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I work on Farms; I am a Criminal

By Jonah Raskin

I am a professor at Sonoma State University. I am also apparently a criminal, and perhaps involved in a conspiracy to violate the law. I work without pay on small, local organic farms in northern California - because I love to do it - and in the eyes of the law - specifically California's Division of Labor Standards Enforcement - the farms that are benefiting from my unpaid labor are operating illegally.

This summer farms in northern California have been fined as much as $18,000 for violations of the law that says that sisters, brothers, cousins and aunts of farmers cannot work without pay. According to the law, anyone who does work on a farm must be paid at least the minimum wage. That might sound fair, and protection for workers, but it is outrageous and unjust. It is an example of the stupidity of the law. If family members cannot work on a family farm then both the family and the farm - two institutions that form the bedrock of traditional American values - are in grave danger from the forces of law and order. And if friends cannot volunteer to pick berries or plant tomatoes than the volunteer spirit which we need is greatly undermined.

For a year I worked on a farm to gather information for a book I wrote about small, organic farms. I was up at 5 AM, working by 6 AM, and dead tired by noon, but it was a tiredness I could live with and not the mental fatigue that I experience as a college professor. I learned about farming by farming. I believe that all Californians and indeed all Americans could learn about the value of small, organic farms by going to farms to plant, weed, cultivate and harvest. It's just what our society needs - ordinary citizens getting away from their computers and into the outdoors to work with their hands alongside farmer workers.

I will go on working on farms. I will work for free. I will enjoy the open air, speaking Spanish to the men from Mexico who are paid, and who are worth every cent they earn. I am not taking work away from them, nor am I giving the small, organic farms I work for an unfair advantage over those farms that do pay interns and family members and friends. I see what I am doing as a spiritual activity. It is good for the soul, my soul, and it is a way to build bridges between Anglos and Latinos that are far too few in our society. I have brought my students to the small, organic farms near the campus of Sonoma State University and they learned as much on the farms as they do in the classroom. The State of California should be helping to bring citizens to farms to work, not putting up roadblocks to prevent them from working in the fields.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California


7 reader comments on I work on Farms; I am a Criminal.

It didn’t take me long to realize after just posting my first comment… all volunteer work is “under the table” work.  If the gov’t is singling out farm work (or is it farm work by family members…? even worse) then it’s just another law not generic enough to fix a problem efficiently.  So should the question be “how do we nurture volunteerism without unfairly competing with people who need the (paid) work”?  Take it a step further and ask “how do we share available paid work fairly?”
I should add: I’m parachuting into this discussion straight from a random Twitter post, rather uninformed…  and still wondering which summer is “this summer”.

I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing.  I belonged to a CSA for a couple summers and a bit of weekend work was part of the deal.  Completely agree that “city folk” should get out and experience this kind of work.
But just because it is good to promote this doesn’t mean it should also be exempt from being called under-the-table work.  So how do we reconcile these seemingly conflicting views?
p.s. Webmaster: Why is there no date on this blog post?

Silicon Valley companies run into the same problem when hiring people to work for only stock options.  The law is the law, you have to pay people who work for you at least minimum wage.  If it was possible to opt out, it’d also be easy enough to strong-arm employees (say, illegals) into “agreeing” to take less than minimum wage.  The whole point of the law is to prevent such abuses, and the government has no way of knowing (nor should they bother trying to figure out) whether your cousin really doesn’t want any pay.

isn’t this just the federal labor law?  If one of our employees works, even if I didn’t authorize it, I am required to pay them.  We benefit from the labor, they get paid.  Seems only right.

Do we really want to soften this up?

I wonder how much of this enforce is a direct result on California’s desperate need for revenue?

You are taking jobs away from union workers.  You should go to jail.  Bastard.

In my capacity as former farm labourer in far-off Cambridgeshire, I say “well said”. I think everyone should at least briefly experience the work necessary to produce the food they eat.

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