Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Local food and working conditions

A friend recently passed onto me an interesting article that examines the local food movement and the working conditions of US farm workers. Essentially, the author examines whether there is any benefit to farm workers from the widely accepted proposition that:
…when we buy locally grown food directly from farms, we not only secure fresher, more seasonal produce, but we also create an intimate, trusting relationship with the farmer. This supposed bond reinforces the common understanding that the local food production process is more wholesome than the industrial agricultural system.
Looking at agricultural workers in New York’s Hudson River Valley, the author finds little difference between local farms and so-called factory farms in who the workers are or their working conditions. Many workers were foreign born and working illegally, had limited English-language literacy and often lived on the farm (making the particularly vulnerable to their employer who controls all aspects of their lives).

One of the things this article doesn’t do is consider why farm work is often exploitative. While it is easy to demonize farmers, it is more useful to consider the context farmers operate in. Farmers usually sell undifferentiated products. That is to say, one farmer’s grain or pigs are pretty much the same as the next farmer’s.

Consequently, farmers tend to compete on price. Price competition reflects the profit imperative of capitalism and we see similar dynamics afoot in manufacturing. Basically, the “big box price” grinds its way back up the supply chain to land in producer’s laps as low prices.

There are other commodity-based factors at play, such as risk of spoilage, gluts and shortages, etc. Farmers also have little control over input costs (e.g., seed or stock, machinery, fertilizer or feed). The upshot of this overall dynamic is that farmers have been caught in a long-term cost-price squeeze: the cost of inputs typically rises faster than the value of outputs.

One of the few cost factors farmers can control is labour costs. Some farms manipulate this cost through self-exploitation (farmers work harder and/or off-farm). Other farmers seek to minimize the costs associated with hired labour.

Although some farmers may be able to charge a premium for their products by differentiating them (e.g., selling at urban farmer’s markets or finding some sort of unique niche), most will be unable to do so. Consequently, we shouldn’t be surprised if we find that the working conditions on “local farms” mirror those on the much maligned “factory farms” (as the article author did). This dynamic also suggests that there isn’t likely to be a market-based solution to farm working conditions.

-- Bob Barnetson

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