For many suffering from four years of undergraduate ennui, fluorescent workplaces or news of big, bad oil companies that like a good leak, getting one's hands dirty seems like a healthy response. No matter how compelling the cause, however, not everyone can drop everything and start a farm. The backbreaking labor, tangle of federal regulations and the dim prospect of rolling in the big ones prevent most from committing to a fully fledged farm.
Which is what makes volunteer or intern work agreements with a small independent farm the perfect solution for many itching to find an earthworm or learn about organic agriculture. Not to mention the benefit they bestow on the farms themselves, many of which can't afford the luxury of extra labor in the face of increasing challenges. But with a sudden spike in labor-law inspections by the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, these symbiotic relationships may soon end.
Organizations like Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) provide outlets for those infatuated with farming. The latter is a conglomeration of national organizations that link those willing to work the land with farms that could use an extra hand, while CSA works on sustainable business and distribution structures. Farms registered under the CSA name are known for their commitment to bringing fresh produce directly to members of their community, but some are also known for dealing with volunteer or intern workers.
Some of these relationships are proffered by academic institutions, but many are privately and informally contracted among two parties with similar a similar interest: to exchange a good. Workers receive hours of sunshine and instruction, oftentimes with a box of fresh produce as a bonus, and farms get the labor they need to make ends meet. According to one North Bay CSA farmer, the two parties are "making a deal that makes sense."
However, interns and volunteers, while their intentions are well-meaning, are not the most efficient sources of labor. "It's hard to bring someone on your farm who's never worked on a farm, and then pay them the same as you're paying professional farmworkers," this farm owner (who wishes to remain unnamed) says. "There's no way to make a profit like that."
The letter of the law doesn't seem to care so much. According to Carl Borden, associate counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation's Legal Services division, "persons are not allowed to act as employees for a for-profit entity without being afforded all the rights and benefits of being an employee." Unless a farmworker is provided with workers' compensation and state-specified benefits, their productive work for a farm profiting from their labor is illegal.
The reason for this? "Our society has these laws set up for the protection of not only those workers themselves but also to protect other employees whose own wages and hours and working conditions could be adversely affected by there being other people to do the work for less money or even for free," Borden says.
Farm owners in the North Bay area have seen a dramatic increase in inspections by officers under the State Labor Commissioner, scanning farm offices for payroll documentation and ensuring that workers are receiving workers' compensation and full benefits. Violations of these standards can leave a farm without its army of volunteers or with a hefty citation, sometimes both. For a farm looking to break even at the end of the year, these violations can prove crippling.
So, to love the law or leave it? For some, volunteers and interns have become the only viable source of labor. But for others, like Paul Kaiser of Singing Frogs Farm, paying workers, even those who come to his farm to volunteer their time, is not just about abiding by the law. "It means what [the workers] do really is valued and it's not just to fulfill their own agricultural romanticism," he says.
Kaiser pays his volunteers and interns $10 an hour as long as they work fewer than 500 hours at his farm. Once they reach that benchmark, he considers whether or not to add them to his payroll. He says, "The socially just thing to do is get people full-time, year-round employment, because if you're giving someone a volunteer position that doesn't get paid, you're taking a position from someone who might need it."
Kaiser realizes the law is incongruent for some situations. "'One size fits all' for a law never works," he says and cites the illogic emphasis placed on internships in the farming industry as evidence of this. Kaiser is disappointed by the government's oversight of unpaid internships in other industries, especially within big corporations. "They can afford to pay these kids, and they are not paying them. Talk to them first, then come after the farmers," he says.