Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Why We Farm: Farm Workers’ Rights

Two years ago, my husband Travis and I decided we wanted to be organic farmers. Neither of us had a background in agriculture. In fact, I was probably about as disconnected from physical labor as you can get — I was pursuing my PhD. This weekly series will take you through Travis’ and my journey to own and operate our own organic farm. From a farm internship in a tiny New York town, to management positions at the largest CSA farm in the southern United States, and now our current project of running a one-acre farm in Austin, Texas, our experience has been filled with wild successes, sharp disappointments, and self-discovery. I hope our story can provide others with ideas and resources for their own farming projects–urban or rural, big or small, hobby or professional. I also hope it can shine some light on the new organic movement surging in urban spaces and among America’s young people. To me, our collective attempt to reconnect with food is a testament to the ability of youth to create, even in difficult times.

I wanted to share this incredible report on farmworker protections that I found via Grist, put out by the catering company Bon Appetit and the United Farm Workers.  FYI, Bon Appetit supplies Saint Edward’s University here in Austin, focusing on local and fair food, and they have been incredibly supportive of Travis and me as we begin our small farm.

In short, the report explains that farmworkers have few of the standard rights and protections provided to workers in other industries.  But more than that, often farmworkers are specifically exempt from these rights and protections–things as basic as minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and workplace safety.  This often results in an environment of abuse, marginalization, and personal danger.
Race is bubbling just under the surface of this report.  Over 70% of farmworkers are unauthorized workers, many of them from Mexico and Central America.  No matter your race, as a farmworker you are unprotected and vulnerable to abuse, but for being born outside the United States can make the situation desperate.
Addressing these problems is not only fundamental for those currently in farm work, but also for the future of farming in general.  Inhumane conditions and a lack of regulation will only discourage young farmers from entering the field.  Small, organic farms are not exempt from these kinds of abuses.  As you’ll see in the report, if anything, they have even more license to mistreat employees.
Below, I’ve included some of the more startling highlights.  Read the full report here.  Thanks to Bon Appetit and the United Farm Workers for putting this report together.  It is easy to get lost in the romantics of farming and good food, but we need to remember that farming is actually a neglected and failing occupation.  There are few farmers.  There are fewer young people trying to be farmers.  Partly because there are so few Americans going into farming, the majority of our farming industry rides on the backs of exploited labor.  The solution, as I see it, is to begin giving real incentives to young people who want to pursue farming, through incubator farms, grants, and land transition programs.
Sorry to get so serious on a Friday, but since we all eat, farming is a serious subject that needs a serious look.
  • Between 2005 and 2009, about a third of farmworkers earned less than $7.25/hour and only a quarter of all farmworkers reported working more than nine months in the previous year.
  • Farm work has little or no overtime limits, child labor restrictions, collective bargaining rights, or workers’ compensation insurance, although agriculture is considered to be one of the most hazardous industries in the U.S.
  • A farmworker may be fired for joining a labor union, and farm labor unions have no legal recourse to compel a company or agricultural employer to negotiate employment terms.
  • 88 percent of all farms in the U.S. are not inspected for basic safety and health regulations and one-third of all farm employees are not protected by OSHA standards.
  • Agricultural employers are not required to take such basic preventive measures as providing adequate shade and providing employees with rest breaks.
Photo: Ansel Adams, Farm Workers and Mt. Williamson
Neysa is currently farming an acre of organic vegetables in Austin, Texas. For updates on her farm, visit or follow her on twitter @farmerneysa


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