Labor’s Realities

By TODD OPPENHEIMER

Farming has always been a tough way to make a living. If this were not true, global migration patterns would not have run from the country to the cities since the dawn of civilization. In recent years, however, farming has taken on a new patina of romanticism (at least in the U.S.), thanks in part to the rising popularity of the locavore, farm-to-table movement, and its promotional echoes in rusticity-boosting lifestyle publications, such as Kinfolk and Modern Farmer. The daily reality of this lifestyle, however, remains a little more complex.

Kaiser’s most senior farmhand is a young, wiry man named Marty Renner, whose credentials are as follows: bachelors and masters degrees in history; and a PhD in the history of nutritional science, with a focus on the relationship between soil and dental health. Those credentials, along with four years of experience at Singing Frogs Farm, make Renner worth $15 an hour, with no benefits.

This is more than most farms pay (farm laborers typically get something close to minimum wage, which in California is currently $9 an hour). Still, Renner finds that his wages don’t go far in a pricey area like Sebastopol. “Unless you already have money, and land, you can’t make a middle-class living here on those wages. It’s just not going to happen.” To afford rents in Sonoma County, Renner’s wife took a job more than an hour away, in San Francisco. For a while, the couple lived in a cabin on a rural plot that Renner’s parents purchased, in order to keep the family close. But mortgage rates were so high that Renner’s father eventually had to kick the young couple out, just so he could rent the property. Meanwhile, John Cheatwood, Renner’s fellow field hand, is making the same wages and doing fine. In fact, he and his wife, who also holds a job, were able to pay off her student loans, of $42,000, in just three years.

Scratch a little deeper into this contrast, and the picture gets even more interesting. Both couples are young, both expecting their first babies within months. So their circumstances make for a fair comparison.

For his part, Cheatwood isn’t the least bit worried. “Right now, we’re on a treadmill,” he says. “We’re not going forward, but we’re not going backward.” Cheatwood says their dual incomes allow them to comfortably cover their basic bills, including insurance, and the occasional road trip or night out. And that’s enough for this man. “We’re working class more than middle class,” he says, without the slightest note of frustration. Renner, however, has larger ambitions. He works two side-jobs—one is an egg business, which involves raising 300 chickens on his father’s property; the other is a new gig teaching a history course at UC Berkeley, which fulfills his long-held dream to be a teacher. The mix of obligations leaves him thoroughly exhausted. “I have to spend a lot of my free time just recovering physically,” he told me. “If my wife wants to cook a meal with me or go for a hike, I have to say ‘No, I just have to not move for a couple of days.’”

In short, Kaiser’s economic structure might cover his employees’ daily needs, but it doesn’t seem strong enough to let them move ahead. That’s what worries Marty Bennett, an emeritus professor of labor history at neighboring Santa Rosa Junior College. Bennett is leading a local campaign for a new “living wage” of $15 an hour, which he considers a pretty meager request. “$15 an hour without benefits puts you substantially below what an actual living wage is,” he says.

It’s no surprise, then, that most farm owners rarely employ people like Renner and Cheatwood–educated white boys with, comparatively, a range of options. Or at least not long-term. (The joke in the organic farming world is the prevalence — and undependability — of “WWOFers.” These are people “Willing” to “Work” for free on “Organic Farms” in exchange for room, board, and on-the-ground education). Eventually, Leap says, “every successful farm ends up hiring a professional Latino crew.”

© 2017 Todd Oppenheimer, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: November 26, 2016