By Jonah Raskin
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.
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.
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
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