TOLSTOY FARM, DAMAGED BY FLOODS, IS REACHING OUT FOR HELP

Diane (Tolstoy Farmer and long-time manager of the Spokane Farmers' Market) stands in the deep gully that used to be the main driveway to the community

Diane (Tolstoy Farmer and long-time manager of the Spokane Farmers’ Market) stands in the deep gully that used to be the main driveway to the community

Tolstoy Farm, founded in 1963, is an intentional community situated in a scenic canyon near Davenport, WA. It’s the oldest, still extant, non-religious intentional community in the U.S. About 30 folks reside on the communally-owned land. It is also home to a 5-acre organic market farm known to some as Eden Gardens and to others as Tolstoy Farms. The farm, which has existed for most of the community’s 50-year history, is a collectively-managed organic produce farm growing a vast diversity of crops. It is the anchor organic produce vendor at the thriving Spokane Farmers’ Market (a market that farmers from Tolstoy were instrumental in establishing in 1998). Tolstoy Farms operates a coveted CSA program for about 60 customers (and still have shares available for 2014). CSA customers and farmers’ market regulars know how dedicated the Tolstoy farmers are to organic ethics and methods. They know they will always get the finest quality produce and knowledgeable, friendly service from the Tolstoy farmers.

This year, however, is going to be one of the most difficult in the history of Tolstoy Farm. Earlier this year, on Feb. 12th and February 26th, both the community of residents and the farm at Tolstoy suffered severe damage from two back-to-back major floods. Caused by a “perfect storm” combination of hard, frozen ground (not allowing run-off to soak in), warm temperatures with rapid snow melt and a record 24 hour rain event, creeks overflowed, houses were flooded, water lines washed away and four community bridges were destroyed. On top of that, the main driveway to the community was gouged out by flood waters to a depth of four feet in places making it impassable. Most devastating of all, one of the creeks that used to supply water to several houses and irrigation to the farm was rerouted by the flood. It now disappears into the ground leaving those houses without their water supply and causing the farm to purchase and install 800 additional feet of expensive, four-inch aluminum irrigation pipe in order to access the above-ground portion of the creek so that farming can commence.

I live and farm at Tolstoy, but my homestead is half-way up the canyon side so I was spared damage from the floods. I’m reaching out on behalf of my fellow communitarians who could really use some support.

Tolstoy Farm has touched the lives of thousands of people over the years whether they were visitors to the community who came away with a fresh perspective of how society could be organized in more egalitarian manner or if they were customers at the farmers’ market stand in Spokane.

Now, Tolstoy Farm needs some help from the greater community to bounce back from the hit they took earlier this year with the floods. Please visit their web page and find out how you can contribute, either by joining a work party or contributing financially. This is a time to join together to support a community in need. Please visit the Tolstoy Farm Flood Recovery Fund page at:

http://www.tolstoyfarms.org/flood-recovery

There is a PayPal button on this page to make donating fast and easy.

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New Law in Washington State Expands Farm Internship Pilot Program

A new law in Washington State, Establishing a Farm Internship Program (FIP), introduced as bill SB 5123 to the Washington State legislature in 2013, was signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee on March 28, 2014.

The law, which by all practical matters extends and expands a pilot program that had been in existence in Skagit and San Juan counties during 2010 and 2011, sets up a new, three-year pilot program to allow small farms in sixteen WA counties to take on interns, paid or unpaid. These interns will perform farm work, benefit from a structured educational program approved by the Washington State Dept. of Labor and Industries and administered by the farmer and receive Workers’ Compensation coverage with premiums paid by the farm. The new version revives the former pilot program, refines it, and extends it to King, Whatcom, Kitsap, Pierce, Jefferson, Spokane, Yakima, Chelan, Grant, Island, Snohomish, Kittitas, Lincoln, and Thurston counties (the full text of the new law can be viewed HERE).

The new pilot program has an effective date of June 12, 2014. The Employment Standards Program of Labor & Industries is currently in the process of building an implementation plan. A new Industrial Relations Agent (IRA) will be hired to assist with program implementation. The target hire date for the IRA is June 1, 2014.

Once the IRA is hired, s/he will begin reviewing and updating internship program forms, letters, etc., with an anticipated completion date of June 15, 2014. A stakeholder contact list is expected to be developed by June 1, 2014, and beginning the week of June 16, draft materials will be sent out for stakeholder review. L&I will be working with stakeholders and farm organizations to coordinate the outreach efforts.

Tisa Soeteber will be the Employment Standards point of contact for the pilot program. Her information is provided below. Please contact Tisa directly with any requests, questions, etc.

Tisa Soeteber
Industrial Relations Agent
(360) 902-4537
zepq235@LNI.wa.gov

The small farm economy in Washington is experiencing growth and with that comes a higher demand for trained farmworkers, many of whom will go on to become farm managers and farm owners. The Farm Internship Pilot Program will expand opportunities for on-the-job training for beginning farmers and farmworkers. The new law requires that the farms provide an educational component for farm interns in order to qualify for enrollment in the program. The educational component requirement is relatively simple for the small farm to comply with. The bill stipulates that each participating small farm “provides a curriculum of learning modules and supervised participation in farm work activities designed to teach farm interns about farming practices and farm enterprises[,] is based on the bona fide curriculum of an educational or vocational institution and is reasonably designed to provide the intern with vocational knowledge and skills about farming practices and enterprises.” Such curricula are available on-line and can be modified by each farm to fit its circumstances. It is also likely that that some agencies and organizations will make curricula that are specially tailored to FIP available to participating farmers. The bill calls for farm organizations and agencies such as WSU Extension, Tilth Producers of Washington, the Farm Bureau and others to offer assistance to participating small farms in fulfilling this and other aspects of their farm internship offerings.

An official assessment of the first pilot project was submitted to the legislature in 2011. Although participation in the program was low (six farms participating, nine interns enrolled), the report concluded “both the farms and interns are reporting high levels of satisfaction with this project. Their desire is to continue providing internships that are “sanctioned” instead of questionably legal [“flying under the radar”]. The farms and interns especially value the availability of worker’s compensation for interns available through the FIP project. Farmers have reported that the quantity and quality of the educational component of their internships has increased as a result of participating in the project. All of the enrolled farmers said that they would recommend the program to other farmers. Interns have reported high praise for the educational component of their internships.”

Traditionally, many small farms have relied on “informal employment” of interns or apprentices. Whether such arrangements are legal or not depends on the interpretation of unpaid internship criteria published by the WA Department of Labor & Industries (L& I) which are, in turn, based on the U. S. Department of Labor Fair Labor Standards Act (http://www.lni.wa.gov/WorkplaceRights/files/UnpaidInternshipsFactSheet.pdf).

The bill does not prohibit interns from being paid, that is left up to each farm to work out, but farms would not bound by minimum wage laws in regards to farm interns. The Interns would sign an agreement with the farm that establishes compensation, if any. Payment can be made in the form of stipends, room and board, combination of same, etc. Even if the intern is un-paid, the bill makes sure it is not simply free labor. The internship will need to be an educational experience based upon an approved curriculum. The intern will be receiving value in exchange for the time put in on the farm and the farmer will incur cost in fulfilling the educational and reporting obligations of the program as well as paying Workers’ Compensation insurance premiums to the state.

As the number of jobs on small farms grows the potential for farms to run afoul of labor laws increases. A farm’s viability comes under threat if it becomes embroiled in costly and time-consuming compliance and enforcement disputes with L& I. A small farm lacks sustainability if it allows risky employment practices and unnecessary exposure to legal entanglements to weaken its “economic viability”, which is one of the pillars of “sustainable agriculture.”

Another pillar of sustainable agriculture is “social responsibility.” One of the conditions that gave rise to a social responsibility aspect in sustainable agriculture was the long history of worker exploitation in agriculture. While it is true that many informal employment arrangements on small farms are on friendly terms, the protection that legal workers enjoy in terms of on-the-job injuries or financial security does not exist.

Under the new law, an intern on a small farm is not allowed to remain an intern indefinitely; that not only violates the tenant that unpaid interns cannot displace wage-earning workers (L & I criteria), but it disrespects decades of hard-fought, worker-led struggles to impose minimum wage protections upon labor exploiters of the past. Minimum wage laws exist to protect the rights of workers to receive fair compensation.*

Part of creating a revitalized, sustainable local food system, besides improving training for farmers and farmworkers, is increasing their security and stability by regularizing under-paid and un-paid internships – a tradition that dates back ages. The Farm Internship Pilot Program is an experimental step in that direction. Let’s encourage farmers to utilize its provisions so that we can assess its workability and possibly create a permanent, state-wide farm internship program.

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* There are three exemptions to the state minimum wage for agricultural workers. They only apply if all three of the following requirements are met: 1. Workers are employed as hand-harvest laborers who are paid piece rate; and 2. They commute daily from their permanent residence to the farm; and 3. They were employed in agriculture less than 13 weeks during the preceding calendar year. (Source: http://agr.wa.gov/Marketing/SmallFarm/DOCS/5-LaborOnTheFarm.pdf)

OUR LAND: A Symposium on Farmland Access in the 21st Century – April 26-27 (Berkeley, CA)

Access to farmland for the next generation of farmers looks like it’s lining up to be the most pivotal issue facing agriculture today. Consider this question: “How can young farmers, almost universally cash-poor and yet who have such energy and vision for a re-invented, sustainable and localized food and farm system in the U.S. even get started when land costs are rising, the resource base of arable land is shrinking and start-up costs are steep?” This upcoming symposium has the promise of being a gathering where some real, practical and paradigm-shifting solutions to questions like this will be identified and described.

I say this because of who is behind the organizing effort, namely, The Schumacher Center for a New Economics which is the organizational and philosophical heir of the E. F. Schumacher Society that was based in Great Barrington, MA.

E.F Schumacher was the visionary economist who wrote the book “Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered ” way back in 1973 because he saw the train wreck coming and had the economics chops to describe an alternative track. Sadly, not enough people heeded his warning or embraced his proposals. But some folks did. The E.F. Schumacher Society was instrumental in not only developing the concepts for local currencies, community land trusts, and micro-lending programs, they assisted communities to implement them.

Now, in its new incarnation as the Schumacher Center for New Economics, you can bet the concepts and proposals that will be discussed at this symposium will be the ones to manifest in your community. Since most of us won’t be able to attend, they will be uploading podcasts of the proceedings (see below).

We are talking nothing less than land reform right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Pay attention and act!

Chrys

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Agrarian Trust, a program of the Schumacher Center for New Economics, is pleased to announce the schedule for our 2014 Symposium:

OUR LAND: a Symposium on Farmland Access in the 21st Century.

April 26 + 27, Berkeley CA

Wheeler Hall (UC Berkeley) and the David Brower Center

In the next 20 years, an estimated 400 million acres of farmland will change hands as 70% of current farmland owners retire. Meanwhile, entering farmers struggle to compete with non-farming landowners for access to prime farmland, particularly in peri-urban areas. This dilemma of farmland succession is shared by Greyhairs and Greenhorns alike, who all hope for a more sustainable and resilient farming future.

We will examine this imminent inflection point from historical, ecological and political economy perspectives, and address both practical and philosophical approaches to transition. With both national and international speakers joining to reflect on this topic, we expect a full room and a lively convening of stakeholders.

Please join us on April 26 + 27 for a conversation about farmland access and transition.

This event is presented in partnership with Chelsea Green Publishing, The David Brower Center, Berkeley Food Institute, California FarmLink and Roots of Change.

All lectures will be recorded as podcasts for farmers and others who cannot make it in person. To get the lectures please join our email list.

Please read up on the event details and reserve your ticket today at: www.agrariantrust.org/symposium.

Thank you for sharing this announcement widely.

Sincerely,

Severine v T Fleming, Managing Co-Founder, Agrarian Trust

Kristen Loria, Events Coordinator, Agrarian Trust

This is What Food Sovereignty Looks Like

FoodTankMemeThis image is a meme that was posted to Facebook by the FoodTank (a food think tank), an organization I respect. It is a quote by Bill Mollison, co-founder of the Permaculture movement. I say, yes! This is where we need to go. But first, there are a lot of nasty and unnecessary government regulations (at the federal, state, county and municipal levels) that need to be done away with for this to actually become a wide-spread and influential reality. Those rules, while in many cases appropriate to large-scale, export-oriented, general public wholesale and retail operations, need not apply to small-scale local producers who are simply feeding their neighbors through farm-direct or garden-direct exchange between the primary producer and the end consumer (eater). The People must act to remove any regulation that stands in the way of any small-scale, local producer from providing food– any food of choice– to any local end consumer through direct exchange. The People can hold the producers accountable for quality and safety of the food and we don’t need government regulatory bodies to do this for us, especially when, more often than not, they prevent or inhibit us from establishing these types of exchanges. This is what Food Sovereignty looks like.

I posted the comment above to the Food Tank’s meme and then my friend, Walt Kloefkorn, an activist from Stevens County, Washington (where some of Washington’s most progressive organizing around the issue of Food Sovereignty is happening) said:

“Most food safety regulations are not about preventing unsafe food from ever reaching the public, they are about tracing it back to where it came from. Obviously, those parts of the system add no value to a situation where food is sold directly.

The state and federal agencies are incredibly difficult to deal with for small farmers. The agencies claim that they are concerned about even one consumer being harmed, but in reality they ignore much more serious harms to consumers such as lack of access to healthy food, the thousands of chemicals that are accumulating in our bodies, and widespread food insecurity. If they had the least bit of actual concern for the safety of consumers, they would begin an immediate phase out of the potent neurotoxins we spray on our crops in ever-increasing amounts. They are captive to the corporate interests and are primarily concerned with preserving corporate profit, not consumer health.

The extreme fragility of the mono-cropped industrial food system and its vulnerability to various shocks, such as spikes in energy prices, climate disasters, and crop disease outbreaks, could easily lead to widespread food shortages, and even famine. Small, diversified farms supporting local and regional needs are the best way to restore the resiliency that will be needed to fend off these potential disasters.”

Yup, that about sums it up. Stay tuned. This is not merely rhetoric.

Wisdom from an Organic Elder and His Reference to a New Organization: Food Commons

governance[1]This article, “Sustainable Farming Needs Math as Much as Mulch, Says One Veteran ” by Nathanael Johnson in Grist, an interview with Tom Willey of T & D Willey Farms in California’s San Joaquin Valley, is a must-read for folks thinking about the future of organic and sustainable food systems and farming models. I remember receiving pallets of T&D Willey Farms’ produce to re-distribute between Santa Cruz and San Francisco back in the ’80s when that’s what I did– their quality was out of this world; wooden wire-bound cases with hand-made informational flyers on each case. I may have even picked up at their farm on occasion (it was a while ago). The article is a direct follow-on from the New York Times article about the elders of the organic movement that I referred to in my previous blog post. What I find especially interesting about Tom Willey’s reflections on his and his wife’s success on their organic farm in California is that he is not blind to some of the aspects of the model that brought them their success that he now recognizes might need to be relegated to the trash bin of history in favor of new models that will make food production that much more sustainable, equitable and resilient. I’m fairly certain these new models are being born and nurtured every day with inspired projects being developed at the local level in communities all over, especially by young folks.

So, while reading the interview with Tom Willey, I saw that he mentioned a new project, Food Commons, that he thinks embodies some of this new thinking, a fundamentally different approach to feeding each other that’s “out of the box” compared to the models we’re used to. I got very interested. I read the entire Food Commons website.

I am intrigued by their suggestion to appropriate land held by banks connected to non-performing loans to form the basis of basically a land bank, a Commons, to install farming families on, to put to sustainable use in food production and, importantly, local distribution. I am also interested in how, as a society, we can establish mechanisms, through state, and especially federal buyout programs, for the transfer of privately owned farmland from present-day owners to a trust such as a Commons. These would be publicly financed and designed to eventually preserve in perpetuity a large percentage of our nation’s arable land, both rural and urban. Such a program would have to go far towards meeting the needs of the farmers (many likely aging, and their families) who would be willing to participate in the program while transitioning their private land away from exposure to the real estate market and committing its future use to food production as true public Commons. I think it would be possible to design such a program and to start advocating for it as part of future farm bills. It would need to be a national, grassroots campaign. It would be difficult to fund it, but not so much if we, as a society, decided our future food security and local economic vitality were more concrete  national benefits than is an obscenely bloated Pentagon budget. The Food Commons folks put it this way: “It is possible to think of the Food Commons Trust as a ‘National Park System’, a ‘Bureau of Land Management,’ or a Public Utility dedicated to national food security and health – but, importantly, without the typical government bureaucracy, it would be established as a public, not-for-profit Trust, chartered to operate for the perpetual benefit of the American public.”

I also have a hair-brained idea (that I just shared with the folks at Food Commons) that one way to fund the revitalization of local food systems would be for localities to tax their jurisdictions’ food warehouse distribution centers and/or grocery stores on food items that are shipped in from outside a given region and dedicate those funds to be administered by local citizens’ food authorities for local food system enhancement.

I also conveyed to the folks at Food Commons my belief that farm families who would be living and farming on the envisioned Commons, who abide by the stewardship agreements such arrangements would require, should be able to live rent free and have very long-term leases. Only sales of product or revenues from associated ventures should be attached for paying into the Commons organizational budget.

Under the Food Commons’ governance heading on their website, I see phrase in bold: “steady-state profitability” explained in the following terms: “The governing boards will establish goals, incentive structures, and checks and balances that drive efficient use of resources and sustainable positive economic value creation, not unlimited growth and maximization of shareholder profit at the expense of other stakeholders, including future generations”. “Economic value creation–” That is key. Unfortunately, it’s not too often these days that I come across the concept of “steady state” economics, but I am happy to see it mentioned in this context. There is a passage in E.F. Schumacher’s famous book from the 1970’s “Small is Beautiful” where he describes a business model he observed in India. When an enterprise had achieved a steady state (stable revenues, good wages, etc.), rather than continue to grow, it would in essence divide like a cell and spawn another instance of itself. I think something along these lines would be a good mechanism for the Food Commons project. It could also incorporate the Mondragon Cooperative’s model of providing education within the system so that the model maintains itself and also provides for its own “cell division.”

The “prototype” projects described on the Food Commons website are also very interesting.

I will be attentive to the development of the Food Commons project.

It’s a wave that’s building. Maybe your community will be part of that wave..

The Rebirth of the Commons

TheCommonsSo, in case you missed this from a week ago, here’s a link to a NYT article about the “Elders of the Organic Movement” who met for a week-long conference at Esalen in California in January. When I joined the organic movement, first in Maine in the ’70’s and then in California in the ’80’s, it was not long after these pioneers had broken ground for a food and farming revolution that has become a global phenomenon. They were still young, idealistic and extremely energetic. The participants in this conference of Elders, looking back at their accomplishments, raised fundamental questions which we really need to start answering and, more importantly, doing something about. Questions like: Does the National Organic Program (the set of rules which organic farmers must follow) need to be torn up and re-written in order to prohibit abuses such as “clamshelled tomatoes,” or “thousands of acres of single crops?” Don’t you think part of organic agriculture is to package organic produce in ways that are respectful of the earth? Don’t you think blocks of mono-crops don’t have a place in the organic movement?

There are so many more abuses the current rules turn a blind eye towards. When the USDA took over organic certification, they clipped the wings of the organic movement turning organics from a mindset into a merchandising niche. And now that it’s a $31 billion industry (that’s U.S. organic production), is there any chance that the organic consumer– for whom the movement was created in the first place and who still imagines organic agriculture as the clean, pastoral right livelihood it was intended to be and not a profit-hungry, industrial behemoth– is there any chance the organic customer base can counter the well-funded organic trade group lobbyists in order to haul the organic movement down out of the stratosphere and back to earth as a useful tool for simplifying and sustaining food production, making it so we Earthlings can have a future with healthy children and a food system that doesn’t consume more calories in production than it produces in food? I doubt it. Don’t get me wrong: If it’s really true that those millions of acres of farmland (and related water systems, surrounding eco-systems, farmworkers, etc.) that are represented by that $31 billion figure have been spared chemical fertilizers and pesticides and have some soil-building programs in place, that’s not something to dismiss out of hand. But organic agriculture arose from a moral responsibility to the Earth, its inhabitants and our future generations. It originated as a whole-system alternative to the extractive and toxic agriculture which unfortunately is still the dominant form today.

Organic incorporated lifestyle. It considered downstream consequences. It was all about renewable energy sources. It embraced Voluntary Simplicity. Organic agriculture as practiced by the big boys in the industry today is not a wholistic alternative that takes into account social equity, quality of life and working conditions for farmworkers, carbon footprint reduction, land reform, food access and so on. It has gone astray.

The dream of the Elders of the Organic Movement is not dead, but its presence within the official organic program is like a candle in the wind. It’s time to bring that little flame back inside. Place it in our hearts and know that there is a food and agriculture revolution that is very much alive and needs a new cadre of change makers to take it to its next level. It’s going to involve decentralizing food production and making vigorous efforts to revitalize local food systems. It’s going to mean making people who control present day food production very uncomfortable, for there is no force greater than a mobilized citizenry and our answers will not fit neatly into their old paradigm.

It’s happening already. It’s happening all over. Let’s keep it moving. It’s the burgeoning, global Permaculture community. It’s the non-GMO movement. It’s the anti-corporate shift towards local control and local self-determination. It’s the Food Sovereignty movement (in its international form and its nascent domestic form).

It’s the huge wave of young people wanting to farm (not acknowledged in the NYT article) who have seen the ugly, alienating results of two centuries of capitalist rat race and what it has done to people’s lives and to the environment. They have discovered that working the soil and producing safe, clean and nutritious sustenance for their neighbors is a calling to their basic humanity and resonates with what they know to be good. They visualize villages, towns and cities dotted with farms and gardens of all sizes that are growing families and kindling local economies with a robust exchange of local food, goods and services. They see a day very soon when productive farmland is freed from the death sentence of real estate speculation and pried from the clutches of private ownership; a day when land is made available, rent-free, for those who would steward it, green it, cultivate it, raise farm families on it and feed their neighbors with it. I’m talking about the rebirth of the commons where every square foot of arable land and every soul who is called to its tending will be revered as a national monument and a public resource. All of society will share the responsibility of maintaining these treasures. This will not be given to us, but it is ours to reclaim.

I’m not going to stop beating this drum. I’m hearing the rhythm being taken up all over. The walls are going to come down and we are going to see a different future. People are going to take back control of that one thing that defines us at our most basic level: The food that sustains us.

Who will we count as among us? Who is ready to take up the cause?

Voice your support for SB 5123 – Establish a farm internship program in WA

IMG_0671SB 5123, to establish a farm internship program in Washington State, was introduced in 2013. It had wide support. The program was even funded in the final 2013 budget, but because of various factors, it was never given a final floor vote. IT HAS BEEN REINTRODUCED in 2014. It’s a positive step towards revitalizing our local food economy. It deserves your support and action to pass in 2014!

I drafted most of the following message during last year’s struggle to pass the law, but it’s all still relevant.

Voice your support TODAY for SB 5123, establishing a farm internship program. This bill will help grow new farmers from the ground up.

Please! Call your WA State Senators and Representatives to voice your support for this bill.

Find Your Legislator. Use this link to get the contact info for your WA State Representative:
http://app.leg.wa.gov/DistrictFinder/

Just about everything you might want to know about this bill, including a link to the bill’s wording and even a place to comment to legislators on it is here:
http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=5123&year=2013

Background:

SB 5123 was introduced in the 2013 Washington Legislature to set up a pilot program to allow small farms in sixteen WA counties to take on interns, paid or unpaid, who would perform farm work, benefit from a structured educational program administered by the farmer and receive Workers’ Compensation coverage.

The small farm economy in Washington is experiencing growth and with that comes a higher demand for trained farmworkers, many of whom will go on to become farm managers and farm owners. The internship pilot program that would be established by SB 5123 would improve on-the-job training for beginning farmers and farmworkers by requiring that the farms provide an educational component for farm interns. The educational component requirement is relatively simple for the small farm to comply with. The bill proposes that each participating small farm “provides a curriculum of learning modules and supervised participation in farm work activities designed to teach farm interns about farming practices and farm enterprises … [that is] is based on the bona fide curriculum of an educational or vocational institution; and … is reasonably designed to provide the intern with vocational knowledge and skills about farming practices and enterprises.” Such curricula are readily available on-line and can be modified by each farm to fit its circumstances. The bill calls for farm organizations and agencies such as WSU Extension, Tilth Producers of Washington, the Farm Bureau and others to offer assistance to participating small farms in fulfilling this and other aspects of their farm internship offerings.

More Info:

The bill is similar to a pilot program that had been in existence in Skagit and San Juan counties during 2010 and 2011 but has since expired. The new version would revive the pilot program and extend it to King, Whatcom, Kitsap, Pierce, Jefferson, Spokane, Yakima, Chelan, Grant, Island, Snohomish, Kittitas, Lincoln, and Thurston counties. An attempt was made in the 2012 legislative session to extend the pilot program to these counties and received strong support in the legislature but died in committee.

An official assessment of the first pilot project was submitted to the legislature in 2011. Although participation in the program was low (six farms participating, nine interns enrolled), the report concluded “Both the farms and interns are reporting high levels of satisfaction with this project. Their desire is to continue providing internships that are “sanctioned” instead of questionably legal [“flying under the radar”]. The farms and interns especially value the availability of worker’s compensation for interns available through the FIP project. Farmers have reported that the quantity and quality of the educational component of their internships has increased as a result of participating in the project. All of the enrolled farmers said that they would recommend the program to other farmers. Interns have reported high praise for the educational component of their internships.”

Traditionally, many small farms have relied on “informal employment” of interns or apprentices. Whether such arrangements are legal or not depends on the interpretation of unpaid internship criteria published by the WA Department of Labor & Industries (L& I) and are based on the U. S. Department of Labor Fair Labor Standards Act (http://www.lni.wa.gov/WorkplaceRights/files/UnpaidInternshipsFactSheet.pdf). As the number of jobs on small farms grows, the potential for a farm to run afoul of labor laws increases. A farm’s viability comes under threat if it becomes embroiled in costly and time-consuming compliance and enforcement disputes with L& I. A small farm lacks sustainability if it allows risky employment practices and unnecessary exposure to legal entanglements to weaken its “economic viability”, which is one of the pillars of “sustainable agriculture,”  Another pillar of sustainable agriculture is “social responsibility.” One of the reasons that gave rise to a social responsibility aspect in sustainable agriculture was the long history of worker exploitation in agriculture. While it is true that many informal employment arrangements on small farms are on friendly terms, there doesn’t exist the protection that legal workers enjoy in terms of on-the-job injuries or financial security.  An intern on a small farm is not allowed to remain an intern indefinitely; that not only violates the tenant that unpaid interns cannot displace wage-earning workers (L & I criteria), but it disrespects decades of hard-fought, worker-led struggles to impose minimum wage protections upon labor exploiters of the past. Minimum wage laws exist to protect the rights of workers to receive fair compensation.

Part of creating a revitalized, sustainable local food system, besides improving training for farmers and farmworkers, is increasing their security and stability by regularizing un-paid internships – a tradition that dates back ages. Senate Bill 5123 is an experimental step in that direction. Let’s urge the legislature to pass this bill so that we can assess its workability.

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Below, criticisms of the bill are paraphrased and responded to:

Criticisms: Interns should be employees, and they should be paid. Anybody can learn how to pick carrots or beets in ten minutes; after that it is NOT an educational experience.  It is unpaid labor. If a farm relies on unpaid labor to survive, then it is not a sustainable operation.

My Response:

The bill does not prohibit interns from being paid, that is left up to each farm to work out, but farms would not bound by minimum wage laws in regards to farm interns. The Interns would sign an agreement with the farm that establishes compensation, if any. Payment can be made in the form of stipends, room and board, combination of same, etc. Even if the intern is un-paid, the bill makes sure it is not simply free labor. The internship will need to be an educational experience based upon an approved curriculum. The intern will be receiving value in exchange for the time put in on the farm and the farmer will incur cost in fulfilling the educational and reporting obligations of the program as well as paying Workers’ Compensation insurance premiums to the state. If anyone would like to see an example of the type of curriculum that this pilot program would be expecting from its farmer participants, I invite you to take a look at an example from the Cultivating Success program at the following link (please take careful note of the licensing agreement):
http://www.cultivatingsuccess.org/PERMISSION_TO_ACCESS_FILES.htm

An important thing that should be understood about SB 5123 is that the bill proposes a temporary pilot program that expires at the end of 2017. It is an experiment. It does not set up a permanent program. What it does do is modify and extend a very limited, earlier experiment that was reported by program participants– by both producers and, it is important to point out, the interns themselves– to have been beneficial. If the outcomes of this larger scale experiment were to be as positive as the first pilot program (the current bill calls for another detailed study of the pilot program to be conducted by L & I), then the citizens of Washington State could have a further discussion as to whether the program should be made permanent through subsequent legislation. I believe the pilot program should be afforded an opportunity to be tried with full recognition of the concerns that have been voiced.

While there is room for a farm to develop its own curriculum (approval of which would be required by L & I) and that curriculum could be of a more limited scope than the example given, it is important to note that the bill calls for the curriculum to encompass “learning modules and supervised participation in farm work activities designed to teach farm interns about farming practices and farm enterprises; … [that is] is based on the bona fide curriculum of an educational or vocational institution; and … is reasonably designed to provide the intern with vocational knowledge and skills about farming practices and enterprises.”

Any small farmer would take offense at the notion that “anybody can learn how to pick carrots or beets in ten minutes; after that it is NOT an educational experience.” First of all, to pick carrots and beets well takes far longer than ten minutes to teach (if the farmer has quality standards s/he wishes to maintain). Furthermore, providing a way for small farms to get un-paid menial labor is not the intent of the bill and a farm doing so would be in violation of the law. The intent is that the interns learn the full context within which the farm produces those carrots and beets– How are the varieties chosen? From what sources are the seeds procured? What are the planting dates? How do you manage succession planting or inter-planting schemes? What are the fertility requirements? How is the seed bed prepared? What equipment is used to plant the seed? How is it maintained? How is the irrigation managed? Where do the crops fit into the crop rotation plan? How are weeds and insect pests managed? What considerations must be taken into account to produce certified organic carrots and beets? How do you handle the crops post-harvest to ensure quality and food safety? What determines how and where the produce is marketed? These questions illustrate a tiny fraction of what farmers must know and practice to be successful. This knowledge is what is intended to be imparted to the interns who would participate in this pilot program if passed. There are few places where someone interested in learning the art of small-scale farming can absorb the full context of this knowledge reservoir like they can by working on a farm side-by-side with a farmer mentor. The intent of the bill is to foster the professional development of a new generation of farmers to supply the paid labor force for a growing sector of Washington’s economy, namely, the small farm.

It’s true that “if a farm relies on unpaid labor to survive, then it is not a sustainable operation.” This bill envisions a regulatory environment in which the hosting of interns, paid (with the possibility of that pay being less than minimum wage yet with Workers’ Compensation insurance paid by the farm) or unpaid, can become a regularized option for small farms. Passage would not encourage or condone any farm “relying” on unpaid labor.

Please contact your state legislators to support SB 5123, the Farm Internship Pilot Program.