Should Farmworkers Own Part of the Farm?

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Jim Cochran is anything but an imposing businessman. He cracks bad jokes and wears jeans and faded T-shirts to work. Cochran’s got a ferocious sweet tooth and regularly sneaks into the kitchen to steal treats. 'My very favorite thing of all, which is actually the crusade of my life, is fruitcake!' he says. (Kerry Klein/KQED)

If you’re a foodie, at some point you’ve probably signed up to get a fresh veggie box delivered from a local farm. You know, the kind that has organic carrots, juicy tomatoes and sometimes a weird root like a kohlrabi or rutabaga thrown in.

But those veggie boxes can be pricey for many Californians. Now, a new pilot project in Fresno is trying to change that, setting up mobile markets in low-income neighborhoods where people can sample produce and tell surveyors what they could afford to pay for a veggie box.

It’s part of an effort called The Food Commons, a project that’s also trying to transform food systems in Atlanta and New Zealand. They’re piloting the effort in Fresno, America’s most productive farm belt. It’s a place where food is largely grown for export outside the region, not for the folks who actually live here.

The Food Commons is the brainchild of a farmer who has brought some radical ideas into agriculture, Santa Cruz strawberry grower Jim Cochran. “Good food is not just for yuppies," he says.

As part of our "Big Think" series, we’ve been asking innovative Californians to share their big ideas in 10 words or less. Cochran’s Big Think, though, has a second part: “To grow it, can it, and sell it, all community owned.”

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Cochran has long believed that the people who pick and package our food should own a stake in the business, and labor under good working conditions. That’s all been part of his vision ever since he started Swanton Berry Farm, California’s first organic strawberry farm, nearly 30 years ago.

Swanton was the first organic farm in the U.S. to sign a union contract with the United Farm Workers union, or UFW. A big picture of Cesar Chavez hangs on the wall of his farmstand.

People stop at Swanton's Farm stand to buy organic berries, veggies, and pies, using the honor system - a box where they put in money and make their own change.
People stop at the Swanton farmstand to buy organic berries, veggies and pies, using the honor system -- a box where they put in money and make their own change. (Kerry Klein/KQED)

Cochran says consumers sometimes have a “complete misconception” that if they are eating organically, they’re supporting better pay or working conditions for farmworkers. “It’s not just about small farms, and it’s not just about organic. Really it’s about good business practices, and good farming practices,” he says.

Like paying farmworkers to take care of their physical health. Before the sun rises at Cochran’s farm just north of Santa Cruz, farmworkers get ready to plant strawberries in a misty field. They greet the dawn by warming up with calisthenics.

Cochran brought in a kick-boxing trainer to help his farmworkers stretch their muscles before a day of digging and bending in the dirt. The rows of berries are also planted higher than most farms, so the workers don’t have to stoop so much.

Farmworkers at Swanton Berry Farm warm up by doing stretching and calesthenics each morning, to prevent injury while stooping and bending in the fields.
Farmworkers at Swanton Berry Farm warm up by doing stretching and calesthenics each morning, to prevent injury while stooping and bending in the fields. (Kerry Klein/KQED)

All of Cochran’s employees get health insurance. Like Pedro Venegas, who’s worked here six years. “Other ranchers should treat their workers like this, too, if they want them to stay,” Venegas explains in Spanish, as he shovels clods of heavy dirt. “If they don’t care about their employees, they don’t give them health insurance."

On top of that, all the employees get a little bit of stock in the company, becoming part owners.

Farming can bring in some pretty thin margins. So how does Cochran afford to pay those benefits?

“We grow the product, we package it, we distribute it, we process it, and we retail it. We make our own jam out of our own strawberries and out of our own other products. And we sell it directly,” he explains. “I've chosen to put that efficiency and that extra margin into paying slightly better wages and quite significantly greater benefits to the employees. Instead of pocketing that myself."

With The Food Commons, Cochran wants to expand that vision beyond his farm -- to transform entire food systems in communities.

"So the person who is picking carrots winds up owning some stock in the company that is farming,” Cochran explains. "They also own a little bit of share of the grocery store, and the processing plant."

In Fresno there’s a real need for food access and decent wages: More than a quarter of residents here live below the poverty line. They’re starting with the mobile pop-up markets and the produce delivery boxes. They’re also planning to open a storefront in a low-income neighborhood, where they’ll package and sell local products like jam and veggies.

West Fresno residents take home free veggies in exchange for taking a survey about how much they'd pay for a veggie box. “We really have the opportunity to build something special with food commons, “says Food Commons Fresno Manager Kiel Schmidt. “It will be owned by the community, it will create wealth for the community, while it's also improving their health.”
West Fresno residents take home free veggies in exchange for taking a survey about how much they'd pay for a veggie box.

Fresno Food Commons manager Jenny Saklar says they chose to start the pop-up markets in west Fresno because it was recently highlighted by the state EPA.

“This Zip code of 93706 in west Fresno is the least healthy place to live in all of California,” she says. “In terms of pesticide use, and highest asthma rates, and proximity to toxic sites, this community has all these layers added on top of not having these fresh fruits and vegetables to eat.”

She and other local managers are working to realize Cochran’s vision. The workers and community members would all be part owners, and the food would be priced somewhere between Whole Foods and the local mini-mart.

“We’re not aiming for the boutique market,” says Cochran. “We're aiming to produce not necessarily heirloom tomatoes, just really good tomatoes. Not fancy broccoli, just good broccoli.”

You might be skeptical that folks with limited resources will pay a little more after trying really good broccoli. But a lot of Cochran’s crazy ideas have made good sense. Like going organic when no one else would.