There is trouble on the horizon, or where I come from you would say “trouble at Mill.” Organic farmers in our area who produce vegetables and fruit like we do are all having the same problems. Here’s an example: Last year we were supplying very ripe strawberries to a famous vegan restaurant chain in LA. They would pick up at the farm, drive the berries to Hollywood, and make them into juice for their smoothies overnight for the next day’s orders. They raved about the flavor, and only we could pick them like that. They had been getting berries from Mexico but the quality and flavor was not good. All went well for a while then they said we had to match the Mexican organic price which was just above half what we were being paid. I said “no” as we were making very little on the deal as it was. I was happy to get the very ripe fruit out of the field and make a few bucks on a box. In the end I learned that the produce buyer was paid a bonus to keep the food cost below 22% of sales; if they went over this they lost serious money from their pay packet. In the end they stopped ordering because I would not reduce our price. We cannot sell anything at below our cost of production/ picking costs. Lorraine and I have no other source of income. Ninety one percent of farmers who file a tax return have another income from a spouse or a part time job. We are part of the 9% who do not and who have to make a profit every year.
Speaking with my farming compatriots, they are under great pressure in the wholesale trade to match Mexican organic prices. Here I am talking Whole Foods, groovy stores in San Francisco and Restaurants who claim they fare wonderful farm to table goods supporting local farmers. There are exceptions who pay what the farmers needs, note the word “exceptions.”
Let’s look at a few facts: As an example, a guy picking tomatoes gets paid $10 per hour on one of our farms. Payroll taxes, etc add up to another $2.50, and then factor in workers’ compensation which is at least another 12% or much more depending on your accident history. By my calculations, when all is said and done, that person costs $15 per hour. Yes I know that is nothing to be proud of but let’s compare to Mexico. Jose, our foreman, says no one gets paid even $15 a day in the Mexican fields. A large strawberry grower was exposed for paying $7 a day recently. Workers comp? Safety equipment? No chance.
Free trade agreements, in my humble opinion, just make the rich richer, and in the case of NAFTA, they are putting some small farms like ours in a precarious position. We are constantly looking for ways to adapt, and you all are amazing and supportive; but small farms, particularly those that depend on wholesale are really hurting. We all know you have a choice where to buy your produce, and that choice really does matter. We need your support. Lorraine and Nigel