Unions and Organic Farmers Clash over Stoop Labor

Organic farmers and labor unions are squaring off in the state legislature in a battle farmers fear may threaten organic growing. Senate Bill 534, authored by Los Angeles Democrat Gloria Romero, outlaws weeding fields by hand and is meant to protect farm workers from spinal degeneration and other back injuries. The bill, supported by the United Farm Workers and the California Labor Federation, passed the state Senate this spring but was defeated in the Assembly in September. Supporters expect the bill to be reintroduced next session.
Proponents say the bill closes a loophole in a 1975 state Supreme Court ruling, also meant to reduce back injuries, that outlawed weeding with short-handled hoes. Weeding by hand quickly caught on after the ruling, but supporters contend that method is even more destructive, since it forces workers to bend even further. SB 534 requires workers to switch to long-handled hoes, eliminating bending altogether.
“This is a human rights issue,” says Romero staffer Kristine Guerrero. “We’d be outraged if we were subjected to unsafe, damaging work conditions. None of us would be at work with our keyboards to our knees.”
While acknowledging the bill’s good intentions, both organic and conventional farmers are fighting its passage.   “I oppose this bill because of the damage it will do to organic farmers,” says Vanessa Bogenholm, board chair for California Certified Organic Farmers and owner of VB Farms, a 25-acre operation in Watsonville, where she grows strawberries, raspberries, and a variety of vegetables. “Weeds are always our largest problem, and hand weeding is our last resort.”
Many row crops are planted only a half-inch apart, and weeds grow in the row. Bogenholm and others say long-handled hoes would be impossible to use without damaging the crops. They believe herbicides would be the only way to control weeds if hand-weeding is prohibited.
Organic farmers, who can’t use herbicides, say they would be especially hard-hit, and some fear SB 534 could push them to conventional farming. “The cost to stay organic would be too much, and [organic farmers] would drop out of organic certification,” says CCOF’s Brian Sharpe.
Bill advocates argue that long-handled hoes are effective substitutes for hand-weeding. “Herbicide use will not increase,” argues the UFW’s Martha Guzman. “If you can use a short tool, you can almost always use a long tool.”
She insists SB 534 is essential to worker health and contends unions are struggling alongside organic farmers to reduce chemical use: “United Farm Workers has fought for over 40 years to eliminate pesticides, especially fumigants and carcinogens.”
Proponents amended the bill to exempt organic farmers for two years to give them time to alter their methods; organic growers would have until January 1, 2006 to comply with the new regulation. After that date, they could be exempted if they can prove that weeding with long-handled tools would damage crops.
But Vanessa Bogenholm says farmers would qualify for exemption only if they can prove “significant damage,” which the bill does not define. Bogenholm says assessing damage by a fixed rate doesn’t work: “For raspberries, significant damage is one plant,” she says, noting that raspberries are long-bearing perennials. “If I lose ten percent of my raspberry crop, I’m out of business.”
Not all farmers view the bill as a threat. Jim Cochran, owner of Swanton Berry Farm, says employee safety in the field is imperative: “We should acknowledge this issue and try to modify our work practices to accommodate worker health.” But he believes a compromise is necessary for certain crops. “It’s impossible to grow strawberries without hand-weeding,” he says. “After we plant them, we need to weed them two or three times, but it’s not something that happens all year long. We could live with some special provisions.” Cochran worries that a similar bill is looming regarding harvesting by hand, which involves just as much bending and is conducted over a period of months, not weeks.
Cynthia Rice of California Rural Legal Assistance insists a ban on stoop-labor harvesting isn’t next on the docket. “There is nothing I’m aware of in the legislative process that addresses stoop labor, and we monitor this. That has been [organic farmers’] hysterical opposition.”
“Just because [organic farmers] have better environmental practices does not mean they have better labor practices,” Guzman says. “The market for organic products is growing, but the social sustainability for the people providing the food is not.”

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