DAVENPORT, Calif. — Jim Cochran, a farmer who believed farmworkers deserved an elevated status in the agricultural economy, made a milestone decision more than two decades ago.
Swanton Berry Farm was the first organic operation in the state to sign a contract with the United Farm Workers, AFL-CIO. The contract provides employees with a pay scale, a medical and dental plan, a retirement plan, holiday and vacation pay and other benefits. The farm also offers low-cost housing.
“There is a hidden subsidy that taxpayers ultimately pay when they pick up the cost of health care for uninsured farmworkers, as well as subsidized housing and other social costs,” Cochran said on the swantonberryfarm.com website. “This is especially true in the case of fruit and vegetable farmers, who depend on hired farm labor. We try to pay the full cost of this labor by paying for health insurance, pension and other benefits, as well as providing low-cost housing (subsidized by the farm, not the government). Most of our competitors do not pay for these costs.”
He sees the union contract as a commitment to his employees.
“The existence of a union contract formalizes our commitment to the human side of the farming equation, much as the process of organic certification formalizes our commitment to a set of farming practices,” he said. “It sets out an extensive system to which both parties agree, and provides us with an operating framework, which goes beyond the informal goodwill of an employer.”
He also experimented with a special type of trust arrangement in which workers shared in the ownership of the farm.
“About 20 years ago, I became very interested in a type of business structure called an Employee Stock Ownership Trust,” Cochran said. “Although there were around 11,000 such trusts in the U.S. at that time, none were in production agriculture. I decided to take that path, and paid out (over time) about one-sixth of the value of the farming operation to my employees. However, the administrative costs of this structure were very high relative to the small size of our operation, so in 2017 we closed out the trust and redeemed the employees’ stock.”
Cochran had been working with conventional strawberry farm production cooperatives in the Salinas area for four years prior to 1983.
That year, he decided to try out the economic viability of organic strawberry production as Swanton Berry Farm. He chose strawberries for a personal reason: he loves them.
In addition to two varieties of strawberries, the farm now offers a feast of produce: five kinds of berries, kiwis, artichokes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, pumpkins and peas.
“We participate in seven farmers’ markets, U-pick at the fields and sell directly to retail groceries in Northern California,” he said. “However, we have been scaling back drastically the past few years, and will likely eliminate sales to stores.”
The secret behind his signature strawberries?
“Customers love our great-tasting strawberries mainly because we go easy on the fertilizer and we don’t over water, which dilutes the flavor,” he said.
Brie Mazurek, communications director of the Center for Urban Education and Sustainable Agriculture, applauds Cochran’s stewardship.
“Swanton Berry Farm has been a leader in the organic movement for more than 30 years, caring for their workers, community, and the land,” she said. “ We’ve been honored to have them at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market all these years.”
Most recently, the farm was featured as a change-maker in CUESA’s educational project, The Food Change, showing how social justice and environmental stewardship can and must go hand in hand.”
Cochran admits those who might want to get into farming might find California today is a “tough row to hoe.”
“It is much harder now to get started today,” he said. “I was able to do it when I was single and lived very modestly. It would be much harder to support a family as a small farmer today.”
He said there are two major challenges facing California farmers: Retail prices are too low to support proper payment of farm labor, and the overuse of chemical pesticides.
But, he said, “We always need more dreamers.”