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Ecological Farm Internships and the Law

in 2018/Organic Community/Winter 2018

Charles Z Levkoe and Michael Ekers

Originally published by Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario in “Ecological Farming in Ontario”. This is part 4 of a 4 part series on research into unpaid farm labour. While the research was conducted with farms in Ontario, much of the findings likely carry over to BC. In 2017, the authors published a workshop report on Ecological Farm Internships that is available for download here: www.foodandlabour.ca/results-and-reflections.

This article is the fourth in a series that describes the increasing trend of non-waged interns working on ecological farms across Ontario. In this article we explore some of the legal implications of these practices and the ensuing concerns from farmers and interns across the province. This article should not, under any circumstances, be considered legal advice and we recommend that the appropriate government departments or legal specialists be contacted regarding specific questions. Also, the laws surrounding farm internships in Ontario are extremely vague. We do not try to determine whether these internships are legal or not, as we are ill-equipped to do so as non-lawyers, but we do attempt to highlight the legal landscape as we understand it and the gaps and ambiguities that deserve further legal research

In previous articles, we established that ecological farm internships offer many things to trainees (e.g., knowledge and skill training), farmers (e.g., support for ecological food production) and the broader food movement. However, the legality of these labour arrangements in Ontario remains uncertain, especially after cases have been settled elsewhere in which unpaid interns were awarded back-wages. For example, in 2013, two farm interns in British Columbia claimed their work arrangement did not meet provincial employment standards and settled out of court for several months’ worth of back-wages. This case caused significant concern for farmers across the country using non-waged interns.

There have been increasing government crackdowns on (non-agricultural) internship programs throughout North America. According to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, between September and December 2015 employment standards officers found that of 77 workplaces that had interns, almost a quarter did not meet legal requirements under the Employment Standards Act (ESA). As a result, many Ontario farmers have been deeply concerned that their use of non-wage interns could be judged in contravention of the law. One farmer commented, “I worry sometimes because there are some farms who aren’t doing things properly with payroll and that’s the type of thing that could end with crackdowns that affect all of us”. A farmer and non-profit director explained, “Some farmers are surprised when I suggest that there’s a risk because they are technically breaking labour rules and relying on the good will of the intern and the internship going well to avoid litigation down the line”.

In Ontario, there are two main areas of legislation that impact farm internships. First, the ESA sets out the rights and responsibilities of both employees and employers and contains fairly clear guidelines to what makes an internship. In short, if you perform work that is of benefit to another person or business, you are considered an employee and therefore entitled to rights under the ESA such as minimum wage. One exception to these rules is for trainees; however, these cases have very restrictive conditions. According to the Ministry of Labour, if an intern receives training used by employees, they would also be considered an employee unless the following six conditions are met:

  • The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school.
  • The training is for the benefit of the intern. You receive some benefit from the training, such as new knowledge or skills.
  • The employer derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained.
  • Your training doesn’t take someone else’s job.
  • Your employer isn’t promising you a job at the end of your training.
  • You have been told that you will not be paid for your time.(www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/es/pubs/internships.php)

In addition, farmers taking on interns should be clear on whether they meet regulatory compliance guidelines in Ontario. Aside from the ESA, employers must be in compliance with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act (WSIA) and the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). As operators will know, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) administers the WSIA and delivers no-fault workplace insurance and all agricultural employers must provide coverage to their employees. The OHSA also sets out a number of rights and duties for employers and workers. Compliance includes providing mandatory information about health and safety on the farm and the right to refuse work if it is believed to be dangerous.

The second area of legislation is the agricultural exemptions to the ESA. In general, farm workers involved in primary production (e.g., planting crops, cultivating, pruning, feeding, and caring for livestock) are not covered by some employment standards including minimum wage, hours of work, overtime, general pay with holidays and vacation (of note, this is different for harvest workers and landscape gardeners). However, one farmer noted that when interns do anything other than primary production, they may be on shaky legal ground: “If they’re going to a farmers’ market and manning a stall and working independently, it gets murky”. According to the Ministry of Labour, anyone whose work is related to the harvesting, canning, processing, or packing of fresh vegetables or fruits, or their distribution is entitled to all minimum ESA standards (www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/es/pubs/factsheets/fs_agri.php).

The legislation varies slightly in each province. In Alberta farm owners and related family members are excluded from occupational health and safety laws, but not waged workers. In British Columbia, all agricultural workers are entitled to minimum wage and vacation time. It should be stressed that there is a considerable uncertainty around internship law and agriculture exemptions to labour standards and at this time there is no detailed account of how these areas of law intersect.

Surrounding these legal details, there is an ethical question that many farmers and interns have raised about the value of labour and fair compensation. A labour lawyer noted, “There’s quite a tension there. How do you ensure protection, because, say somebody dies or gets seriously injured on one of these farms? [Employment laws] came in the early part of the late 19th Century as a means to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation and set a floor so people could live”. While there are many benefits that emerge from ecological farming, most farms are businesses and farmers derive various benefits as owners. Anyone doing work on a farm is contributing to the value of that business and deserves compensation. This is especially important for new farmers building the skills, knowledge, and financial (or other) capital to eventually start their own farm business. The best advice we have heard is to always pay minimum wage and ensure employers and interns are adhering to all provincial legislation.

There are a number of government programs farmers can access to help support new farmer training and internships. The following are three good options:

Green Farm Internships (Agriculture and Agri-food Canada): Part of the Agricultural Youth Green Jobs Initiative, this program offers up to 50% of the cost of hiring young workers (up to $16,000 per intern) for environmental activities, services, or research that will benefit the agriculture sector.

Career Focus Program (Service Canada): This program supports 4-12 month agricultural internships for recent graduates of a qualified post secondary program.

Rural Summer Jobs Service (OMAFRA): The program provides wage subsidies for rural and agri-food businesses that employ summer students ages 14-30.

If you would like more information on this research project, to comment on these issues or contact us, please visit our website:

foodandlabour.ca


Dr. Michael Ekers is an Assistant Professor in Human Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His work mobilizes social and political theory and political economic approaches to understand the making of different environments and the cultures of labour in environmental spaces. 

Dr. Charles Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and an Assistant Professor in Health Sciences at Lakehead University. He has been involved in food sovereignty work for over 15 years in both the community and academic sectors. His ongoing community-based research focuses on the opportunities for building more socially just and ecologically sustainable food systems through collaboration and social mobilization.

Food Justice and The Face of Ecological Farm Interns in Ontario

in Fall 2017/Organic Community

Charles Z Levkoe and Michael Ekers

Originally published by Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario in “Ecological Farming in Ontario”. This is part 3 of a 4 part series on research into unpaid farm labour. While the research was conducted with farms in Ontario, much of the findings likely carry over to BC.

This article is the third in a series that describes the increasing numbers of non-waged interns working on ecological farms across Ontario. As farmers welcome those seeking seasonal farm experiences as a way to share knowledge and skills and to meet labour demands, our research has been exploring the broader implications of these trends. In this article, we look at who exactly is being trained to farm through ecological farm internships and the potential impact on the future of food and farming.

Opportunities for non-waged internships are typically promoted on environmental-related websites and passed on through word-of-mouth. Despite being openly available, there is an extremely narrow demographic of individuals who take on these positions. Likely unsurprising to most farmers, the vast majority of non-waged interns in Ontario are young, white women (and some men) that come from relatively educated and affluent backgrounds. As one farmer exclaimed, “White, middle-class, female, educated, suburban, that was almost all of our interns. Out of the 21 interns we have had, I think we only had four men over the last three years.” The only major exception is interns working on urban farms who are almost exclusively young people of colour with diverse and sometimes poor economic backgrounds.

This demographic trend raises questions about who is being trained as the next generation of ecological farmers. When asked why so many non-waged interns were white, one farmer responded, “Well, have you seen the society I live in? It’s predominately white and these are the people who have the opportunity to be able to leave their home and not work.” Taking four to eight months away from paid employment and living in a rural community can be extremely isolating and demands a high level of economic and cultural privilege. Reflecting on the potential discomfort of being a person of colour working on a rural farm, an urban intern commented, “In many places, you would be the only person of colour amongst the army of white people.”

The apparent exclusivity of internships correlates with observations of food movements more broadly. For example, commentators have observed that many promising alternative food initiatives such as purchasing organic food boxes, shopping at farmers’ markets, and participating in community supported agriculture projects tend to be dominated by white people. Our study has suggested that many of the social characteristics of consumer-based food movements are being reproduced on farms through internship programs.

This highlights the barriers to entry and the subsequent education, training and other privileges that are part of the experience. Further, the limits to participation may hinder opportunities for building a more inclusive ecological farming sector that has the potential to impact the broader food system. Much like non-agricultural internships, structural inequalities ensure that the few jobs available go to those who can afford to work without a wage. This means that only specific groups of people are able to build strategic relationships and gain experience towards a particular career path, in this case farming. Many farm operators acknowledged this reality; for example, one farmer lamented, “Not paying interns limits the demographic of people who are able to work on organic farms and learn the trade.” The concern here is that ecological farm internships may be promoting a particular kind of farmer, further limiting the diversity of alternative food movements more broadly. Recognizing this problem, a farmer commented, “I’m not saying the farmers are racist and not selecting people of colour to be interns . . . It’s racism in its latent form, where people are just not comfortable going there.” The point highlighted here is that questions of race and farming are not as much about intentions, but about the effects and who is being trained to farm (or not) and in the places that training happens.

The industrial food system has a deep history of systemically mistreating people based on their ethnicity and ‘race’. In respect to agriculture, commentators argue that we tend to romanticize an agrarian narrative specific to white communities while ignoring the contributions and struggles of people of colour in food production. In North America, people of colour own less farmland, operate disproportionately fewer farms, and make less income from farm work. The solution is not simply to encourage young people of colour to move to rural communities to work as farm interns. As one urban farmer suggested: “It is not enough to just bring people of colour onto farms without recognizing the history and current situation of slavery and sharecropping.” These comments from an urban farmer suggest that addressing the exclusivity of ecological farm internship programs must begin with a conversation that acknowledges ways that the Canadian agricultural system has been established and maintained on the backs of unpaid and low waged racialized and gendered labour.

While there are no immediate solutions, farmers and interns had many suggestions of ways to tackle these challenges. First and foremost, it was suggested that farmers looking to train interns and engage more deeply with issues of labour justice should consider offering paid internship opportunities. This would ensure that a wider diversity of people interested in agriculture as a career path could participate in ecological farm training experiences and that labour is valued. People of colour aspiring to farm are highly likely to find themselves working and learning on urban farms so it is crucial that urban-based programs be as substantive as some of the ‘opportunities’ available outside of cities.

Training people from diverse backgrounds through paid internships not only expands the pool of new farmers, but also brings new ideas into the ecological agricultural sector and opens marketing opportunities to new populations. Finally, farmers suggested building partnerships with agricultural and food movement organizations that are tackling issues of social justice such as Black Creek Farm, FoodShare, Afri-Can Food Basket, and FarmStart. Through networks, ecological farmers can be part of robust social movements that address the structural problems of the dominant food system and society more broadly.

If you would like more information on this research project, to comment on these issues or contact us, please visit our website: foodandlabour.ca.


Dr. Michael Ekers is an Assistant Professor in Human Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His work mobilizes social and political theory and political economic approaches to understand the making of different environments and the cultures of labour in environmental spaces.

Dr. Charles Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and an Assistant Professor in Health Sciences at Lakehead University. He has been involved in food sovereignty work for over 15 years in both the community and academic sectors. His ongoing community-based research focuses on the opportunities for building more socially just and ecologically sustainable food systems through collaboration and social mobilization.

Squaring the Circle? Education, Work, and Farm Internships

in Organic Community/Summer 2017

Michael Ekers and Charles Levkoe

Originally published by Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario in Ecological Farming in Ontario, Volume 37, Issue 2. This is part 2 of a 4 part series on research into unpaid farm labour. While the research was conducted with farms in Ontario, much of the findings likely carry over to BC.

Are agricultural internships and volunteer positions strictly about addressing farms’ labour needs or are they a new model of farmer education and social movement building that is taking place beyond the confines of urban centres and post-secondary institutions?

On the one hand, there is no doubt that forms of non-traditional labour are about work. There are many cases in which interns are working upwards of 60 hours a week on farms performing the labour that would normally be associated with a paid employee. On the other hand, farm interns often receive a tremendous amount of hands-on experiential education in everything from organic growing methods and farm finances to marketing produce and farm lifestyles (such as homesteading and rural living). Many, but not all, walk away from internships feeling invigorated and connected to a vibrant food movement.

Can the circle, that is, education and social movement building, be squared with the reality that internships are often work, and, at times, underpaid (or even unpaid) work? This has been a key question we have been examining through conversations with interns and farmers connected to the issue.

In our first article, we noted the relatively meager gross revenues of many farms that work with interns and volunteers in Ontario, but this is a trend that stretches across Canada and beyond. Cheap food policies, ever escalating land costs and labour intensive forms of farming make alternative food production a difficult economic proposition. As readers will know, a tremendous amount of work goes into planning, planting, growing, weeding and harvesting organic food and several people we spoke with suggested that interns and volunteers have become a replacement for the work that chemicals typically perform on conventional farms.

Financially precarious farm businesses are meeting their intensive on-farm labour demands through the non-waged work of interns and volunteers.

A farmer, who also works for a non-profit organization linking potential interns and farm hosts, suggested that internships are primarily about labour: “One thing that is common to all of the farms [using interns], if they are being honest, whatever they’re motivations are, they’re solving a labour challenge on their farms.” From this perspective, financially precarious farm businesses are meeting their intensive on-farm labour demands through the non-waged work of interns and volunteers.

While the question of labour clearly matters in the arrangements established between farmers and interns, the issue cannot be reduced to such a simply economic rationale. The benefits of an internship frequently far exceed monetary considerations and this is what contributes to the vibrancy of the experience for many workers and hosts, but not all. One farmer explained “The intern system is a really good one, and I think one that has value for both the farmer and the intern. Does the accommodation, good healthy food from the soil and the learning experience not have value too? What price can be put on fostering friendships and community? Intern and apprentice programs go far beyond what the intern provides to the farm.” Similarly, another farmer lauded the same benefits while stressing that “a paid position would be less likely to be a vehicle for change.” There is no doubt that internships defined by mutuality and reciprocity are a form of movement building and provide a valuable form of education, but does paying a wage necessarily detract from these facets of farm internships?

In many cases, our observations and our discussions with interns and farmers suggested that the most substantive internships were the ones that most closely paralleled what would be traditionally associated with work. When an internship looked like work, and felt like work for the interns, but was coupled with careful instruction, many non-waged farm workers reported receiving a robust education. When the internships were less structured and when the work was not overly demanding, such arrangements appeared to be more of an ‘experience’ rather than a nuanced and embodied form of education and work. This creates several interesting contradictions that are worth reflecting on.

Interestingly, many farmers stated their farm operations became more viable at a financial and functional level when they started to pay their interns and/or made the decision to hire paid workers.

Several farmers suggested that the relationship between education and work is a zero sum game in which dedicating more time to education means less work is accomplished. This, in turn, justifies the lack of pay because the benefits are non-monetary in substance. However, this is not necessarily the case if the internships that closely parallel farm work are the ones delivering a substantive and quality education to the interns. But this scenario also raises a thorny issue as farm owners and operators are open to the critique that ‘if it looks like work, it should be paid like work’. Nevertheless, some farmers have responded, “we don’t even pay ourselves, how can we pay our interns?” In contrast, others explained that “internships are inter-generationally unjust” and “that everyone should make a living wage”.

Interestingly, many farmers stated their farm operations became more viable at a financial and functional level when they started to pay their interns and/or made the decision to hire paid workers. Furthermore, they told us that expectations were clearer between interns and farm operators, workers were more productive and the farmers reported spending far less time re-training each new group of interns and volunteers while also mediating on-farm social dynamics.

These reflections leave several lingering questions. First, were the farms that transitioned away from interns able to achieve this because of their earlier reliance on non-waged workers? Second, have organic and agroecological farms that have moved towards paid workers been able to maintain their ‘alternative’ character, that is, community orientations and the commitment to social movement building?

In our next installment we will look more deeply into the social identity of ecological farm interns and the ways that this may have broader impact on the future of the food movement. If you would like more information on the project, to comment on these issues or contact us please visit our website: foodandlabour.ca.


Dr. Michael Ekers is an Assistant Professor in Human Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His work mobilizes social and political theory and political economic approaches to understand the making of different environments and the cultures of labour in environmental spaces.

Dr. Charles Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and an Assistant Professor in Health Sciences at Lakehead University. He has been involved in food sovereignty work for over 15 years in both the community and academic sectors. His ongoing community-based research focuses on the opportunities for building more socially just and ecologically sustainable food systems through collaboration and social mobilization.

Footnotes from the Field: Root Cellar Art

in Footnotes from the Field/Organic Community/Spring 2017

Editor’s note: We’re taking a detour from the usual Organic Standards focus of Footnotes to explore the inspiration that can strike while working in the field. A farmer’s life is more than physical labour and paperwork—spending so much time in the natural world opens a window into art for many, including Cathie Allen, who wrote about her art for this issue.

Cathie Allen

“Stored away in the root cellar of my mind” is how Cathie Allen begins to discuss the subjects of her watercolour paintings. Like all full-time organic market gardeners, Cathie’s summer life is consumed by cauliflower, chickens, meals for the crew, and everything else that makes up a farm. Yet, these seasonal images linger, and are “stored away” (and sometimes reinforced with photographs) until winter, when they come back to life with brush and paper.

For the most part self-taught, Cathie acknowledges the inspiration she received from her Mom, who at 90 still paints; she was also strongly influenced by Karen Muntean, who provided instruction at the Island Mountain School of Arts in Wells, BC. Cathie’s work has been described as “fresh”, “keenly sensitive to detail”, with an “earthiness” that saturates it all.

Her recent works, the root series, are filled with good examples. “With these paintings, I wanted to expose some of the beautiful vegetables which mostly grow underground, often unnoticed. Especially nowadays with the huge disconnect between people and their food sources, much more than flavour and nutrition stand to be lost.” Her root series consists of 10 original watercolour paintings, featuring beets, summer turnips, leeks, potatoes, shallots, radishes, garlic, parsnips, carrots, and onions.

The painting with the horses, the one she calls “family portrait”, depicts the four black percheron horses working abreast, pulling a disc. It was these four horses who broke the five-acre market garden, half an acre a year. “Sadly, these four horses are now all buried here, but we have a replacement team to carry on with the farm work and provide me with future inspiration”, adds Cathie.

Cathie’s work has been displayed in Cariboo and Central Interior galleries, as well as being selected for display by the BC Festival of the Arts. She also painted the cover and chapter illustrations for a children’s historical novel, Moses, Me, and Murder.


Cathie Allen has been a life-long painter. She lives and farms with her partner Rob Borsato at Mackin Creek, on the west side of the Fraser River, about 45 kms north of Williams Lake, BC. They have operated Mackin Creek Farm, a five acre, horse-powered market garden, since 1988.

Indigenous Foodlands and Organic Agriculture, Fairness, and Social Responsibility

in Indigenous Food Systems/Land Stewardship/Spring 2017

Rebecca Kneen

Most of us in BC live on unceded territory—territory that was appropriated by settlers from Indigenous peoples without treaty. We are beginning, finally, to explore the implications of this condition on our relationship with the land and our Indigenous neighbours.

We are learning that we live within a great contradiction: we want to improve our communities’ food sovereignty, but we are inheritors of theft. We desire to act for the benefit of ecosystems, but we are missing countless generations of knowledge that could and should inform our stewardship. How we begin to change the paradigm within which we live will shape the future of ecological agriculture and social justice.

The basis of Indigenous food systems is a non-exploitative relationship to land, recognizing that “we are all related” and that systems are interconnected. Whether categorized as hunter-gatherers, fishers, or farmers, the goal of the relationship was not production or extraction, but living in balance.

Organic agriculture strives to understand ecosystems and to live in balance while at the same time engaging in production for sale. Our history with developing the organic standards has always been a struggle to maintain that balance in the face of extractive agribusiness models attempting to co-opt organic principles. We’ve been pressured to allow large-scale monocropping, high-density livestock production, and systems that treat organics as “just a different set of chemicals”—and we’ve resisted.

As organic farmers, we are aware that we operate within the larger ecological context. Our water sources, our soil nutrients, our air all depend on systems outside our farm boundaries. While we swear at the coyotes and deer, we also know that like the salmon, they are critical to the biosphere we live in. What we have forgotten are the people who are also part of that larger biosphere.

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We live within biospheres that were tended by Indigenous people for uncountable generations. The saskatoon, salal, salmon were all cared for in order to provide food for the people and sustain the biome. If we are going to live here, we in turn need to learn how to live here properly.

The key principles of Indigenous food sovereignty will ring a chord in the hearts of organic farmers, as they embody the principles we have also set for organic agriculture:

  1. Sacred or divine sovereignty: Food is a gift from the Creator; in this respect the right to food is sacred and cannot be constrained or recalled by colonial laws, policies and institutions. Indigenous food sovereignty is fundamentally achieved by upholding our sacred responsibility to nurture healthy, interdependent relationships with the land, plants and animals that provide us with our food.
  2. Participatory: Indigenous Food Sovereignty is fundamentally based on “action”, or the day to day practice of maintaining cultural harvesting strategies. To maintain Indigenous food sovereignty as a living reality for both present and future generations, continued participation in cultural harvesting strategies at all of the individual, family, community and regional levels is key.
  3. Self-determination: The ability to respond to our own needs for healthy, culturally adapted Indigenous foods. The ability to make decisions over the amount and quality of food we hunt, fish, gather, grow and eat. Freedom from dependence on grocery stores or corporately controlled food production, distribution and consumption in industrialized economies.
  4. Policy: Indigenous Food Sovereignty attempts to reconcile Indigenous food and cultural values with colonial laws and policies and mainstream economic activities. Indigenous Food Sovereignty thereby provides a restorative framework for policy reform in forestry, fisheries, rangeland, environmental conservation, health, agriculture, and rural and community development.

(from the Indigenous Food Systems Network: www.indigenousfoodsystems.org/food-sovereignty)

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While the language may be a bit different from that found in the organic standard, the ideas of healthy interdependent relationships with the land, daily practice of stewardship, and the ability to be independent of corporate-controlled food systems (especially around seed production) are integral to organic agriculture.

The concepts of Indigenous Food Sovereignty are necessary for us to adopt if we are going to build a food system that upholds these values. Most of these values seem to be part of our organic values already, but we are now on a journey to find common language to express them and to understand that their framework is in itself restorative.

On the ground, in our daily practice of farming, there are many ways we can incorporate these ideas. As organic farmers, most of us already maintain buffer zones around at least part of our farms. We can fill these areas with indigenous plants, bringing back native vegetation and wildlife as we do so. We can provide corridors for birds and homes for beneficial insects, forage for bees, and at the same time begin to understand the delicate balance of living in the more natural ecosystem. Many of us have waterways and other “wild” areas on our farms. When we change our basic language from “wild” to “Indigenous foodlands” we begin to transform our understanding of those lands and the people.

We can begin to build relationships with our Indigenous neighbours by opening these areas to them for harvesting and care. We can open these areas as teaching grounds for wild harvesting methods, and maybe learn about protocols as we do so. We will need to do this with the knowledge and understanding that there will be serious emotional issues around inviting people back to land that was stolen many years ago.

We grow food to feed people. This is central to our idea of ourselves as farmers, but we can also think a bit differently about production. Not everything is bound to a financial transaction, and sometimes what we “produce” is relationships. By feeding elders, by teaching young people, by asking how we can build good relations and what the protocols are, we open the door to non-exploitative relationships.

While our hearts may speak the same language, there are many points of contention between production agriculture and Indigenous ways.

  • Land ownership, licensing of mineral, timber, and water rights, the privatization of land and water, and theft by patenting indigenous knowledge and plants all make it “difficult to reconcile outstanding Indigenous land claims and have dispossessed Indigenous hunting, fishing and gathering societies.”
  • The fragmentation and division of ecological systems into the sectors of various government agencies “limits the sustainability of the agri-food system which is interdependent on the healthy functioning of the neighbouring Indigenous food system…”
  • Agriculture as a whole exists within an economic model based on extraction, production, and “resources” rather than “deep ecological and spiritual relationships with plants and animals that provide us with our foods in a regenerative, life giving paradigm.”

(Above quotes from Dawn Morrison, “Cross Cultural Interface Where Indigenous and Sustainable Agri-Food Systems Intra-act,” 2015 Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty.)

We have to think hard about these issues, as they are central to our food system and our entire mode of thought about how we relate to land. Until we shift our thinking and our language, we cannot also shift our relationships.

If we are going to take responsibility for what we do on the land, we must also take responsibility for the system within which we function. We cannot sell food to fascists, dispossess people from their land, or behave as if we have no responsibility for social justice. Our responsibility for stewardship and sustainability does not end at the farm gate.

For more information on how to be an advocate for Indigenous Food Sovereignty in your community, check out the following resources:

Indigenous Food Systems Network
BC Food Systems Network
Wild Salmon Caravan


Rebecca Kneen farms and brews with her partner Brian MacIsaac at Crannóg Ales, Canada’s first certified organic, on-farm microbrewery. They have been certified organic since inception in 1999. Their farm is a 10 acre mixed farm growing hops, fruit, and vegetables as well as pigs, sheep, and chickens. Rebecca has been involved in agriculture, food, and social justice issues since she met her first pair of rubber boots at age three on the family’s Nova Scotia farm.

Photo credits: Rebecca Kneen

Ecological Farming with Interns and Volunteers

in Organic Community/Spring 2017

Michael Ekers and Charles Levkoe

Originally published by Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario in Ecological Farming in Ontario, Volume 36, Issue 5. While the research was conducted with farms in Ontario, much of the findings likely carry over to BC.

There are increasing numbers of interns, apprentices, and volunteers working on small- and medium sized ecological farms across Ontario, but also across North America and Europe. More and more, farmers are looking to young people seeking farm experiences as a way to train the next generation of farmers and meet the labour demands of their operations. As readers will surely know, interns often exchange their labour for room and board, a stipend and importantly, training in organic, agro-ecological, and/or organic production methods. This is a relatively new and potentially defining trend within the ecological farming sector with considerable significance for farm operators and interns alike.

Over the last two years we have been leading a research project examining the growth and implications of farm internships and the experiences of these types of farm workers. Incredibly generous farmers, interns, and non-profit members have made our research possible by completing our surveys and taking time out of their busy days to patiently and thoughtfully answer our questions. This first, in a series of short articles, reports on some of our initial findings. We will explore further results and observations in subsequent pieces.

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Many of the farmers and agroecology advocates that we initially met with noted the lack of data and information on farm internships and volunteer work, which we describe as new forms of non-waged work. In response, we conducted two Ontario-wide surveys in 2014 and 2015 of farms making use of interns and volunteers. The goal of the survey was to determine the scale of internships and volunteer positions on farms and the types of farms making use of non-waged workers. It also sought to explore the benefits and challenges of working with interns and volunteers. There were several key trends that emerged from the 200 responses to the survey.

The farms making use of non-waged workers tend to be relatively small to medium sized with an average of 69 acres under cultivation. In terms of production methods, about 60% of the farms in our sample were non-certified, but practicing ecologically-oriented methods, including agroecological, biodynamic, permaculture, and organic farming. 21.7% had a recognized certification, with the majority being certified organic. 14.5% identified as practicing other kinds of agriculture, while just under 4% employed conventional methods. 87% of the farms we surveyed market their products directly to consumers through a CSA or a farmer’s market while 39% of farms sold to retailers and only 9% sold to a wholesale buyer.

On the types of farms we just discussed that responded to our survey, there was an average of 4.2 non-waged workers on farms compared to an average of 1 minimum waged-worker per farm. Our results suggest that 65% of the workers on the farms we surveyed were non-waged, while the provincial average for the entire agriculture sector is 4%. While it is difficult to gauge exactly how many farms are using non-waged workers our research suggests that there are at least several hundred farms in Ontario that are sharing their knowledge and skills and meeting their labour demands through the recruitment of interns and volunteers.

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One of the key findings of our survey was the thin profit margin associated with ecological forms of agriculture production. We suggest that the use of interns and volunteers must be understood within this economic reality. Respondent farms reported an average annual gross farm revenue of $94,786. Perhaps more illustrative of the strained financial situation of the farms we surveyed is the personal net on-farm income that farmers drew from their revenues. On average respondents reported a personal on-farm income of only $13,629.

The challenging financial situation means that many farms felt dependent on their non-waged workers to meet the farm’s labour demands. Almost 60% of farm owners and operators felt that they were dependent on interns and volunteers. However, our analysis suggests that the dependency of farms was not related to a farms’ reported revenue. Famers with high revenues were as equally dependent on non-waged workers as lower grossing farms. However, one factor that determined whether a farm was dependent on non-wage workers was levels of off-farm income. The average off-farm income for dependent farms was $20,554 lower than non-dependent farms.

Farmers’ dependency on non-waged workers is a significant issue for the ecologically oriented farming sector given the increasing public and legal scrutiny on various internship programs across North America. Additionally, many survey respondents flagged the risk of being dependent on non-waged workers that despite the best of intensions generally lack experience with farm work and may not be as committed or dependable as paid workers.

A pressing issue that comes out of these findings is around the sustainability of non-wage workers as a model for farmer training and on-farm labour. We need to ask the question: Is it possible to scale-up and expand forms of ecological farming though non-waged workers? Is this a trend that is fair for all? There are no easy answers to these questions but in our next installments we will explore some of the tensions and possibilities in the comingling of farm labour and educational training on farms.

If you would like more information on the project, to comment on these issues or contact us please visit our website: foodandlabour.ca.


Dr. Michael Ekers is an Assistant Professor in Human Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His work mobilizes social and political theory and political economic approaches to understand the making of different environments and the cultures of labour in environmental spaces.

 Dr. Charles Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and an Assistant Professor in Health Sciences at Lakehead University. He has been involved in food sovereignty work for over 15 years in both the community and academic sectors. His ongoing community-based research focuses on the opportunities for building more socially just and ecologically sustainable food systems through collaboration and social mobilization.

Photos: Charles Levkoe

Temporary Migrant Farm Workers in BC

in Organic Community/Spring 2017

Robyn Bunn, Elise Hjalmarson and Christine Mettler, collective members of Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA) Okanagan. RAMA is a volunteer, grassroots collective of community organizers that work to address the disenfranchisement and injustices faced by seasonal agricultural workers in the Okanagan.

The Invisible ‘Foreign’ Labour in ‘Local’ Food

[the boss] only sees [us] as a worker—not as a human, as a person” – Migrant Farm Worker in the Okanagan

As you know, agriculture—particularly organic agriculture, which typically relies less on chemicals and machinery—is labour intensive. Farming is physically demanding, dirty, and sometimes dangerous work, so much respect should be given to all the people who grow our food.

The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) recognizes the high need for labour in organic farming, and lays out principles that acknowledge workers and their right to fair, dignified, respectful treatment as they labour in the fields that feed the world.

In the realm of organic food production, there is an increasing move to center and embrace the role of farmers in putting food on our plates. However, while farmers occupy a position of prominence in our communities, there is not nearly as much attention paid to farm workers, despite their significant role in food production. As a result, issues faced by farm workers may sometimes be overlooked or ignored by the organic agricultural community.

This is particularly salient as it relates to hardships faced by seasonal migrant agricultural workers in BC and in other provinces. Due to labour shortages, farm owners in BC—including organic farmers—are increasingly turning to Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) to fill their labour needs with temporary foreign workers.

So what does it mean to be a temporary foreign farm worker in Canada, and how does support for temporary foreign workers align with tenets of philosophies behind organic farming?

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) is a bilateral agreement between the federal governments of Canada and Mexico, and between Canada and several nations in the Caribbean. The program has been in place since 1966, after farm owners in Ontario lobbied to create a labour pool necessary to sustain their changing industry. The continual shortage of farm workers resulted in the expansion of the program to other provinces. In 2004, BC farm owners began bringing SAWP workers from Mexico and they were joined in 2010 by workers from the Caribbean.

Since its introduction, the program has grown exponentially, and each year more and more people are brought to work on Canadian farms. Between 2006 and 2015, the number of temporary migrant agricultural workers has more than tripled in BC. In 2015, just under 9,000 workers came to BC. This includes workers in the SAWP program (the vast majority), as well as other agricultural workers in the “high skilled” and “low skilled” streams of Canada’s overarching Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Although no statistics are available, RAMA estimates that over a third of these workers are in the Okanagan. Workers come for as little as two months to as many as 10 months out of the year, before being required to return to their home countries.

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Model with a Rotten Core

At first glance, the SAWP program may seem like a “win-win.” Farm owners get the labour power needed to grow and process their products, and workers earn money to take care of their families back home. Although it sounds like it satisfies the needs of all parties, there are many issues with the temporary migrant worker model.

The most salient issue and the one that sets the tone for all others is that workers have legislated impermanence: the program stipulates that they are not allowed to stay in Canada, no matter how many hours they put in. This means that workers’ job security is contingent on their ability to come back to Canada and work again next year, and their likelihood of coming back next year is heavily influenced by positive recommendations from their employers. This sets workers up to be particularly vulnerable to exploitation. They want good recommendations, so many workers agree to work that is unsafe, such as applying pesticides without proper gear, or tolerating poor conditions. This is further compounded by the fact that SAWP workers’ visas are tied to one employer. If a worker does indeed experience significant problems at work, they cannot simply quit and find a job in Canada with another employer, like other employees have the freedom to do.

Second, employment contracts stipulate that housing be provided and that rent is set at a certain rate. Due to the costs of transporting workers to and from farm, most employers house their workers on-farm, in structures that typically leave much to be desired, to say the least. This puts SAWP workers in the rare position of living at their workplace, where employers may continuously surveil their actions.

RAMA has worked with SAWP workers whose bosses expect them to be available for work around the clock, requesting that they work long days (sometimes up to 16 hours), or on their scheduled days off. Despite the fact that workers pay rent, many are also subjected to ‘house rules’ such as not being allowed to have visitors, or having evening curfews. Additionally, as would be expected, farms are located far from any services such as doctors, grocery stores, or banks, and often not on regular transit routes, leaving workers isolated and stranded on-farm without their own means of transportation.

Third, and importantly, workers who come to Canada through the SAWP have no pathway to permanent residency or Canadian citizenship. Some have been coming to work in Canada for decades, which puts strains on families and relationships at home as mothers and fathers have to leave their families behind for months at a time. They are typically allowed to stay for up to 8 months of the year, and must return home by December 15. This makes clear that they are valued only for their labour, and are not invited to become members of Canadian communities. This is illustrated through the frequent practice of ‘medical repatriation’, where workers are sent back to their home country if they are injured on the job and are unable to work for the season. In many of these cases, workers face overwhelming obstacles to accessing their rightfully owed workers compensation.

Fourth, although workers pay into social security programs like employment insurance and parental benefits, they cannot access those benefits. When workers are forced to leave at the end of the year, their Social Insurance Numbers are also cancelled for the time they are away from Canada. This precludes their ability to access social security benefits. Although seasonal workers in Canada can access employment insurance benefits in the uncertain offseason, migrant workers cannot.

The above is not an exhaustive list of issues with the SAWP, but they paint a good picture of ways in which the program sets up migrant workers as a “second tier” labour force in Canada. RAMA is always careful to note that abuses within the SAWP program are not a matter of “a few bad apples”; rather, the nature of the program itself sets up a structure in which workers are vulnerable to exploitation and have little control over or recourse to address their working and living conditions. In short, it is not fair.

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Supporting Farm Workers

Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA) strives to redress these injustices and support workers in the Okanagan Valley by engaging in direct support work with farm workers and by undertaking advocacy and public awareness campaigns. Many workers arrive in BC with very little information about available services and supports (which are few and hard to access), may not know much of the language, or what their rights are in Canada. Some hardly leave their place of employment at all while they are here, and to add to their feelings of isolation, often face discrimination from local residents when they enter local communities.

RAMA works to make our communities more inclusive of migrant farm workers, and ensure that they feel welcome and recognized for the work they do, which contributes greatly to local industry. We also advocate for just and fair conditions for workers—principles that are also supported by the philosophy of organic farming.

Farm Labour Within Organic Philosophy

Of the Four Principles of organic agriculture, as established by IFOAM, the Principle of Health and the Principle of Care both include the well-being of people in farming alongside health and care of animals, ecosystems, and the environment. The Principle of Fairness refers specifically to workers, among others:

“Fairness is characterized by equity, respect, justice and stewardship of the shared world, both among people and in their relations to other living beings. This principle emphasizes that those involved in organic agriculture should conduct human relationships in a manner that ensures fairness at all levels and to all parties—farmers, workers, processors, distributors, traders and consumers. Organic agriculture should provide everyone involved with a good quality of life, and contribute to food sovereignty and reduction of poverty.” http://www.ifoam.bio/sites/default/files/poa_english_web.pdf

Since its inception, IFOAM, as the global body representing organic agriculturalists, has supported the rights and dignity of farm workers and as such, those rights and freedoms are at the core of the philosophy behind organic agriculture. In its aim to spread and expand organic agriculture, the organic movement also includes the mandate of advocating for farm workers rights.

Despite this position, the SAWP sets up circumstances that are patently unfair. However, many of the problems that arise from the structure of the SAWP program could be resolved by the following policy changes:

  1. Open work permits. If migrant workers could change jobs as freely as other employees, then they would be less likely to accept poor working conditions, forcing the standards for all farm workers to go up. 

  2. Allow access to benefits. It is fundamentally unfair that migrant workers pay into Canadian benefit coffers through deductions to their paycheques, but are denied the right to collect Parental Benefits, Employment Insurance, or Canadian Pension Plan funds upon retirement. 

  3. House SAWP workers off-farm, preferably in community. Instituting policy that stipulates an end to the isolation of migrant farm workers would make strides towards community inclusion of farm workers and add to feelings of belonging. It would also increase worker’s mobility and access to health care and other necessary services. 

  4. Grant Permanent Residency to all migrant workers upon arrival. Like opening up work permits, having permanent status leaves migrant workers less dependent on their employers and would allow them to leave poor working conditions, making them less vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. It would also enable them to start to build a life in Canadian communities. If migrant workers are a valuable work force, they should also be considered valuable community members, be able to bring their families, and become part of our communities. 


As growers, workers, eaters, and community members, we all have a responsibility to each other to ensure that everyone involved in agricultural production is treated with fairness and respect. RAMA supports workers and aims to build more inclusive, equitable communities that recognize the struggles of temporary migrant farm workers and come together to mitigate the challenges that SAWP workers face. Join RAMA and the national coalition of organizations advocating for migrant workers’ rights, write to your political representatives about your concerns, and talk to your neighbours and fellow growers. Let’s make fair and dignified conditions for migrant farm workers part of the growing movement for a fair, healthy, and sustainable food system.

Honor the hands that harvest your crops” – Dolores Huerta, Leader in the United Farm Workers Movement


RAMA is a migrant justice collective that advocates for Latin American and Caribbean migrant farmworkers in the unceded Syilx territories of the Okanagan Valley. We work to build radically inclusive and more socially just communities by engaging in political advocacy, accompaniment, direct support work, public awareness campaigns, and the documentation of workers’ conditions and experiences. We are a volunteer-run, not-for-profit group.

www.ramaokanagan.org

 

 

Organic Stories: Mackin Creek Farm

in Farmer Focus/Organic Community/Organic Stories/Spring 2017

Rob Borsato with thanks to Marjorie Harris

Growing a Local Food Movement in the Cariboo

It was the “back to the land” movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that nudged, on separate paths, Cathie Allen and Rob Borsato to the Cariboo. Together, in 1985 they purchased 105 acres of mostly timbered bench land above the Fraser River about 45 kilometres north of Williams Lake.

Immediately, they were captivated by the dramatic vistas, the arid climate, the light, silty soils, the bunchgrass hillsides, the open Douglas fir forests laced with juniper and sage, and Mackin Creek itself, which cut a deep swath through the middle of the property as it tumbled aggressively to the Fraser.

“Like any couple starting out with a piece of raw land, we were swamped with priorities—shelter and fences for animals, shelter for us, breaking some land, and, most challenging of all, developing irrigation and domestic water”, recalls Rob. Getting water up from the creek, a full 100 metres below, proved to be the biggest obstacle, especially since electricity was still several kilometres down the road. “Initially, we used a hydraulic ram, which harnesses the power of a large flow of falling water to push a smaller volume up hill. With some engineering, a fair amount of infrastructure, and a lot of tinkering, it served us well for a few years, until our farm needs outgrew the capacity of the pump.” “By then”, adds Cathie, “we had saved up the money to put in a permanent gravity feed system, with over a kilometre of buried pipe. It still works beautifully.”

Traditonal farm horses

During those early years, Rob continued to work as a horse logger, living away at camp all week, farming on weekends, and taking full advantage of spring “break up” to do the farm field work. To initially break the land, they used four big horses (black Percherons) and a heavy duty, single-bottom breaking plough. “It took two of us, one on the plough handles and the other driving the horses, and it was always exciting. We broke an additional half acre each season, for 10 years or so. We broke a lot of other stuff, too”, he quipped.

Rob hasn’t horse logged for over a decade now, but still uses the horses to do the heavy work on the farm, including all the discing, compost spreading, any ploughing, harrowing, planting and hilling potatoes, all the cultivating between rows and beds, and getting firewood for home and the greenhouse boiler. “For us, with a five acre organic garden, the horses are a perfect fit: not only do they supply the essential components of soil fertility, but they do the heavy lifting, and they provide for me an enjoyment that is very personal and enriching, even on bad days.”

Cathie worked off farm as a draught person prior to the birth of their son, Joe; she added the role of teacher when they elected to home school him. And, not unlike other farm-raised kids, Joe played a significant role on the farm for most of his youth, even coming home to work summers during undergraduate years. “We were so lucky to be able to have all that extra time with him, especially in light of the fact that the farming lifestyle can be so demanding”, reflects Cathie.

Mackin Creek logo

‘Demanding’ might well be a classic understatement, especially in those developmental years on the farm. “We quickly came to realize that the challenges were bigger than we were”, recalls Cathie, “and only by working cooperatively with others would we all have a chance of success”. The challenges lay not only with learning how to grow food, but how to market it as well. On this front, there was no infrastructure in place, no local farmers’ market, little awareness of local food, no talk of CSAs, no organic certification.

But there was, in the Cariboo, a nascent but enthusiastic group of young and aspiring farmers/ back-to-the-landers who shared common goals and principles. Together in 1988, they formed the producers’ group that would grow and eventually host the Quesnel Farmers’ Market. About the same time (and likely organized by Paddy Doherty), they were meeting on Sunday afternoons on little farms at the end of dirt roads to begin the formation of the Cariboo Organic Producers Association. A few years later, some of these same people convened in Kamloops to help create the BC Association of Farmers Markets. “And, at the same time, we were trying to figure out which varieties of garlic grew best, and how were we ever going to get rid of all those zucchini”, laughs Cathie.

For the first few years, the farms and the farmers’ markets in Williams Lake and Quesnel seemed to be growing slowly and with some synchronicity, “Then, in the early 90’s, farm production was outstripping demand, so they had to look at other marketing approaches. They learned what they could about CSAs, and partnered with Dragon Mountain Farm out of Quesnel, and introduced the concept to the Cariboo. “It caught on quite quickly, and eventually each farm was delivering 100 boxes a week”, says Cathie. “Shortly after getting this established, we saw the local food movement emerge, along with the exponential growth of organics, and the generally increased awareness consumers seemed to develop toward food. All of us who had been at this for awhile were positioned well to take full advantage of the additional consumer demand”.

Mackin Creek Rob & Cathie 1

At this point, with the security of a committed CSA group, and a strengthening local farmers market, they were able to focus on ramping up per acre productivity. “Simply put, we learned something from our mistakes every year”, chuckles Rob; “What we did learn early on was how important soil fertility is to the success of the whole operation. So we figured out how to make good compost and are religious about applying it, we incorporate pigs and chickens into our rotation, and we use green manure crops whenever we can”.

The importance of feeding the soil, and the broader perspective of holistic land management, are some of the most fundamental lessons they impress upon interns. Several of these apprentices have gone on to develop their own successful farming operations, and this has been a real measure of gratification for Rob and Cathie. “These success stories are very uplifting”, attests Cathie, “in so very many ways, including the simple fact that more acres are being farmed organically”. They continue to share farming knowledge within their community. These include weekend workshops on organic farming, evening garden club talks, and elder college courses. Currently Rob is also doing consulting work with three local First Nations Bands to develop community gardens.

Now, nearly 30 years since they started farming, Rob and Cathie are talking about more changes. “We’re going to scale back our production to about two acres, not rely on full-time employees, and hopefully be able to build into it all some flexibility so that we can get a bit of time off in the summer months. We have two wonderful granddaughters, with whom we’d love to go camping once in awhile”, says Rob. “We’d like to find that sweet spot where we can continue doing what we love to do, just maybe a little less intensely”, concludes Cathie.


In addition to operating, with partner Cathie Allen, Mackin Creek Farm, on the west side of the Fraser River north of Williams Lake, Rob is involved with several regional agricultural organizations. Mackin Creek Farm was recognized by the BC Association of Farmers Markets as “Vendor of the Year” for the 2014 season.

 

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