What are Fair Systems for Farm and Food Businesses? | Audio Article
By Adam Utley
In life, we design systems to have routines in place for many different conditions that are bound to arise. In organics, we prepare Organic Systems Plans to protect soil, water, and human bodies. But what types of systems plans could protect our relationships with employees, buyers, and others we depend on? A three-year grant from North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCR-SARE) has enabled Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) and Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) to collaborate in the work of providing resources and assistance to farms building fair systems into their businesses. Through Fall of 2024, this OEFFA Fair Farms Program will 1) provide free consultations and resources to farms that complete the self-assessment http://www.surveymonkey.com/r/fairfarms and 2) conduct demonstration audits of our partner farms to verify their compliance with AJP Standards.
For example, Teter Organic Farm in Hamilton County (IN) has agreed to partner with OEFFA to learn the Food Justice Certification Process, while helping us to license new inspectors in the region. The farm has a non-profit structure and community-driven mission, as it’s associated with the Noblesville United Methodist Church. Katy Rogers is the farm manager and driving force behind increasing production capacity at Teter as well as the improvement of educational and community development programs.
“I’ve worked in and adjacent to ag my entire life, in several forms. The constant is that the people doing the hardest work are paying for our system from their own physical and mental health. It has to change, and I’m responsible for my role in it,” says Katy.
History of Fair Farms Program
Elizabeth Henderson is an activist, writer, and co-founder of the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP). She is also lead author of Sharing the Harvest, a classic in the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) manual genre, recently published in Spanish. Elizabeth also has a history in farming of over 30 years, beginning in 1979, operating one of the first CSAs in the country. From the beginning, Liz had a clear conviction that fair labor standards represented an essential set of values that were missing from the early conversations that would eventually become the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). When the USDA responded clearly that labor standards were not “within our purview,” Nelson Carrasquillo, General Coordinator of The Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), and farmers Michael Sligh and Marty Mesh decided to build standards to keep fairness in organics. In addition to happier, better paid farm workers, AJP also envisions more profitable farm owners. AJP Standards provide guidelines for buyers and sellers to engage in good faith and transparent negotiations that could result in more detailed purchase agreements or even contracts, generating more revenue for all parties in the value chain by establishing predictable and lasting sales relationships.
In 2018, Carol Goland, then OEFFA executive director, began talks with Liz and her colleagues at AJP about OEFFA becoming a Food Justice certifier. Carol reflects on AJP history:
“Since the establishment of those standards, AJP has served as the conscience of the organic movement, reminding us to give equal care to the most precious resource in our agricultural system, the people who farm.”
By a decision of the board, OEFFA became the official certification agency for Food Justice Certification (FJC) under the AJP Standards, issuing certificates that authorize use of the “Fair Farm” and “Fair Company” labels for farms and their food purchasers. This certification work is done in tandem with the educational approach of the Fair Farms Program. “This two-pronged approach of pairing education and certification is a hallmark of the work that OEFFA has always done in the organic space. It’s really exciting to extend this successful model now to fair farms,” Carol wrote, before continuing to relate the story of the AJP/OEFFA partnership:
“In late 2018, we began a conversation with AJP about the possibility of OEFFA becoming the certifier for the Food Justice label. As that conversation continued, it coincided with OEFFA’s 40th anniversary, which we celebrated in February of 2019. That was an auspicious moment to gaze out to the next 40 years and think about where we wanted to locate OEFFA in the vast landscape of sustainable agriculture.”
Likewise, in one of my first conversations with Liz Henderson, she described the importance of OEFFA to this movement, “OEEFA is part of a network with the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). This grassroots support structure makes family-scale farming possible in the global food system, which has no place for us. We must force our own place and grab our own liberated territory.”
Fair Farms Today
FJC is coming to the Upper Midwest with the support of the NCR-SARE grant. For the next two years, OEFFA will recruit and license file reviewers and inspectors through AJP. Thanks to the technical assistance that the Fair Farms program provides, farms that decide to apply for full certification will have already generated the documentation needed for compliance: written employee guidelines, including a conflict resolution protocol, and a health and safety plan, which combined make up a Fair Systems Plan (FSP). Furthermore, they will know what to expect from the inspection process. Many farmers may also begin the journey of figuring out how to pay themselves and their employees a living wage as defined geographically by the MIT Living Wage Calculator https://livingwage.mit.edu/. AJP Standards state that even if a farm is not yet in a position to pay a living wage, they can make a time-bound plan to do so with the help of their employees.
As current OEFFA Executive Director, Rachel Tayse, describes, “In a truly just future, farms will fully support and sustain the ecological and human resources needed to produce food, fuel, and fiber. The Agricultural Justice Project and Fair Farm program at OEFFA provide leadership, motivation, and training for farmers who want to enrich and align their labor practices with Food Justice Certification. Much like organic certification, the marketing label verifying fair labor practices gives consumers the buying confidence that their purchase is aligned with their values.”
As we aim to increase wages and salaries that farmers pay their workers and themselves, we have a chance to leverage powerful resources to analyze business decisions. In December, Ellen Polishuk, who farmed for 30 years and is now principal of Plant-to-Profit consulting firm, offered her farming wit and financial wisdom in the three-part OEFFA webinar series, “Calculating the Full Cost of Production.” Our farmers walked away with working knowledge of enterprise budgeting, profitability of sales channels, and introduction to web-based Quickbooks. They also glimpsed the possibilities for growers who might choose to adopt Veggie Compass and Livestock Compass, open-source analytics tools developed by researchers at University of Wisconsin-Madison. As webinar participant, Katy Rogers (Teter Organic Farm) says, “We knew we wanted to do better, to be a farm that is living its stated ethos in every way, and that means we have to figure out how to pay a living wage, to give everyone the tools to thrive.”
Future of Fair Farms
Please take between 10 and 30 minutes to fill out our self-assessment survey https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/fairfarms to engage free consultations from OEFFA and AJP staff, AJP Toolkit resources, and templates to make your own. These include an employee handbook and health & safety plan for your farm. Other resources include video training materials for employees, legal reference guides, conflict resolution plans, and much more.
About Adam Utley
Adam is the OEFFA Fair Farms Program Coordinator. Prior to becoming an organic crop inspector in Ohio, he was acting team leader at Whole Foods Cincinnati in the produce/floral department, where responsibilities included developing relationships with local farm businesses. Adam also served as production coordinator at a multi-farm CSA cooperative called Great River Organics (OH), farm strategist at Wayward Seed Farm (OH), a nutrition educator (PA), and program director for La Conexion, a bilingual community center (MN).
Adam looks forward to meeting you, learning about your goals in farming, and hearing how OEFFA Fair Farms Program can support you in your business.
Issue: Apr 2023
By: Adam Utley