Does cheap food cheat farmers and farmworkers out of a fair wage?

Farmer Adam Davidoff never wanted to build his business on fancy lettuce.

“The mission of New Family Farm has always been to grow hearty food to feed the people,” he says of his organic farm in Sebastopol. Yes, there was more money to be made growing the specialty produce loved by posh Bay Area restaurants. Instead, Davidoff and business partner Ryan Power have spent the past seven years focused on staples like potatoes and beets sold at farmers’ markets and grocery stores in Sonoma County.

But this year, a few fields at New Family Farm were planted with Little Gems, or sucrine, a sweet, compact lettuce much sought after by high-end chefs. Davidoff looks forward to a delicious new harvest and good sales, but he admits, “Our plan now is to subsidize our hearty food to feed the people with this fancier stuff.”

The new strategy is intended to keep their other crops affordable for the average consumer while still allowing the field crew at New Family to afford to feed themselves. No small challenge in Sonoma County where land and housing costs continue to skyrocket. According to Real Answers, a real estate market research firm, rents alone have risen 40 percent since 2012. For this reason, local farmers like Davidoff walk an economic tightrope, constantly reevaluating how to keep costs low for consumers while paying employees a fair wage.

Today, despite a staunch local food ethos, Sonoma County imports the vast majority of its calories. Dairy and wine dominate our agricultural output, but most vegetables, grains, fruit, soy, rice, and livestock feed—most of that hearty food to feed the people—arrives from places where land and labor costs are lower.

One of the most profound ironies in our food system is that food insecurity is highest where most food is grown. In California, among the counties boasting the highest agricultural GDP, the top two—Fresno and Tulare—have the highest numbers of recipients of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formally known as food stamps. Locally, findings from a county survey last year on the well-being of our agricultural workforce showed that while the median family income in Sonoma County had reached $69,920 in 2012, farmworker families are scraping by on an average of just $23,750.

While some might point the finger at tightfisted farmers, the pressure often begins at the opposite end of our food chain: Americans spend just 6.4 percent of their income on food today compared to 17.5 percent in 1960, and less than any other country in the world. Vying for the patronage of price-tag-obsessed consumers, most food retailers are in a race-to-the-bottom, cutting costs wherever possible. And, as the old saying goes, farmers are price takers, not price makers.

A new True Cost Accounting movement seeks to shift this trend. Food is too cheap, say advocates, concluding that supposedly “cheap” food, in fact, comes at high environmental, public health, and societal costs. Seeking to expose what gets externalized, they implore consumers to ask what price tags don’t account for—from the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions to the federal welfare programs needed to assist all the poverty-wage employees who grow, manufacture, and sell our food.

But try arguing that food is too cheap to the authors of the 2015 Sonoma County Hunger Index, a report commissioned by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services together with dozens of local organizations, which revealed that some 70,000 local households—36 percent of the county—missed 34 million meals last year.

Which begs the question: aside from fancy lettuce for high-end restaurants, can Sonoma County farmers afford to grow the food that Sonoma County eats while paying their workers and themselves a living wage?

Last April, California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB3, a bill to raise the statewide minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next six years. Millions of California workers—more than one-third of the Golden State’s workforce—could see a raise. Which means that whether it’s grown here or in more affordable parts of the state, the cost of food production—and potentially its final price tag—will need to absorb the additional labor costs.

Enter Mexico: a tough strike last year, what some call the most significant farm labor achievement in recent Mexican history, resulted in a promise to pay farmworkers 180 pesos, about $11.50 per day.

“The global economy of cheap food is real,” Adam Davidoff says, acknowledging that even his more modestly priced beets and potatoes must compete with imports. “But should market forces dictate responsibility?” he asks. “While it won’t be easy, paying anything below $15 per hour is unreasonable, whether it’s the law or not.”

Influential groups like the California Farm Bureau and Western Growers Association have come out against the proposed minimum wage, fearing they’ll be unable to compete in the global marketplace or be forced to replace human labor with mechanization. In a joint letter, together with dozens of other large interest groups and chambers of commerce, they claimed the hike “does not assist those actually living in poverty and could potentially harm them further if low-wage jobs are reduced due to the increased cost on businesses.”

But local farmers like Davidoff, along with Wayne James of Tierra Vegetables and Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser of Singing Frogs Farm, don’t agree. Despite feeling the same pinch, they were all on their way to paying $15 per hour even before news of the minimum wage bill broke.

“We need to be realistic,” says Paul Wirtz, owner of Paul’s Produce who employs four full-time field workers and a handful of others at his Sonoma farm. Also on his way to meeting the new increase prior to any state requirement, Wirtz admits, “Fifteen is a hefty sum to pay an entry-level employee, but a person simply can’t make it here on less than that. If we consider ourselves real business people with confidence in our skills as farmers, we need to figure out how to pay a living wage. Farmworkers should be treated like everyone else in our society. They deserve respect.”

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