Recently, a longtime CSA member asked me about the price of our CSA shares. The short story is that our prices are directly tied to farm worker pay. Labor is by far the biggest expense at Red Wagon. Vegetable farming is incredibly labor-intensive, and it is hard to charge enough for vegetables to provide decent pay for farm workers. (This is why there is so much farm worker exploitation in our country.)
The biggest threat to the existence of Red Wagon Farm is the ability for us to find a good farm crew. Every year we struggle to find enough capable people to work on the farm. We are especially shorthanded right now because of coronavirus—not because of illness, but because of the peculiar life circumstances we all find ourselves in these days (maybe more on this in a future blog post??)
The most obvious difficulty in finding a farm crew is that being a farm worker is hard. You work long, hard hours that start early in the morning. We’ve worked in temperatures from 10 degrees to 102 degrees in hot sun, freezing rain, snow, windstorms—you name it! Less obvious is that it takes a ton of training to become a good farm worker at Red Wagon. You have to learn how to grow and harvest over 100 crops on our farm. And there are a lot of unpleasant tasks like thinning beets on your hands and knees for hours. Or washing a huge pile of coolers with a pressure washer. Or fighting off mosquitoes while you’re trying to harvest peppers. You have to be really passionate about farming to make it through these challenges.
Being a farm worker is hard financially, but not just because of low hourly pay. Our main farm crew works from mid-April through mid-November. That’s only 7 months, which means that you have to find a way to earn money the other 5 months of the year if you want to return the following season. That often means working at a job that you don’t particularly like. People suggest we hire students, but they have to leave in August to go back to school. That is our busiest time of year and we can’t hire and train new people then. The lack of year-round work is a huge problem for keeping workers on a vegetable farm.
How does this tie into CSA prices? Our regular veggie shares have gone up 29% from 2016 to 2020. The biggest reason for this is the increase in the Colorado minimum wage during this time due to Amendment 70. In 2016, minimum wage was $8.31/hour and now in 2020, it is $12.00/hour. That’s an increase of 44%. Amendment 70 also mandates future minimum wage increases that are tied to increases in the cost of living in Colorado. While it’s great that minimum wage has increased, the result is higher prices. So, you can expect to see future increases in the price of your CSA shares.
Red Wagon has always paid more than minimum wage, but an increase in the minimum means an increase in the entire pay scale so our pay rates have increased, too. Right now, new farm crew members are starting here at $13.50 per hour. If you were working full-time and year-round, that comes out to $27,540 per year. Think about trying to live on that in Boulder County for a minute. Then add in the fact that you only have 7 months of work per year on the farm. Most people can only make this work financially for a year or two at the most.
The starting pay of $13.50 per hour at Red Wagon is better than I know of at other farms. There are a lot of issues related to pay and farm worker exploitation on large-scale farms. That’s a story for a different time and place. But many small, organic farms also exploit their farm workers. The farm calls the workers “interns” and provides often primitive housing and a small monthly stipend, which actually isn’t legal under labor laws. The result is people working for less than minimum wage on small farms. I don’t know how you could do this in good conscience, especially given how hard the job is.
We have struggled with ways to pay our farm crew enough that people can have a decent life and work at Red Wagon for a number of years, but we are far from having an answer. In 2015 we started our Farm Worker Support Fund. Last year we collected $3,600 from CSA members and were able to distribute a few hundred dollars each to the farm crew at the end of the season, which is very helpful and appreciated when the work stops at the end of the season!
We try hard to pay Red Wagon farm workers as much as possible. I constantly struggle with ways to improve pay and I hope we can continue to increase wages in years to come. This means having the financial support of CSA members like you!