The ”Not Our Farm” Project and Farm Labor
by Martha Jackson Suquet
Some of the team at Little Seed Gardens, Chatham, NY
As a former farm apprentice and employee, I have years of memories of the labor required to make a farm operation work. Rounds of intensive greenhouse seeding, a whirlwind of field planting in late spring, and then a seemingly unending stretch of harvesting, weeding, and trellising. The work requires skill and endurance. It can be joyful and invigorating—particularly in the company of a solid farm crew—but it is also bound to be draining and tedious.

The extreme physical difficulty of farm work is generally inevitable. Simply put - farming is hard work, and it needs to get done no matter the weather. But the balance of joy and misery also depends on the labor conditions of each farm workplace. Are workers being paid fairly, do they get enough break time, do they have access to bathrooms, is the on-farm housing safe and livable? Many workers (myself included) have experienced working conditions that were exploitative, unfair, and unacceptable. 

When farms get media and community attention, that attention often focuses on farm owners and operators as the heroes of the story. But the basic truth of modern agriculture is that workers form the backbone of nearly all farm businesses —seasonal workers, long-time crew leaders, new apprentices, experienced laborers. Berkshire Grown recognizes the fundamental importance of everyone who farms, and we want to share their stories as well as actions that community members can take to support them. 
Workers are the backbone of Berkshire farms. Left to right: Little Seed Gardens, Chatham, NY, Woodlife Ranch, Williamstown, MA
Not Our Farm (NOF) is “a project and community of farmers who have chosen farming as a career but do not have their own farm business or land." The stories shared via Not Our Farm include workers exploring why they love farming despite the challenges, recounting poor treatment at past and current jobs, and dreaming of what truly sustainable farm work would look like. Participants come from farms across the spectrum—large, small, nonprofit, for profit, urban, rural. 

Anita Adalja, the founder of Not Our Farm, has worked on farms for twelve seasons. They have always valued growing food but have struggled to find safe spaces to work that were free from racism, sexism, and homophobia. Adalja currently farms in a collective with three other farmers, working to create that safe workspace that didn’t exist for them. 

Adalja points out the false assumption that all farm workers are working their way toward a successful farming career, and that putting up with exploitative conditions might be worth the knowledge gained through experience. Instead, workers often don’t get to see all the sides of the farm business and are being paid wages so low that they aren’t building up capital toward their own operation. And many don’t work on farms as a path to ownership. Adalja herself doesn’t believe in equating success with ownership. Farming is a skill, and many of the farmers sharing their stories through NOF pride themselves on growing food, stewarding land, and supporting their communities rather than striving for farm ownership. 

One important point the project makes is that unfair working conditions are an issue throughout agriculture. They can—and do—occur on small, family-operated farms as well as larger corporate operations. If we want to improve farm labor, we need to look in our own communities and not pretend that the issues all lie in larger farms outside of our region. As farmer Zel Taylor says, “the focus on sustainable agriculture also needs to include the sustainability of the people actually doing the work.” 

Better wages are one avenue toward improving working conditions on farms. Not Our Farm worked with Good Food Jobs, a farm and food job site, to change their policies on farm job postings. All jobs posted on the site must now include a minimum wage of $15 per hour. Good Food Jobs has also posted a series of stories from Not Our Farm, and is collecting information about farms who have improved their labor practices. 

Here in Massachusetts, the Fairness for Farmworkers Act is currently in the Committee for Labor and Workforce Development in the House. The proposed bill (H.1979, S.1205) would raise the minimum wage for farmworkers, require that workers be given one day of rest each week, and be able to earn overtime pay. This legislation isn’t going to solve the deeply-rooted issues that surround farm labor, but it would be a step toward lessening exploitation. Of course, the burden of higher pay for farm workers affects the bottom line for the farm owners, and eventually that higher cost is reflected in the cost to consumers, but without someone to sow, harvest and sell the crops, the food won't make it from the seed packet to the kitchen table.
A common thread in the Not Our Farm stories is that farm owners and managers who remember their experience as workers often create more equitable workplaces. At Abode Farm (pictured left) in New Lebanon, manager Ellyn Gaydos calls upon her experiences as a crew member. She notes that managers can make sure that employees get paid on time and have lots of access to free food from the farm, which really matters in a low-paying field. “Passing on skills is another really important aspect of agricultural work and one which helps employees feel more fulfilled and farms run better,” she says. 

A recent Berkshire Grown farmer workshop, “Building Capacity for Collaboration: Maintaining a Strong Farm Team,” aimed at farm owners and managers, addressing some of the issues that can arise as managers work with their teams. Farmers Claudia Kenney and Willy Denner of Little Seed Gardens in Chatham, NY discussed their approach to building strong farm teams and handling conflict on the farm over 28 years of farm management. Much of the focus was on how to accurately label the emotions and needs that come up, so that managers can have effective communication around those workers’ needs. Several participants shared moments of conflict that they’d dealt with on their farms, often resulting in a valued team member leaving the farm and/or continued feelings of resentment and frustration. 
What can we do, as a community that loves farmers, farms, and farm workers, to support everyone in our local food system? 

  • Anita of Not Our Farm wants farm customers to get to know the whole farm: talk to both farm owners and employees at the farmers market or CSA pickup. Ask questions about labor practices. Understand that a farm is very rarely just one person and appreciate the whole farm team. 

  •  If you know a farm worker who might want to share their story with Not Our Farm (anonymously or not), send them this link to connect with the project. 

  •  If you know a farmer struggling with labor issues, Berkshire Grown can help. We offer technical assistance for farmer members to help them strengthen their business practices. 

  • Sign up for Not Our Farm updates and keep an eye out for their upcoming guide on supporting farmworkers. You can also donate to the project here

  • Make sure your Massachusetts State Representatives knows that you support the Fairness for Farmworkers Act. 
Berkshire Grown's

Each time you buy directly from a local farmer, not only do you eat the freshest, most delicious food and farm products, you also support local agriculture as a vital part of the Berkshire community.
This 2022 Guide to Local Food and Farms is the region’s most comprehensive guide to local farms, farmers markets, and restaurants offering local foods - use it to find farm stands, CSA farms, pick-your-own farms and orchards, as well as locally sourced value-added products like charcuterie, preserves, and fermented foods and locations and hours of food pantries spread across the county. Within these pages and online at, you will find descriptions, addresses, and a detailed map.

Keep your Guide to Local Food and Farms handy and use it frequently!
What we are reading:

Healing Grounds: Liz Carlisle on The Deep Roots of Regenerative Farming
By Errol Schweizer for Forbes
March 22, 2022
Regenerative farming has hit the mainstream, as manufacturers, retailers and investors look for ways to mitigate climate change through a better food system. At the most basic level, regenerative agriculture intends to mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil. But with recent events highlighting the need to address racial injustices and redefine the roles of workers in the food system, there is so much more to consider with regenerative farming. Healing Grounds by Liz Carlisle is an excellent place to start this conversation.

Errol Schweizer: What motivated you to write Healing Grounds: Climate, Justice and The Deep Roots Of Regenerative Farming?

Liz Carlisle: Food and agriculture is responsible for a quarter to a third of greenhouse gas emissions. And yet you can imagine a world in which it's actually a climate solution. And so I've always been drawn to farmers who are trying to make this shift. How do we take agriculture, which on this continent is so clearly a climate problem and shift it to a climate solution? But something that really struck me when regenerative agriculture started to get a lot of attention in the mainstream a few years ago is the response from the research community, from my colleagues in academic institutions and nonprofits that work on this and even a lot of the farmers engaged in it. On the one hand, you had some people who were so excited about regenerative agriculture as a climate solution. But then, on the other hand, I started seeing a lot of people in the research community saying, wait, hang on a minute here. This sounds like a lot of marketing hype, it might just be smoke and mirrors. So I was really puzzled and really curious. Why is there this big gap between some people who think regenerative agriculture is a really important part of the climate solution and other people who feel like this is something that the big food companies are using to greenwash their products? So what got me started researching this book is this question, is regenerative agriculture really a powerful climate solution?

Read the full interview here.
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