Thursday, January 21, 2010

A berry nice place to work

When one thinks of a farm owner, one generally thinks of a powerful man (or woman) pitted against any individual or group that might lobby for better wages, benefits, and working conditions for those doing the labor. I've taught Steinbeck; I've read a bit about Cesar Chavez. Farm laborers have a long history of powerlessness and disenfranchisement. They have more often than not been treated as replaceable cogs in a larger, profit-driven machine. This is simply not the case at Swanton Berry Farm, the country's first production scale certified organic berry farm. Don't let the name fool you: they don't just grow berries. But then, this is no ordinary berry farm.

Amid sporadic rainstorms on Sunday afternoon, I spied a welcoming "Jam Tasting ->" sign along Highway 1 and ducked into the Swanton Berry farmstand to see about picking up something to go with my jar of peanut butter and 2-day-old bread. I was soon distracted by other, more appealing gustatory options. (I did eventually purchase a jar of olalliberry-strawberry jam for a later sandwich.) I was also fortunate to have an opportunity to learn about the innovative farm from Barrett and Forrest. Over a slice of velvety pumpkin pie and a steaming cup of fair trade java -- I felt a small degree of pressure to have the berry cobbler, it being a berry farm and all, but Swanton grows pumpkins, too, and I stand by my scrumptious, whipped cream laden choice -- Barrett gave me a rundown on the history of the farm and its progressive owner, Jim Cochran.

Started back in the 80s with a modest berry crop, the farm's 2 original managers -- Jim and Mark -- rented a few small farm plots and began to experiment with organic methods. Success was slow but steady as they refined their methods, paying attention not only to their growing market but the land as well. They discovered, for example, that strawberries planted in areas where broccoli (and other brassicas, to a lesser degree) had been grown the cycle before were significantly less vulnerable to the common but pernicious verticillium wilt, the bane of berries in the region. At the time, few folks were interested in organic methods, so no formal research was conducted. Years later, a small group of researchers at UC Santa Cruz heard about the brassica-verticillium theory and did a little research.... Today the broccoli-strawberry crop rotation is fairly well accepted as an organic management practice -- John even mentioned it during one of the activities on yesterday afternoon's tour of the UCSC student farm. (More details on UCSC's Agroecology Center and the amazing Life Lab program to come in a later post.) Swanton's willingness to do things differently extends beyond crop rotations, however.

As we chopped brussels sprouts (and then feasted on creamy brussels sprout soup with Forrest who invited me to stay for a delicious, impromptu lunch), I learned that Swanton Berry was the first farm in the state to *invite* the AFL-CIO to meet with its workers back in the 90s. For over a decade, farm workers have had the option of signing a union contract. Working here, employees enjoy regular pay raises, diversified work tasks, a modest housing option, vacation time, and other benefits virtually unheard of in the farm world. It's also the first agricultural small business that I've ever heard of to offer its employees stock options. (Now, don't get all worked up -- this stock is in addition to regular pay, not in place of it, which is important in an industry more prone than others to extreme fluctuation.) The Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP, for short) allows farm workers to put money toward retirement, kind of like a 401(k). At least that is my very basic understanding of it. (Having worked in an office for more than 3 years with a gaggle of innovative financiers in a former job one would think I'd have a firmer grasp of finance and investment matters, but alas, I don't.)

Swanton Berry Farm has a lot going for it, but the most important difference I sense here is the value placed on the workers. The business strives to make itself a good place to work, where folks want to return each year. It's not perfect, but it's heads and shoulders above most of the competition.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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