Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Marin's Organic Farms Wilt Under Labor Laws

By Cassidy Friedman
For Bay Citizen

As a teenager, Dave Retsky was just about the last kid an organic farmer would want to hire. The son of a Hollywood doctor, Retsky admits he was a tad lazy and knew next to nothing about organic farming before he began his first internship. Now he owns County Line Harvest, one of the top organic farms in Petaluma, in Sonoma County.

“Where else was I going to learn the trade but as an apprentice?” said Retsky.

“You’ve got no skills. You’ve got no work ethic. Now I own a farm, and those experiences I had were invaluable.”

Retsky’s own enterprise has been aided by intern labor, as have about half of Marin’s 56 organic farms. Every year, interns weed, hand-wash and sell their produce at farmers markets. Such unpaid and work-trade programs have fueled the organics movement since the Bay Area’s first certified organic farms sprung up in the 1970s in Bolinas.

But this spring, state labor inspectors stumbled upon the internships and determined that they violate state and federal labor law. Organic farming internships dried up, with disastrous consequences for farmers like Retsky and would-be farmers working for them.

Marin County’s organic farms are grappling with the new order. Internships must meet a six-point test that has been in place since the 1938 federal Fair Labor Standards Act. Farm interns must be supervised by an accredited school and cannot displace a regular employee. The internship must also benefit the student more than the employer.

Until now, state inspectors hadn’t scrutinized farming internships in the North Bay, but they carried out a high-profile action in Pescadero in 2008. An inspector tagged Blue House Organic Farm, which had three interns, with 14 violations of minimum wage and insurance laws. But they did not identify them as part of an internship program.

Then they did a routine inspection of County Line this past February. Although it did not cite the internship program, it rattled farmers. Local farmers say it may be the first time labor inspectors targeted agriculture in the North Bay.

“I think that Marin County for the most part has been the beneficiary of being tucked away in an unobtrusive part of the state,” said Carl Borden, associate counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “I’ve done many, many seminars for conventional growers, and this has never been an issue. The people who work for larger farms, their workers expected to get paid.”

“I was really surprised,” said Eric Rood, of the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement. “None of that was even on our radar until that week.”

Farmers demanded clarification of the law at an April 1 meeting with the state, which Rood attended. Although the labor inspectors had conducted extensive educational outreach throughout the state to warn other industries about illegal internships, the meeting marked the first time both state labor officials and organic farmers openly discussed internships on farms.

“We can’t afford to make a living producing these commodities unless we use this type of labor,” one farmer told Borden. “If I had to pay these people, I’d be out of business,” another said.

Marin’s organic farming economy suddenly seemed less sustainable. Farmers deleted internship postings. Interns were hired on the books or dismissed, and applicants were turned away. At smaller farms, spouses hopped on tractors. Retsky closed his Marin Farmers Market stand, which interns had run.

The boom in illegal internships parallels the exploding organics movement. One web site lists organic farming internships at 1,667 farms and attracts 10,000 visitors yearly. States with large organic farming sectors, including New York and Washington, are rethinking labor laws that many consider outdated. California may be the latest to come to the table.

“There’s probably not a program that can have an apprenticeship relationship replace labor,” said David Lewis, who directs the UC Cooperative Extension in Marin. “But there should be some sort of situation where we can grow the next farmer. That’s what has taken the biggest hit. It’s the opportunity for these folks to really make it work on a small scale (and) to teach the next generation of farmers.”