Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"role model farms"

So I'm watching this video about a farm in Portugal, and I have to say that it looks great.  Happy piglets on the sow; flocks of turkeys, sheep, cows, green vegetables.  Growing small quantities of a large variety of crops.

He talks about how animals eat different things, so following cows with sheep and then with turkeys gets more use out of the land, and there's excepts of a dining room and happy people eating the food (they presumably grew) from the farm.

But I was jarred out of my revery by one statement, by a cook/chef:  "I cook the food for the farmers markets and for the volunteers".


Sure, they did show a couple of people that probably get some sort of pay for the farm, but when I looked carefully at the farm, it's one of those role model farms.  you know, the ones that are impossibly clean and straight-laced - the way that only thousands of hours of hand-labor can produce.  You see these farms offering "internships", or offering people stays as wwoofers.

You know those guys with the signs on the side of the road that say "Will work for food?" -- why does it seem that every single one of these farms, offered as a shining example of how a farm should be -- seem to be a variation on slave labor?

I don't ask people to work for me for free, or just for food and housing.  that's not the contract that I'd take the other end of - would you?  If you work, and farming is work, don't get me wrong - you should get paid for that work, and the pay you get should allow you to cover all of your basic expenses (like that farm food), rent, clothes, health care and, horrors!  savings.  You should earn more than you spend.  Ideally, if your goal is farming, your job should produce enough that you can chase your own farm dream.

So I'm watching this video, and looking at this lovely farm, and the slave labor (because that's what they paid slaves, right?  Food and housing and not much else)

Here's the basics for a model farm:

1) Everyone gets a wage.  if you aren't profitable enough to pay your workers,  you shouldn't be in business.  Period. No excuses.  Can't figure out how to do that?  Get out of farming.  Get out of business.  Don't care what your business is; can't make a profit, leave it to someone who can.  If you can't figure out how to do it, don't complain about the people who do -- appreciate them.  Conventional farmers, for the most part, have figured this out.  You figure it out, too.
2) You have to make a profit.  Sorry if that conflicts with some ideal you have.  figure out a way to make a profit with your ideals.  Or adopt different ones.   Because sustainable means IN BUSINESS, not bankrupt or subsidized by anyone (like your workers) or a non-profit or whatever.  Make enough money in the good years you can sustain yourself through the bad ones.   Appreciate folks who do this.  Conventional farmers have figured this out.  You figure it out, too.

3) Tell the truth.  If you publicize your farm operation, don't tell me what you'd like to do, tell me what you do.  Don't talk a different story than your walk.  If things are going right, by all means, there's lots of folks who love a good story.  But if it's fiction, label it as such.  Don't lead some poor new farmer down the garden path.  Same is true for any other industry, by the way.  


Éirinn Mac Giolla Phádraig said...

I have been a wwoofer and I greatly enjoyed that opportunity. I was interested in farming and was desperate to gain some hands on experience, but I also currently have an office job and some financial obligations that wouldn't afford me the time to take courses or commence a paid internship right now. Wwoofing let me test drive a few different types of farming without a huge time commitment, which helped me to at least start to understand what I like and don't like, and what I could reasonably handle.

I have heard of some nightmare stories (website looks idyllic, wonderful opportunities promised--reality ended up being a lot of white rice and sleeping in the barn and not getting to do anything close to what was advertised), but I am lucky that my experiences were all positive.

However, I don't know how placing a large amount of the work responsibility on volunteers really benefits farmers-- volunteers typically take a while to properly train, and can leave anytime. Even with the best of intentions on both sides, volunteers have the potential to do a lot more damage than good, which doesn't seem worth the gamble of 'cheap labour'. In short, while I am grateful for my opportunities as a volunteer, I would be very hesitant to have volunteers on my future farm ;)

Bruce King said...

I hire people to work on the farm, and it takes me 2 to 3 months to get to the point where I don't feel like I have to watch them. I'm not sure what I would do to get work out of a person who was there for a few days or a week, or even a month -- other than the obvious. Dig that hole, wash those dishes, something like that.
It used to be that an intern was someone who was learning a particular business/trade/skill, and the presumption that I always carried was that if you did a good enough job you'd get a job doing whatever it was at that company.
These days many internships are non-paid positions that exist primarily to provide very low cost (or free) labor. Exploitation is bad in any form.

Eirinn: Could you expand a little on what you got out of your wwoofer experience? What did you find yourself surprised by? How did the experience match the vision you had prior to going?

grasspunk said...

Bruce, you're talking about a different thing altogether. These volunteers are people who want to spend a few weeks in a nice part of Europe, maybe practice a language, get a tan, work a few hours a day and get their food and accommodation paid for. Where we live everything is booked out in summer and expensive, so exchanging labor for food and board is a good deal for the volunteers.

Sometimes they want to learn a bit about the farming, but the volunteers I see mostly just want to spend time out in the South of France. They're not driving tractors or moving a cattle herd. As you say, they'd need supervision.

We've never run volunteers but we might soon. There's a spare house on the farm and we can put people up for some of their summer vacation in exchange for some simple work. That's the transaction. Maybe it will work, maybe not. The horror stories I have heard have been lazy workers who are "ill" all the time and eat all the cookies and spend all day on the internet.

Now could you run a farm that relies on volunteer labor to be profitable? Sure, but they'll just quit if they don't like the deal. These are often students on vacation. The One Straw Revolution guy seems to have run a farm with huge amounts of volunteer labor, but I guess his idea is that he's teaching folks a radical farming system in exchange for the labor. The feedback mechanism on these volunteer sites would stop folks volunteering pretty darn quick anywhere where there was exploitation.

Now this doesn't address the farm in the video. Can I find an hour to watch it?

Bill Gauch said...

There are a couple caveats to your assertions that I feel must be made. First, I agree 100% with you that you should be able to pay your laborers. That said, in different parts of the Country (or the World), the value of food, housing, etc. is quite high. If you are giving someone the equivalent of $700 worth of food and $3000 worth of housing for 2 months of volunteering, that's not exactly unpaid. In addition, there is a value to the knowledge gained by the intern. If you consider it the equivalent of school (many farms offer classes for a fee), there is a value to that too. Finally, if you are offering a paid position, it needs to be at least a minimum wage position with overtime and all the other costs. So, if you factor $700 worth of food and $3000 worth of housing and another $10000+ in wages for a season of labor, you're into that person for a fairly large chunk of change before you even know they will stick around and be a worthwhile addition to the farm. It almost seems like the ideal business model would be a bonus system where you get a share of the profit of what you produce, like commercial fishing. If you work hard, you get paid. If you slack off and walk off, you don't.

paul said...

it seems to me that the idea of internship has to often been basterdized into some sort of slave labor. I get Eirinn's point that it can be rewarding for the intern, but to often it is just an attempt to get some of the ugly and time consuming chores done for cheap or free.

I did give a day of time frommyself and my son doing turkey processing before we ever bought any chicks or poults. That farmer got some much need extra hands doing an unenjoyable job, and I learned how to do it in a hands on manner that made the decision to raise my own much easier. I have helped out Bruce a time or two, but he has been much more of a help to me in teaching about animal husbandry, fencing, and the business of farming. Some money has changed hands over the several years we have known each other, but mostly just being good neighbors.

Éirinn Mac Giolla Phádraig said...

Hi Bruce,

I have always been drawn to farming, but was gently pressured into a 'professional career' by my family. They tried to convince me that I had an overly romanticized notion of farming and that I couldn't really appreciate the blood, sweat, tears, financial hardship, etc. Which is fair enough I suppose.

My wwoofing experience was on a pig farm (pigs being my primary interest) with about 300 large black pigs on pasture. The deal was that I was expected to work a decent 6 hours a day, and in exchange would have adequate lodgings, food, down time, and sight seeing opportunities if I wished. There was a lot of mundane and messy grunt work involved--feeding 300 pigs with 5 gallon buckets, filling water troughs by hoses over an 100acre farm, mucking out huts, weed whacking fence lines, basic repair work, loading and unloading coolers of meat for the market etc. I didn't resent or mind any of it, because I assumed that the farming gig wasn't all excitement and glamour 24/7, and I love working with my hands and being around the animals.

During my stay, the farmers were more than happy to answer my one trillion questions about animal care and and different business/marketing models. They were able to put me in touch with other farmers that raised different breeds of pigs in differing farm set-ups. I had a private bedroom, and free access to the kitchen, with supper prepared for me every evening (always delicious). I didn't feel taken advantage of because I felt the experience I gained and the information I was provided was more than adequate compensation for my 6 hours of work per day.

I wasn't there for very long though (some stay for weeks, some stay for months--I was in the former camp), and there seems to be a high turn around for wwoofers depending on the location of the farm and the time of year. Some volunteers are more ambitious and useful, some are there for the opportunity to travel. I would be a bit leery having a complete stranger in my home with my children, but lots of farms have volunteers in trailers or other housing away from the family home to create a nice pocket of privacy for both parties.

These days, I volunteer at a local family farm one day on the weekend, and I am really enjoying that. Same kind of gig--I show up, do what needs doing, some of it's mundane, some of it is quite exciting and entertaining, am fed a lovely lunch, get to ask a lot of questions, get to know the neighbouring farmers and their different set-ups, and get to see and/or participate in things I wouldn't otherwise probably come across (sheep shearing, piglet castration, etc.).

I really am grateful for the opportunity to volunteer and getting to see what I think will and will not interest me in my own future plans. It actually took me a long time to find a family farm that would take me on as a volunteer--the majority of small farms I approached in my area were hugely suspicious that because I have an office job that I must be some sort of activist loon that just wanted to sneak onto their farms and ruin them with youtube videos ;)

Nick in RI said...

Bruce --

Check out this story:

Vineyard fined $115,000 for using volunteers.

Various fair-labor and minimum wage laws prohibit for-profit businesses from using volunteers. Unpaid internships have pretty much gone away as well, there was a pretty big crackdown by the regulators a few years ago on minimum violation. Even most non-profits pay their inters at least minimum wage these days.