Posted by: amelia | July 8, 2010

Will Work For (Organic) Food

By Amy

The concept of work has been on my mind lately, perhaps because I’m still trying to figure out what type of work I will do come September. Six hundred miles on a bike has given me some time to shuffle through thoughts of paid work vs. unpaid work and other variations of work within the life of a group, farm, or individual.

Fair Trade in the States

I, like many others, prefer to redefine work in a way that reaches beyond conventionally paid jobs. I interned on an organic farm last summer and traded work directly for food and shelter, with the bonus of a small stipend. We’ve met several interns on this trip who work with a similar arrangement. The farmers we meet put countless hours into their land, buildings, beds, and crops. I’m willing to bet much of their labor might be considered “volunteer” if you assume an hourly wage similar to that of other professionals with similar years of experience.

Though I’ve enjoyed the intimacy of volunteer and internship farm work, I’ll repeat the common critique that compensation for small farm labor needs to be dramatically increased. The WWOOF program and farm internships are great introductions to small-scale agriculture, but too many farms rely solely on these helpers.

The drawbacks of this reliance are felt on both sides. Farmers often have a hard time finding dependable volunteers. One of the farmers we spoke has found that most WWOOFers are more interested in traveling than farming (aside from any legal issues that comes with underpaid or immigrant workers). And American farms that aren’t able to fully compensate their employees are only hurting themselves by failing to build a strong workforce. Paying employees to be trained and work full-time to build experience and a comfortable income that will encourage them to stick with sustainable agriculture.

And, of course, the security of a well-paid, year-round job is a huge factor in any employee’s quality of life. Overtime pay is literally denied to farm workers in New York and by the U.S. Department of Labor and only three states require that workers are paid for their extra time. (I worked an average of 50-55 hours a week last summer.) Asking anyone to make dramatic sacrifices for the sake of “the cause” of organic of sustainable agriculture is counterproductive, whether that request is explicit or hidden in the oppression of low wages.

Easier said than done, of course. Many farms are only scraping by and must rely on cheap labor. But most discussion about fair wages focuses on foreign countries and imports- rarely do we address the compensation of our own organic workers here in the states. They get lost somewhere between the image of a smiling local dairyman and the wide-toothed Peruvian coffee grower.

The cliché comes to mind- what kind of movement are we building if we can’t even respectfully compensate its strongest contributors?

Bike Tour Labor

Switching gears for a moment (haha), work of a very different form is constantly performed within our own group of cyclists in the context of this cross-country tour.

I’ve noticed a few of my fellow graduates on this ride talk of putting off “the real world,” by which they most often mean the world of professional work. That phrase always strikes me because it implies that wherever you are, or wherever you’ve been, is somehow not as legit as the “real world.” I prefer to think of this trip as a radically different form of “work” that has its own crazy system of productivity and payment.

There is so much work that goes into our own group each day. We keep a daily rotation of cooking, cleaning, sweeping (following the slowest rider and driving the van) and blogging so that no individual has to do more than one major group chore on any given day. Chris checks our bikes each morning and helps us switch out flats on the road. Amelia and Ben are constantly calling ahead to confirm plans, check logistics, and alert local media in the towns we ride through.

Physically, we’re each biking an average of 60 miles a day for the better part of five or six hours. We’re usually on the road by 9:30 a.m. after cooking, eating, cleaning, packing up tents, making final adjustments to our bikes, and loading the van. When we ride into a campsite, we immediately unload the van, set up tents, cook, eat, clean, and discuss route plans for the next day or other issues. All said and done, we’re “working” in some capacity from 7:00 a.m. until 8 or 9 at night.

Mippy and I have also discussed the mental work that goes into keeping yourself alert and motivated for 60 miles every day, and also the extra mental/social energy we must all muster when meeting with hosts, running events, or fundraising. This can wear us down as much as, if not more than, the physical work of putting a bicycle into motion.

I’m developing a greater respect for the work that each of us does within ourselves, and the work that others in this group put into my daily survival. This is particularly true for work that goes unpaid, because I think we’re less inclined to recognize this as legitimate work. I think the tendency is to write it off as things that must be done or that others are just expected to do for you. This trip is, you might say, a dynamic product of the work of eleven individuals on a level of energy, productivity, and time that rivals many more recognized forms of work.

Right. Well. Not sure this helped me sort out any post-bike trip plans, but perhaps after another 600 miles or so…..



  1. Amy forgot to mention that in addition to all their day to day ‘normal’ efforts, on our farm they donated 2 hours of labor. We fed them 3 meals, but they gave us 2 hours of their time, to hoe around melon plants, dig an iris crop and mow a lawn (Bless you Ben) we haven’t seen in a week of Sundays. I’d say that is pretty darn ‘real world’ if you ask me.
    It was highly appreciated as are her very pointed comments about respecting employees…3 P’s -don’t ever forget the People in Sustainability. They make it all work. Thank you, Amy!

  2. I’ve been thinking a lot about paid and unpaid labor too, now that I’m back with AmeriCorps. I’m echoing your thoughts of late–that it is important to value your worker’s time and compensate them apporpriately.

    So tough…because we all just want to do what is good, just and right and so it seems strange asking someone to pay you for that! But, I guess the point is that it shouldn’t seem strange.

    I’m excited to continue reading!

  3. Hi there! Thanks for the delicious dinner, we enjoyed it and we love your idea. What you are doing is great. Enjoy the ride, the nature and have a good time you guys! All the best, Manuela & Christian (Switzerland)

  4. So true about the “real world” (and I say that as someone in the thrall of a deep-rooted neurosis that there’s some sort of impermeable barrier between it and me–the flip side of us being the same person?).

    Our inner workers need to get unionized. I wonder what the scabs in this scenario would be–multiple personalities?

    Which is all to say, keep on keeping on!

  5. Also, why do I get the depressing brown grid when the other commenters get cool patterns? Waaaaahhhhhh!

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