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Hard Labor | The Nation

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Hard Labor

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Of course, workers benefit most obviously from organic farming by not being exposed to pesticides. But Don Villarejo, an agricultural policy analyst who conducted the largest-ever clinical study of farmworker health in California, argues that while pesticide exposure is important, it's not the most crucial health issue on the farm. Villarejo pointed to data on reported workers' compensation claims between 1990 and 1999. Of the major claims, where insurance companies paid $5,000 or more, only 1.5 percent stemmed directly or indirectly from pesticides. Almost half were strain injuries, followed by fractures, sprains and lacerations.

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund
of The Nation Institute.

About the Author

Felicia Mello
Felicia Mello is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Salon and The Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Also by the Author

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"Yes, pesticides are a concern, and it's good farmers are trying to figure out how to grow without them," he said. "But if you really want to deal with the fact that workers are being killed and maimed all the time, you have to look elsewhere."

After three straight weeks of rainy weather on Riverdog Farm, owner Tim Mueller is looking harried. Dressed like a stereotypical hippie farmer with a ponytail, 1970s-style glasses, shorts and galoshes, he dashes back and forth from the packing shed to the cramped trailer that serves as the farm's office, fixing computer problems, helping an employee translate documents into Spanish and checking in on crates of vegetables that packers are readying for shipment.

This spring's heavy storms have destroyed thousands of dollars in crops here in the Capay Valley, a narrow slice of land near Sacramento where small farmers like Mueller grow specialty produce for chic restaurants. Mueller estimates that he has lost 10 percent of the gross income from his 250-acre ranch, half of which goes to labor costs. The tour he takes me on is a trail of horrors: the peas that were sickened by the rain, the broccoli field with a flood at one end, the stacks of seedling trays by the greenhouse, waiting to be planted.

When Mueller looks at this wreckage, he sees numbers. More specifically, he sees his workers' paychecks. "I'm looking at their year-to-date earnings and I'm going, Not only are we behind on earnings, but all of them are behind," he says. "That's what these greenhouses full of plants symbolize."

Smaller farms like Riverdog make up the majority of organic farms in California. But their share of the profits and acreage is shrinking as organic giants like Grimmway and Salinas Valley-based Earthbound Farms increasingly dominate the market. Most survive through some combination of farmers' markets, wholesale and restaurant sales, and home deliveries. It's not an easy living. In a bad year Mueller might gross 2 percent less than his expenses. A fantastic year means 4 percent profit.

So how are Riverdog's workers faring in that eco-economy? I meet several of them in a soggy field where they are cleaning leeks, sitting on overturned crates, their legs ankle-deep in mud. They get along well with Mueller, they say, and like their job--except in months like this, when the least senior employees go days without pay because there is nothing for them to do. Most earn California's minimum wage of $6.75 per hour, and some have worked fewer than twenty hours in the past week.

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