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.

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)

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?