Keynote speech by Elizabeth Henderson at the Future Harvest CASA’s “Cultivate the Chesapeake Foodshed” conference, January 14, 2017 

All the people of the land – farmers as well as farmworkers – have the human right to live in dignity and respect with a secure supply of the foods of their choice produced in harmony with the natural environment, and to live in a healthy, rich natural environment in a world in peace.

Greetings! It is an honor to be asked to share my thoughts on justice for farmers and how this relates to justice for farmworkers and workers in other kinds of food enterprises as well as people with low-incomes. I just attended the new farmer session. It is so exciting that there are 65 people in this program!

The promise of industrialized agriculture has been that it would feed the world with plentiful, inexpensive and safe food.  That promise has not been kept. Food insecurity and food access are still heavy burdens– in your region, the Maryland Food Bank alone supplies 120,000 meals a day. In the Future Harvest states, over 19% of the children live in food insecure households and the figure reaches a shameful 30% in DC.  

Collateral damage from this industrialization has been polluted water and the depletion of aquifers, massive soil erosion, the destruction of biodiversity, and the depopulation of the countryside, as well as major injections of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere aggravating global warming. A century of “development” has broken the connection between people and the land where their food is grown. 50 years of cheap food policy in the US and a few decades of free trade have driven family-scale farms all over the world to the point of desperation. (Slide #2) Since 1950, the US has gone from 5.4 million farms to only 2.1 million,  a loss of over 3 million farms, and close to half a million of those lost farms (454,850) were in your region.  African American farmers have lost land at over 5 times the rate of white farmers. (Slide # 3)While profits in the consolidated food businesses (farm inputs, retail stores) hold steady with returns on investment ranging from 13 to 35 %,[1] the farm share of the food dollar continues to decline dropping from 18.4 cents to 15.4 cents between 1993 and 2008.[2][3](Slide # 4) Ever larger corporations dominate the food sector resulting in shoppers paying more and farmers are getting less. (Slide # 5 and 6– data from USDA shows how prices to consumers have been rising, while the portion that farmers get has stagnated and even diminished.) (Slide # 7)Wages for farm workers remain below the poverty line. (Slide # 8)Structural racism traps people of color and women in the lowest paying jobs and too many people who work in food jobs survive on SNAP payments.

Deciding to become an agroecological farmer or gardener and join in a movement to create a just and equitable regionalized food system based on the organic principles of care, fairness, ecology and health is like jumping into a swiftly flowing river of icy water and swimming against the stream. Does anyone want to leave now? No one? All right. We may be swimming against the current, but we are not out there all alone. Let’s stop for a moment and look around – in this hall are the people with whom we are going to be working against the odds. And we need to ally ourselves with many more food workers for our movement to succeed. Please introduce yourself to someone you don’t know.

If you are still in this room, it means you believe that there are things we can do to make a difference in these trying times.  How can we respond? Do we conform to the logic of greed – buy more, use more, expand, compete?  Or can we build alternative local living economies based on real production and a way of life that is grounded in fairness, cooperation and frugality? Can we achieve justice for farmers together with justice for those who work on our farms and the people who support us by buying our food?

At the NOFA summer conferences, we hold a fair which culminates in a horseback riding demonstration.  Dale Perkins rides bareback with his feet first on one, then two and finally bridging 3 horses as they leap through a flaming hoop. (Slide # 9)This is a metaphor for what we need to do!

Horse # one – fighting back, reacting to the endless flood of negative actions we must stop – we must protest against the use of endocrine disrupting, carcinogenic inputs like glyphosate that lure farms into the corporate-dominated system with its packet of gmo, chemical and mechanical technology,

We must demand transparent labeling of foods so that shoppers can make intelligent choices about what to eat,

We must support raises in the minimum wage and increased health and safety regulations that protect food workers.  Etc. Etc.

The latest election results guarantee that we will have to run hard just to stand in place. We must resist the appointments of cynical billionaires who want to gut social services and protections for the environment and widen even further the income inequality that puts democracy at risk.

Also in the Horse #1 category I include protecting and making incremental improvements in the programs our sustainable agriculture movement has already achieved – led by outstanding organizations like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and the National Organic Coalition (NOC). Pushing to increase conservation payments to our farms, increasing research in organic agriculture, keeping the cost share for organic certification fees, maintaining the integrity of the organic label.  I co-chair the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) policy committee and all 7 chapters of NOFA participate in this important work of action alerts, testifying in Congress, pressuring our representatives, pushing for state level legislation.

Horse #two – building our farms, gardens, coops and local food networks, the alternative solidarity economy, our liberated territory where we practice food sovereignty. Over the past 40 years, we have made tremendous progress in learning how to produce food without damaging the planet and how to nurture community around food.  Conferences like this one where we share what we have learned are happening all over the country.

I have spent most of my life and most of my energies helping build this alternative through organic farming and CSA.  I have been inspired and guided by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)  Principle of Fairness  (Slide # 10) to create a community farm enterprise that allows my farm partners and me and to have the satisfaction of providing high quality food for people we know. We cover our costs of production, and pay ourselves modest salaries so that we can live as respected members of our community.

I call your attention to these words:

Organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.

Fairness is characterized by equity, respect, justice, and stewardship of the shared world, both among people and in their relations to other living beings.

Natural and environmental resources that are used for production and consumption should be managed in a way that is socially and ecologically just and should be held in trust for future generations. Fairness requires systems of production, distribution, and trade that are open and equitable and account for real environmental and social costs.


(Slide # 11) Let me share some of my own farming story. Peacework Organic CSA is one of the oldest in the country – we are looking forward to our 29th season in 2017. When I moved back to New York State in 1988, my farm partner and I agreed to run the farm as a commercial enterprise and make our certified organic farm our main source of income. In Wayne County, NY, we were not located close to a farmers’ market where we could expect sales of more than $100 a week, (Slide # 12) and we could already see that much larger organic farms in CA would be able to undersell us in grocery stores.  We needed to sell direct so that we would have some control over the prices we received and we needed loyal supporters. (Slide # 13) One of my first undertakings was to start a CSA. I had learned about CSA from Robyn Van En, a friend and a visionary. I understood CSA as a flexible concept for a new eater-farmer connection, an alternative system of distribution based on community values.  (Slide # 14) The economics of direct sales make this a win-win solution for farmers and their customers.  The farmer gets a decent price and the customer pays less, since there is no middleman. For the farmer, CSA offers the possibility of a broad support group of people who genuinely care about the farm’s survival and who are willing to share the risks.  Non-farmers have the opportunity to connect with the earth, know and trust the people who grow their food and support the local economy.


As an experiment, in starting the Genesee Valley Organic CSA (GVOCSA, recently renamed Peacework Organic CSA), we proposed that to keep the price of the shares as low as possible, everyone would participate either in the farm work (Slide # 15), in distribution, or by doing administrative jobs as members of a core committee(Slide # 16). We also set the share price on a sliding scale so that no one would be excluded because of inability to pay.  The farm was already authorized to accept food stamps. Share pick up is at the farm and in Rochester at the Abundance Food Coop – cooperation between cooperatives, the 6th principle of cooperation, has proven its value over and over. (Slide # 17)  The farm work turned out to be as popular as the vegetables and as the CSA grew to over 300 households, members continued helping with the harvests and serving on the core group. As the CSA became a more significant portion of our farm sales, we began to share the farm budget with the members. We did this to educate them about the realities of farming, but it had an unexpected result.  Members told me they were shocked at how little we farmers earned. (Slide # 18) The core group became our best advocate for making the contract between the farm and the CSA members something more resembling a fair deal.  After 28 years, Peacework Organic CSA continues to be a farmer-member cooperative. This year after membership declines, trying to roll with changing times, we decided to forgo having members drive a full hour from Rochester to do their 4-hour work shifts at the farm, however we are keeping the active core group in charge of recruitment, distribution and fee collection.

We have been very successful in turning social capital into meaningful financial support for the farm. (Slide # 19)We work land that my partners and I initially rented from a farmer-friend, Doug Kraai. When Doug passed away, within 14 months, members contributed enough money to the Genesee Land Trust to purchase the farm and the Trust then leased the land back to us with a 25-year rolling lease. (Slide # 20 and 21) We renew it every year, so we always have tenure of 25 years without the burden of a heavy financial investment, and we are farming on community owned land.  In 2011, when I retired from full-time farming, we successfully completed a transition in farmers.  Ammie Chickering and Greg Palmer have been running the farm and this year are starting the search for a younger farm family to take over from them. (If anyone here is interested in farming in Newark, NY, please let me know!) In 1989, we were the first CSA within two hundred miles of Rochester.  Today, there are more than 30 serving the Rochester area.

Laura Lengnick’s Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, (New Society Publishers, BC, Canada, 2015) is a tremendous affirmation that what we have been doing is on the right track! She based Resilient Agriculture on interviews with 25 farmers who have been at it for 25 years or more. She emphasizes that these farmers have succeeded in changing their local food systems despite significant barriers, without government support, crop insurance, tax breaks or subsidies and minimal research.  Her book takes us around the country, providing data on how experts predict climate change will happen in each region, and case studies of 25 farms that specialize in vegetables, fruit and nuts, grains and livestock, but that have all diversified and found ways to sell direct. Lengnick skillfully teases out lessons for greater adaptability – ecological, economic and social.

These case study farms (including my own CSA) exemplify the kinds of choices about people, land, crops, livestock, infrastructure and finances that build resilience based on high adaptive capacity. Lengnick defines resilience as “the ability of a social or ecological system to absorb disturbances while retaining the same basic structure and ways of functioning, the capacity for self-organization, and the capacity to adapt to stress and change.” (p. 275)

To paraphrase Bill Mollison, true revolutionaries produce not words and bullets, but food and shelter!

In making choices for our farms, it is crucial that we stick with the peasant wisdom that councils us to depend on our own resources and those of our closest cooperators, neighbors and supporters so that we can enlarge our autonomy from the concentrated wealth and power of agribusiness. (In the words of Jan Douwe van der Ploeg “By slowly improving the quality and productivity of the key resources – land, animals, crops, buildings, irrigation infrastructure, knowledge, etc. – and by means of a meticulous fine-tuning of the process of production and a continuous re-patterning of relations with the outside world, peasants strive for and eventually obtain the means for enlarging their autonomy and improving the resource base of their farm units.”[4]) The sustainable agriculture and local foods movements have reversed the downward trend in farm numbers, and the number of very small farms is actually growing. Nevertheless, something like 84 percent of existing farms are in debt and most farms depend on someone’s off farm job for health insurance and other benefits. (Slide # 22)[5] In the most successful centers of the buy local movement, we have managed to reach 1/10th of the food market. 10 % of the markets is an enormous achievement and a truly impressive amount of liberated territory, but it means that we still move 90% of farm products through brokers, distributors, processors and retailers, entities which are predominantly entrepreneurial, that is, aimed at taking over the resources of others and profiting from the value that others produce. This sobering reality brings us to

Horse # three –While continuing to campaign for what is practical and possible in the legislative arena this year, we must work together, listening to the voices of all stakeholders, on our vision for the food system of an ecological civilization. (See the brand new book by Fred Magdoff! And keep your eyes out for the 50 Year Farm Bill)[6] We must make big, “unrealistic” demands.[7] We need a transitional program that outlines the social and policy changes that could lead us toward our vision without throwing any family-scale farmers, whether organic or not, to the hounds. We need comprehensive domestic fair trade that balances the interests of farmers and farm workers while constantly expanding access to local high quality organic foods for more and more people of all income levels.

I have spent a lot of time in recent months talking with both farmers and farmworkers.  The organic farmers I know want to pay fair wages – and need living wages themselves. To achieve this, there will have to be some big policy changes on the federal level. First of all, instead of subsidies that prop up constantly falling farm prices and really only subsidize the big processors and import-exporters, we must have a system of fair pricing. We need to dust off and refresh the concept of parity.  Does anyone remember parity or what it means? It is a national policy of price supports which we had in this country from 1933 – 53. It functions like a minimum wage for farms.  Farmers should know this history. Let me read a passage from “Crisis by Design: A Brief Review of US Farm Policy by Mark Ritchie and Kevin Ristau[8]

The parity program had thee central features: (1) It established the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), which made loans to farmers whenever prices offered by the food processors or grain corporations fell below the cost of production. This allowed farmers to hold their crops off the market, eventually forcing prices back up. Once prices returned to fair levels, farmers sold their crops and repaid the CCC with interest. By allowing farmers to control their marketing, the CCC loan program made it possible for them to receive a fair price from the marketplace without relying on subsidies. (2) It regulated farm production in order to balance supply with demand, thereby preventing surpluses. Since government storage of surpluses was expensive, this feature was crucial to reducing government costs. (3) It created a national grain reserve to prevent consumer prices from skyrocketing in times of drought or other natural disasters. When prices rose above a predetermined level, grain was released from government reserves onto the market, driving prices back down to normal levels. From 1933 to 1953 this parity legislation remained in effect and was extremely successful. Farmers received fair prices for their crops, production was controlled to prevent costly surpluses, and consumer prices remained low and stable. At the same time, the number of new farmers increased, soil and water conservation practices expanded dramatically, and overall far debt declined. What is even more important is that this parity program was not a burden to the taxpayers. The CCC, by charging interest on its storable commodity loans, made nearly $13 million between 1933 and 1952.

Ritchie and Ristau make a very important point: (p. 14) “Paying farmers a fair price would result in a one-time increase in food prices of only 3 to 5 percent, less than a nickel on a loaf of bread. Since the supply management proposal also contains provisions for doubling the funds available for food assistance, the poor would not be hurt by this small increase in food prices.”

There are a few national organizations that endorse parity – the National Farmers Union, the National Family Farm Coalition, and the HEAL (Health, Environment, Agriculture, Labor) Food Alliance.

Secondly, we need contract reform.  Farmers that sell to bigger entities need legislation that supports them in getting fair contracts. They need the protected right to freedom of association without threat of retaliation from buyers so that they can form groups or cooperatives to strengthen their bargaining position.[9] A limit must be set on the middlemen’s share of the final shopper dollar: if prices go up, middlemen must pay farmers more; if the prices processors pay to farmers go down, the final point of purchase price for shoppers should also go down.

Third, our local foods movement needs to get behind measures that are essential to establishing farm work as a respected and fairly remunerated profession.  Compendious as it may be, the Farm Bill does not cover all the major areas that determine food policy. Labor and immigration policy also shape who does the work either legally or without documentation and how they are compensated.  Farm worker advocates and department of labor staff agree that over 60% of farm workers on US farms are undocumented.

To protect the 60% of current farmworkers who are undocumented, we need to push for immigration reform based on human rights that includes a path to legal residency and citizenship for farm workers who choose to remain in the US without punitive measures like high fees and a 14-year rigmarole to get to legal status. Even the more liberal bills include mandatory e-verify that will make our lives as small employers miserable.

The exemption for farmworkers from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) must be ended.  Like farmers, farm workers need freedom of association and the legally protected right to organize.  Same for the exemption for farmworkers in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  Farmworkers should be entitled to a decent minimum wage and time and a half for overtime like the people who work in other sectors.  I hear the frustrated screams from farmers that this will wreck our farms – we can’t possibly afford this. It’s true, under the current cheap food regime, we can’t and we never will until we break away from neo-liberal logic and dismantle systemic racism.

Once we stand up for the changes that low income food workers need, we will find ourselves in effective alliance with the most energized social movements of our time– Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers, Cosecha (organizing the undocumented for a general strike), and the Fight for $15.

Without farm workers and all the food chain workers as allies, we will never get what we need to make our farms the radiant center of well-being that we dream of. We have to figure out a way forward together and bring the entire food movement with us. And when the 17% of all workers who are food workers earn $15 an hour or more, they will get off food stamps (a savings for us as tax payers) and be able to afford to buy our good food from their own earnings. Another essential big ask addresses the other part of food justice – food access.  We need to reallocate the billions of dollars that go into subsidizing crop insurance into increased funding for SNAP and other nutrition programs so that low-income people can afford the high quality food we produce.

In addition to fair prices, there are other potential sources of revenue that can keep market prices down while compensating farmers. Our farms protect the commons of clean water and air, and restore soil carbon. The public can pay us for these services as is done in Europe. Incentives for goods practice could be built into the tax system – farmers who build healthy soil could pay lower taxes. (There is meat here for a whole other discussion!)

And finally, when we make our farms fair places to work, the whole farm team can plan together to cut costs and realize more revenues. We can learn to do what Polly Shyka calls relational farming[10] and use open book management where everyone understands the financial implications of their work – and shares the good results of cooperation.

We can also take lessons from international fair trade and ask for the support of our customers. Various poles show that there are people willing to pay a little more for the comfort of knowing that the people providing their food are living in dignity. (Slide #23)  Together with the Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA) and Florida Organic Growers (FOG), NOFA has helped create the Agricultural Justice Project, (Slide #24) a market-based approach to bridging the abyss between farmers and farmworkers to build relationships based on fairness and transparency so that there can be a system of food production truly worth sustaining. (Slide # 25) The Food Justice Certified label signals to shoppers that a farm receives a fair return and treats farm workers with respect, recognizes their right to freedom of association, and pays living wages. (Slide # 26)  I realize another certification is a heavy burden, but it has been my hope that farms that are passionate about fairness would take the plunge anyway the way we took on organic certification back in the 80’s before there was much market recognition or reward. The goals of the Food Justice label are also both broader and deeper than most other labels. AJP is working for dramatic, long-term transformation in our food system (not just at the farm level) through a cultural shift away from power consolidation and towards empowerment, justice and fairness for all who work together to bring food to our tables.

As Jess Culley, the General Coordinator of CATA says, “We all need to realize that the creation of an alternative food system has to include the needs of workers in a measurable way… It is very nice to have locally sourced food, but if that food is produced by people who are on food stamps themselves and don’t have health insurance, then you really don’t have a sustainable food system.” Food Justice Certified is forging this critical process of awareness, empowerment and activism and has many resources to share whether farms certify or not. (Check the website –


So, to conclude, if we want to make real progress toward a more resilient and sustainable food system, we have to do a much better job of linking justice for farm workers with justice for all food workers and other low-income people. We are all part of the 99.9%) (Slide # 27) Food justice is not something we need to do for others, for exploited farm workers or undocumented dish washers. We farmers need food justice too. The laws of corporate capitalism are totally inappropriate for food production, distribution, and sale. The food system of a new economics will have to be fair, apportioning the food dollar up and down the supply chain. What we need is domestic fair trade, where buyers pay farmers enough to allow us to use sustainable farming practices, to earn a living wage for ourselves and our families, and to pay living wages for the people who labor on our farms.

So how do we get there? If we want our movement to have the strength to replace the industrial food system, we farmers need to work as allies with all the other food workers, from seed to table and bring all our ardent foodie customers along with us.  Despite owning significant amounts of land and equipment, the earnings of farmers like me and many of you are more like those of industrial workers than captains of industry. The profits in the food system go almost exclusively to the other sectors: “the agricultural family unit is only a subcontractor caught in the vise between upstream agro-industry… and finance… and downstream … the traders, processors, and commercial supermarkets.”[11] Family-scale “sustainable” farmers will only break this vise by taking our place alongside other working people in the food system in solidarity with their struggles that are really our struggles as well.  Local organic agriculture can serve as a model value chain, changing relationships to bring alive the Principle of Fairness that is fundamental to organic agriculture all over the world. Let’s take the opportunity that public attention to race and inequality presents to us and raise our voices for justice for farmers and all food workers together. (Slide 28)


[1] General Mills reported total net sales of $5.3 billion in 2015. That same year, some top competitors — Campbell Soup, ConAgra Foods, and Mead Johnson Nutrition — reported revenues of $2.2 billion, $2.7 billion, and $978 million, respectively, just for the last quarter.

Kroger’s return on equity in 2015 was 35.1%. For General Mills it was 28%; for Kellogg, 12.9%; and for Whole Foods, 13.67%. Farmers often see a return on equity only when they sell their land for a retirement nest egg.

[2] (according to the USDA Economic Research Service report “A Revised and Expanded Food Dollar Series: A Better Understanding of Our Food Costs.”)

[3] Farms face financial pressure American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall gives testimony


  • Net farm income, which includes other factors like depreciation, inventory change and other non-cash costs, declined from $123 billion in 2013 to $56 billion in 2015 and is estimated at $55 billion for 2016.
  • Longer-term projections by the Agriculture Department leave net cash income averaging less than $80 billion for the coming decade and net farm income at less than $70 billion over the same period.

[4] The New Peasantries: Struggle for Autonomy and Sustainability in an Era of Empire and Globalization, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, (Earthscan, London, 2008).

[5] USDA Releases Results of First Local Food Marketing Practices Survey WASHINGTON, Dec 20, 2016 –More than 167,000 U.S. farms locally produced and sold food through direct marketing practices, resulting in $8.7 billion in revenue in 2015, according to the results from the first Local Food Marketing Practices Survey released today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). The report results cover both fresh and value-added foods, such as meat and cheese.

[6] Fred Magdoff, Creating an Ecological Society, Monthly Review Press, 2017. …in order to be ecologically sound, a civilization must develop a new culture and ideology based on fundamental principles such as substantive equality. It must (1) provide a decent human existence for everyone: food, clean water, sanitation, health care, housing, clothing, education, and cultural and recreational possibilities; (2) eliminate the domination or control of humans by others; (3) develop worker and community control of factories, farms, and other workplaces; (4) promote easy recall of elected personnel; and (5) re-create the unity between humans and natural systems in all aspects of life, including agriculture, industry, transportation, and living conditions. For a discussion of the 50 Year Farm Bill, see John Head’s International Law and Agroecological Husbandry: Building Legal Foundations for a New Agriculture.

[7] This is a maximum program, the “Ecological Civilization” Fred Magdoff has described so well in his article by this name. (See Fred Magdoff, “Ecological Civilization,” Monthly Review, January 2011, pp. 1-25.) See handout.

[8] CRISIS BY DESIGN: A BRIEF REVIEW OF U.S. FARM POLICY Mark Ritchie & Kevin Ristau League of Rural Voters Education Project 1987, pp. 2 – 3. Also see “Parity and Profits” by Charles Walters. Posted on July 30, 2001 on Weston C. Price website. Remarks of Charles Walters, Executive Editor, Acres USA Given at the Acres USA Conference December 1999, Minneapolis, MN

[9] There has been a tiny bit of progress in this direction with the improvements to GIPSA (the Grain, Inspectors, Packers and Stockyards Administration provisions), but this should be extended to all livestock producers including dairy and milk. See the new documentary Under Contract from RAFI-USA for the story of contracted chicken farming.

[10] Polly Shyka, “The Next Build in the small farm sector: resilient relational systems,” Growing for Market, August 2016. Pp. 17 – 19.

[11] Samir Amiri, “Food Sovereignty: A Struggle for Convergence in Diversity,” p. xii, Food Movements Unite!  (Food First Books, 2011).