"We're all waiting for summer, when the tomatoes are ripe; we work ten hours a day and we can send a little to Mexico to save or to build a house," says Consuelo Romo, a crew leader with a toothy grin and a tan bandanna wrapped around her head. "But in the winter, we don't have enough even to cover our own expenses."
Romo is a single mother with two kids and one of a minority of workers whose salaries top the minimum. She makes $8.50 per hour, just below the poverty line for a family of three. She gets canned food and used clothing from local nonprofits, and struggles to pay $20 a day for childcare at an unlicensed center. I ask Romo if she ever buys organic food for her children. Usually when I've asked farmworkers this question, they've laughed at the idea of such luxury. Romo looks embarrassed. "It's an economic question," she says. "I buy food grown with chemicals so I can save to buy something else."
Like Romo, most organic farmworkers can't afford to eat the food they produce, says Gail Feenstra, food systems coordinator for the Sustainable Agriculture Program at the University of California, Davis. "They're in a community where they don't even have access to it," she told me. "What they do have access to is very processed food that is helping to create diseases like diabetes, and government food programs that give out lard and canned products high in sodium and fat."
In 2004 Feenstra and her colleagues surveyed close to 200 mostly small organic farmers on their labor practices; two-thirds supplied no benefits. Mueller has put together a health plan for workers but says it's a trade-off, leaving less money for wages. There are some success stories, like one man who got a free hernia operation he'd been putting off for years. But most Riverdog workers don't meet the plan's eligibility requirements of six straight months of full-time work.
As we sit in Mueller's truck, with the rain pattering on the roof, he tells me how he and his wife, Trini, started Riverdog fifteen years ago, with just five acres. "For most of us who got involved with organic farming then, it was about a social movement," he says. "It was about land reform, labor reform, bringing small farms back. That's all gone. It's been legislated away, economized away. There is no dollar for that. I think most small organic farmers know their workers and want to do right by them but have varying levels of feeling like they can afford to do it."
Mueller plants less lucrative crops like alfalfa in the winter so he can provide year-round employment, and is known to kick in a few hundred dollars as a no-interest loan to help a worker buy a car or a piece of furniture. Still, he rails against labor regulations that he sees as costly and inefficient, like a 2005 law requiring farmers to stop work in very high temperatures, passed after several farmworkers died from heat exhaustion.
"Farming is about common sense, which you can't really legislate," he says. "When people fuss about us watching the little numbers, we say, Look, we have to do that just to make sure we don't go under."
His comments capture the sentiments of many small organic farmers, who feel their financial situation leaves little room for idealism when it comes to working conditions. Farmers in the University of California study said they agreed in theory that labor standards were important but disagreed with adding them to the requirements for organic certification. Close to half said organic farmers should not have to allow farmworkers to organize--a right guaranteed under California law.
Small farmers' objections have derailed earlier attempts to set labor standards for organic farms. In 1990 Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, directing the Agriculture Department to establish a board of growers, consumers and retailers charged with developing the first national rules for the organic industry. Third-generation farmer Michael Sligh, founding chair of the board, brought a labor organizer to address one meeting. According to Fred Kirschenmann, a North Dakota grain farmer who served on the board, the group batted around some ideas and came close to agreeing that organic farmers should be required to provide employee health benefits.
"Then one of the farmers from California raised his hand and said, 'I really agree that we should do this, but my problem is I can't even provide health insurance for my family.' It became such a complex issue that nobody really knew how to deal with it, so it fell by the wayside."