Advocates of Regenerative Agriculture frequently tout ecosystem health, animal welfare, and financial profitability to landowners, but rarely does the conversation shift to the subject of farmer worker welfare unless actual farmers and ranchers are talking. The industrial agricultural system perpetuates myriad economic inequities, health hazards, and overall dignity of work concerns, but the loudest proponents of regenerative agriculture end up emphasizing aspects like returns for farmland owners and carbon credit revenue instead of centering the conversation on improving the welfare of the over 2.4 million farmworkers in America. This is a missed opportunity, and it must change if the political project behind regenerative agriculture, namely one of revitalizing rural communities, providing pathways to land ownership for underrepresented minorities, and making smaller farms profitable, is to succeed at scale throughout the country - and beyond.
To provide proper context, let’s explore exactly how precarious the conventional agricultural system is for farmworkers as it stands today. As the Rodale Institute puts it,“Industrial agriculture isn’t just destructive for the environment—it’s often exploitive of the very farmers and farmworkers we rely on to grow, harvest and transport our food.” On-farm conditions, be it on a dairy operation, a concentrated animal feeding operation(CAFO), or a cropping operation, carry numerous short and long-term risks to farmworkers with few protections or benefits and marginal economic upside. Given this newsletter’s general focus on animal ag, CAFOs serve as a useful contrast to the vision of pastoralist regenerative grazing. In CAFOs, gasses from manure pits include endotoxins, dust, and various chemicals leading to over a quarter of CAFO workers experiencing chronic bronchitis, and three quarters suffering from acute bronchitis. Hydrogen sulfide exposure also leads to brain damage and heart issues. In meat processing, workers are three times more likely than other industrial workers to get injured on the clock, with over two amputations occurring a week. Furthermore, COVID led to an infamous number of cases and deaths that are still undercounted in the meatpacking industry.
According to the CDC, 416 farm workers died on the job in 2017—a fatality rate of 20.4 deaths per 100,000 workers. Farmworkers also die from heat-related illnesses at a rate 20 times greater than the rest of the U.S. According to the Vermont Law School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems, farmworkers lack critical labor protections from extreme heat and pesticide exposure that continues to grow. Only three states have created any regulations around working in elevated temperatures. In California, which seems to have the best publically available farm labor data in the nation (perhaps due to a strong union presence), over 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides were sold in 2018, with many conventional workers exposed to dangerously high levels of pesticides regularly and without any protective equipment. Another issue is the very act of harvesting: for example, in North Carolina, many tobacco harvesters face Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS) which is caused by absorbing a high level of nicotine from touching wet tobacco leaves. As farmworkers are usually paid by the piece, they are incentivized to skip water, shade, restroom breaks, and overall wellness to maintain productivity. And all this data does not account for the roughly 77% of agricultural non-fatal injuries that go unreported.
In effect, many farmworkers are being treated as sacrificial, not essential. They are not receiving the workplace protections they need and it will lead to a reckoning. The public policy infrastructure in place is sorely lacking, and the financial outcomes for farmworkers are troublesome. Just 47% of agricultural workers have health coverage compared to 91.5% of the general population along with little to no paid sick leave. A third of farmworkers live below the poverty line. And this is not even touching immigration and human trafficking issues that leave vulnerable farmworkers at the hands of bad actors.
Now, this is a problem that can be solved. I’ve seen two strategies regarding protecting and improving farm labor welfare: the rise of AgTech automation and pressuring corporations to source from farms with adequate labor standards.
If the solution is more robots and less labor, that can be a compelling vision. On top of Deere and others, companies like Aigen, Carbon Robotics, and Greenfield Robotics are keying on regenerative, while John Deere and Monarch Tractor are deploying their autonomous tractors into the field. If robots are the new farmhands, as we have seen in specific industries, it can lead to less risk for farmworkers, but also potentially fewer opportunities. As the president of a farmworker union said in a Washington Post article, “Technological change can be advantageous. We don’t want to stand in the way of creating a production method that’s less taxing on the (human) body, [...] But agriculture is like any other job. As soon as automation begins to take place, it creates a problem (for) job opportunities.” Let’s use the almond industry as a case study, as automation allows for near-instant harvest with automated tree shakers that take a tree full of nuts in a minute. The number of farmworkers needed is negligible per acre - this also happens in strawberry robot harvesting, which can pick a 25-acre area in 3 days. As labor can cost up to 50% of what it costs to grow a farm, and over half of farmers claim they are impacted by labor shortages, this seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
However, is this truly a compelling vision for rural, regenerative America? Will it be a land of robots, with a few engineers, agronomists, and financial land asset holders scarcely populating it? Or instead, can we create an automated harvesting system that improves the livelihoods of farmworkers on top of the distant financial owner and attracts more people to work on the land than today (for reference, off-farm employment has actually not changed over the past twenty years)? I find technologies like PastureBird’s Automated Range Coops quite appealing because they make pastured poultry less dangerous and time-intensive, while also still engaging farmworkers in a safer manner (and not to mention better animal welfare).
On the flip side, the push for buying from corporate products with specific certifications that mandate worker protections and fair pay is another way to go about it. For all its flaws, the organic certification still leads to less pesticide exposure for farmworkers. The newer Regenerative Organic Certified standard mandates social fairness as a key pillar, which includes honest wages, fair farmer-supplier contracts, and fields free from child labor and sexual harassment. The Milk with Dignity campaign has also caused a sea change in the dairy world, particularly in their activism around Ben & Jerry’s. Creating pathways to skilled labor in processing, on-farm operations, and also land management skills is crucial to retaining folks in farm work and creating upward mobility.
Regenerative agriculture presents a new paradigm for thinking about farmworkers and the dignity of work regenerative farmers advocate for is a core tenant of this. Let’s keep this conversation going.
Elemental Excelerator is a nonprofit investor looking to fund startups with regenerative agriculture and nature-based solutions. Learn more and apply by Friday, April 8! I also recommend you tune into their Elemental Live: Nature-Based Carbon Removal Deep Dive event on April 7th!
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