Farmworker Partnerships in the Northeast – a Red Tomato and Equitable Food Initiative Pilot Launching this Spring

“A good crew is the best insurance you can have” says vegetable grower Wally Czajkowski of Plainville Farm in Hadley, MA, a sentiment likely shared by all the growers in the Red Tomato network. The knowledge, skill, health, and well-being of a farm’s crew is integrally linked with the economic well-being of the farm as a whole. And, the farmers we know work hard to ensure that they tend both aspects of their business with equal care and attention.

Red Tomato is committed to applying our fair trade roots to our work with produce farms in the Northeastern US. As a founding member of the Domestic Fair Trade Association, we have been long time participants in efforts to understand what domestic fair trade and fair labor practices mean for farmers and farm workers in our region. In addition, we have been working with our growers to understand their farm labor challenges and discussed grower and worker concerns at our annual growers meetings for over ten years. In our 20th anniversary year, Red Tomato is excited to be partnering with the Equitable Food Initiative to pilot their innovative workforce development approach to mid-sized farms in the Northeast.

Picking Crew at Blue Hills Orchard, ©Red Tomato

Picking Crew at Blue Hills Orchard, ©Red Tomato

Why The Equitable Food Initiative?

At Red Tomato, we often find ourselves in the position of cultural translator, helping to facilitate conversations between entities – such as growers and retailers, businesses and nonprofits – that generally don’t find themselves in direct conversation given the complexity of our modern food system. We see this same approach in the work of the team at EFI. They search for win-win outcomes by bringing together farm owners, employees and retailers, a positive approach that aligns with how we operate. If successful, our partnership will further elevate the talent and capacity of agriculture in the Northeast.

Originally begun as a joint initiative of Oxfam America, United Farm Workers, and several other farmworker and environmental advocacy groups, today EFI is a stand-alone organization that offers a workforce development and certification program for produce farms across North America (US, Mexico and Canada). EFI brings together workers, growers, and retailers not only to produce better fruits and vegetables, but to empower workers, educate consumers, and offer market support for farms who invest in and maintain the programs on their farms. Their programming offers training for farmworkers and farm owners focused around three distinct areas: improved labor practices, food safety and environmental stewardship.

Growers trained and certified by EFI gain tools and resources to work effectively with their crews and ensure the safety and quality of their produce. Participating retailers and foodservice management companies have assurance that their supply chains are “clean” – offering the best possible product quality and integrity. Farmworkers gain skills and experience, as well as assurance that their rights are upheld. It is in this drive to achieve solutions across the supply chain that we recognize a familiar approach, and our growers have responded.

What We Seek to Learn; Understanding the Challenges Ahead

Daniel, Claudio, and Alex at Twin Oaks Farm ©Red Tomato

Daniel, Claudio, and Alex at Twin Oaks Farm ©Red Tomato

When we introduced EFI to growers in our network, several identified a strong interest in the worker training component of the program, even more than the market/price premium EFI certification hopes to provide. They recognized clear value in a more in-depth approach to food safety and lean management training that could empower their employees to improve not only product quality, but also workflow, farm productivity and profitability. So, with support from our USDA LFPP grant and Oxfam America, we will pilot EFI training and certification on two farms in our network in 2017. In partnership with the farms, their crews and the EFI team, Red Tomato seeks to learn:

  • Does the EFI program, developed and tested on large farms on the West Coast, add value on smaller farms in the Northeast region?
  • Are there regional differences regarding production or local laws that might impact certification?
  • Is it feasible and economical to certify a network of growers, rather than farm by farm?
  • Can the EFI program incorporate seasonal H2A workers, who are crucial employees for many Northeast farms but are excluded from many other labor certification programs?
  • Will certified farms in the Red Tomato network see productivity gains like those documented by larger counterpoints on the West Coast?
  • Will sales of Red Tomato produce to retailers endorsing the EFI standards, such as Whole Foods, increase as a result of this investment?

There is no doubt that farm labor; an issue which is so closely tied to immigration and national labor policy, will be a topic of great concern over the coming years. There isn’t a grower in the Northeast or elsewhere across the country that isn’t paying close attention as the political climate calls attention to one of the scarcest resources required to effectively feed the nation – skilled labor.

The Good Food Movement’s romance with family farms often focuses on the irreplaceable knowledge and expertise handed down from one generation of farm owner to the next. The lesser-known story is that for many farms in the Northeast, the same succession from generation to generation also happens among their employees. Younger growers now taking over operations from their parents have often grown up working with the crew members and bosses they still employ. It is not uncommon to see multiple generations of farm employee as well as farm owners working side by side. Just as we work to ensure economic viability for future generations of farm families, we also want jobs on farms to be seen as skilled, valued, safe, fairly compensated, and desirable jobs for future generations of employees, both year-round and seasonal. If successful, our EFI pilot will offer growers and farm workers in the Northeast one path toward that sustainable future.

For these reasons, we are especially grateful to the farms in our network who’ve agreed to take part in this pilot. We’re eager to roll up our sleeves and get started!

Our partnership was covered on:

Fresh Fruit Portal
Perishable News
The Packer