that seemed to be going well. Throughout the presentation/discussion, participants were asked to reflect on how the examples discussed compared to what went on in their own business. Finally, participants were asked to think of short and long-term goals for implementing some of the strategies on their farms. Continual reflection and questioning challenged participants to apply the concepts discussed in the workshop to their own situation.

At the same time, we made every effort to avoid criticizing current practice or dwelling on the negatives. The people who came to the workshops wanted to treat their employees well and most of them were already! Rather than pointing out the “DON’Ts” we focused on the “DO’s” and hopefully made those “DO’s” seem like realistic, reachable goals.

Research results and discussion:

1. Conducted 10 workshops organized entitled: “Keeping Employees Happy and Production Profitable: Positive Practices in Farm Labor Management”. (Please see Table 1 below for a list of all workshops conducted).

2. Published and disseminated a manual for growers entitled “Keeping your Employees Happy and Your Production Profitable: Positive Practices in Farm Labor Management” in collaboration with the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). The manual is available at no cost to download on the NCAT / ATTRA website as well as on the CIRS website.

3. Technical assistance offered to all workshop participants.

Research conclusions:

1. Changes in practices
In their post-workshop evaluations, workshop participants consistently reported that they would consider implementing one or more of the practices discussed during the workshop on their farms. Workshop evaluations also indicated that all participants were more aware about how improved farm labor management might help them to retain labor, save money or improve productivity more effectively.

At this point, we have been unable to demonstrate that our workshop participants have improved market access or labor retention as a result of implementing strategies that they learned during the workshop. We believe that this is due to the fact that improved labor management often takes time to implement, so our participating growers may not see results for some time. In addition, we had hoped to demonstrate that growers would expand their market access as a result of implementing positive labor practices. Unfortunately, the marketing channels are not quite in place to recognize growers who have positive labor conditions on their farms, so our participants are not yet seeing significant gains in this regard.

2. Establishing a domestic fair trade pilot program
One unexpected result of this project was the beginning of a collaborative effort to develop a domestic fair trade pilot project in CA. One of the challenges we have with promoting positive labor practices is that growers have a difficult time seeing how the increased investment in their employees will result in higher prices for their products. Unfortunately, this is very often the case because consumers in general don’t have the opportunity to make purchasing choices based on the labor conditions associated with the food they buy. While there are a growing number of certification programs that do certify “fair labor” practices (i.e. Food Alliance), these labels are still relatively unknown in the marketplace.

However, a group of growers and farm labor advocates on California’s Central Coast have joined together this past year to start a pilot domestic fair trade certification pilot based on the Agriculture Justice Project fair trade standards developed in the Midwest.

There are already close to 10 growers (most of them organic or sustainable) that have agreed to participate in this certification program. The Agricultural Justice Project will inspect their farms to determine if they meet the rigorous standards; growers that fall short will receive training and support in order to meet those standards. Next spring, certified growers will be able to start selling their produce to retailers, wholesalers and directly to consumers with the domestic fair trade label.

The California Institute for Rural Studies will be involved by helping to provide technical assistance for labor management and will work with the group on the public education campaign. If this project is successful among participating growers, we hope that it will spread and thereby offer a concrete way that interested growers can receive direct market benefits for implementing positive labor practices on their farms.

Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

Participation Summary:

Education and outreach methods and analyses:

As indicated earlier, the project resulted in one major publication, "Keeping Your Employees Happy and Your Production Profitable: Positive Practices in Farm Labor Management", published in collaboration with the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA). The publication is available at no cost by mail or electronically on ATTRA’s website:

See section 6, Table 1 for a list of all 10 workshops conducted and numbers of participants at each event.

Evaluation results of the workshops were positive overall. All participants that completed evaluations reported that they agreed or strongly agreed that they were more knowledgeable about different ways to improve labor management on their farm and that they learned about positive labor practices that would be low-cost to implement. Approximately 95% of respondents also agreed that they found it useful to discuss labor management with other growers. 80% reported that they are more aware of new market opportunities for growers with socially responsible labor practices. Some suggestions for improving the workshop included discussing one labor management strategy in more depth rather than giving brief examples of many. Others reported that they would like to see more specific data about the economic costs and benefits of implementing some of the strategies discussed.

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:

Areas needing additional study

We would like to further investigate the economic costs and benefits of implementing various positive labor practices. This fall, we will continue this work with a study looking at incentive pay systems and how farmers in California are successfully implementing practices such as profit-sharing, bonuses and piece-rate systems. We will offer workshops and create a grower manual based on the results of our case studies.

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.