The Ethics of Eating: FHDC Tour on Culinate

Ricky Hass, one of the Slow Food Portland coordinators of the recent Farmworker Housing Development Corporation tour, recently wrote about his experience for Culinate.com. His account hits right at the difficult question that remains after witnessing present-day farmworker conditions: where do we go from here? He writes,

“Many of us know that the ways in which we typically grow, process, distribute, and consume food in this country are harmful to our health and the environment. As a nation, we are coming to understand that the production and consumption of a “conventional” tomato, for example, means degraded soils, polluted waterways, poisoned air, and toxins in our bodies. Given the state of our health-care system, as well as the threat of global climate change, this conventional tomato affects us in ways that are increasingly difficult to ignore.

It’s no wonder, then, that the “good” and “clean” elements of [Slow Food Founder Carlo] Petrini’s ethic have become major preoccupations in the American mind. And because of our increased awareness, I think, we’ve already developed some relatively good ways to address our concerns; on the West Coast, at least, it’s easy to find fresh and locally grown organic produce almost any time of year.

The problem is that this doesn’t necessarily account for how “fair” the food is.”

Fair food can be an maddeningly difficult goal to achieve, as even many farm owners hardly earn wages that would be considered “fair.” Additionally, as the transparency surrounding chemical inputs and fertilizers has greatly increased over the past few years, labor conditions remain veiled from sight. For too long, consumers have falsely equated “organic” labeling with equitable working conditions, and as a Mother Jones article exposed, shopping at farmer’s markets may not even guarantee good practices; in some communities, the vendors may be the same large, single-crop producers that supply the nearby grocery store. Essentially, the movement for fair food is plagued by an assumption that worker’s rights in the American food industry were solved in 1906, when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle. Sadly, this is not the case.

Hass ends his story on an upswing by suggesting some of the potential avenues for the future of fair food. Whether we lobby for domestic fair trade certification or rely on our own yards and labor to produce more of our food, we can no longer ignore the realities of who raises our food. As Hass implores,

“Start by learning where your food comes from. Enable yourself to make it better, cleaner, and fairer, even if it can’t be perfect. Go out to the farms near where you live; try to meet the people who grow your food. Better yet, buy directly from farmers you know, or grow your own and share your bounty with neighbors.”

You can read the article in its entirety here.

Thanks for sharing

  1. Anthony Boutard
    Anthony Boutard06-03-2009

    It is important for Slow Food members and other readers to understand that the camp you all visited was not operating in compliance with the laws and rules of Oregon, and should not be used as an example of legally registered and inspected agricultural labor housing.

    Under Oregon statutes all agricultural labor housing must be registered with the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division (OR-OSHA). The division inspects housing on an unannounced basis during the occupancy period. Failure to register agricultural labor housing with OR-OSHA can result in a civil penalty. All registered agricultural labor housing is listed on the OR-OSHA website.

    There is illegal agricultural labor housing scattered around the state, that is not in dispute. It is unclear whether the housing covered in the report is legally registered, and, if not, why the organizations involved didn’t report the violation to OR-OSHA. What is troubling is that article implies that the housing visited is representative of agricultural labor housing problem in general. That is wrong.

    On our farm, we provide our staff with housing, no one is charged rent, and we cover phone and utilities. Built less than ten years ago, it is clean and well maintained. Your hosts could easily have shown good examples of on-farm worker housing. They were carrying out their own agenda, fair enough, but I think you all should have been told that the housing involved did not meet state rules, and should not be confounded with legally registered housing in compliance with state law.

    OAR 437-004-1120 implements the state and federal standards for agricultural labor housing. Under the building codes, separate from the OR-OSHA rules, when you build agricultural labor housing it must comply with the Hotel and Lodging codes, which are stricter than the residential codes. Our investment in labor housing is substantial, and other farms have made similar efforts.

    The rules governing agricultural labor housing are strict and enforced by regular inspections. Please read the rules at OAR 437-004-1120; they available at the OR-OSHA site and are easy to read. I have been through inspections several times. There is a checklist the inspector follows.

    Before trying to draw conclusions about all agricultural labor housing based on a single field trip, please take a moment to read the rules and regulations governing those of us who provide housing for their staff. Research the issue thoroughly before tarnishing the reputation of general farmer community.

    As a certified organic farmer, I was also disappointed by the gratuitous swipe at organic farms in the article. The hosts of the tour note that the buildings were contaminated by at least 20 different agricultural chemicals, and the hazards of applying those chemicals is well documented, yet the report glibly claims that workers on organic farms fare no better than those on farms using agricultural chemicals. This assertion was not supported any data. I think Slow Food does everyone — farmers, staff and consumers — a disservice by promoting this flawed and unsupported perspective. Our staff has worked on both chemical dependent and organic farms. They fully understand the significant benefits to their health from working on an organic farm.

    Anthony Boutard
    Ayers Creek Farm

  2. patrick
    patrick06-05-2009

    Thank you so much for your response to this post. This sort of conversation is certainly what I hoped the blog would accomplish. Your responses and comments are always so well put, that I often don’t know what else to add.

    That said, I do feel that Haas’ article, was not meant as a condemnation of the good work done by many farmers around the state. There are likely more good examples of housing than bad in Oregon, but that is not to say that the bad camps are uncommon. Haas’ article for Culinate was a reflection of a personal experience with an event; it was not meant as a comprehensive treatment of the issue.

    I understand that FHDC and PCUN both have political agendas behind their presentations, but I don’t necessarily agree that it tempered their message. In the course of their tours, they made a few points that addressed some of your concerns. First of all, they frequently lamented the lack of enforcement for the existing OSHA regulations. According to their presentations, many of these camps were regulated years ago, only to have fallen into disrepair and neglect, out-of-sight of the overextended regulatory agencies. PCUN does report these camps to state authorities, which has shut many of these camps down. Sadly, as Ramon Ramirez explained, many of them re-open.

    Secondly, FHDC and PCUN were very clear with our group as to why they did not show good examples of farmworker housing. From their perspective, off-site developments of apartments or single-family dwellings are the best solution for the continued support of farmworkers and their families. Their rationale is that any on-farm housing unnecessarily ties workers to their employment. In their estimation, you can always find another job, but it is much more difficult to find another home. They hope that by offering homes within communities (near schools, social services, and amenities like grocers), they can help farmworker families transition into other professions and greater financial security. Unfortunately, many farms (even with good accommodations), don’t offer the resources of a city. It may have been a shortcoming of the event, but our focus was firmly on the alternative model that FHDC provides with their housing.

    In my opinion, it doesn’t necessarily matter that these camps are blatantly illegal, because they are still in existence. The camps we visited are the camps that PCUN and FHDC are targeting. To not acknowledge their sad existence seems to obscure the realities behind many of the foods we eat.

    I also believe that Haas’ intention was to encourage people to learn more about their food – to go beyond the simplicity of a certification label. Anyone who would take the time to talk with farmers such as yourself, would very clearly understand that the work you are doing is exceptional. Sadly, though, no labeling or certification currently ensures good labor practices. While many (and perhaps most) organic operations have excellent standards, nothing about organic regulations dictates worker housing or treatment.

    Haas’ article offered a personal perspective on the trip that we thought out members would find interesting. We have an incredible amount of respect for the work that you do and meant no affront to you or other farmers.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful response. This is a complex issue that is difficult to comprehensively approach – we hope to continue the dialogue with further events in our series on farm labor.

    Patrick Leonard
    Slow Food Portland