When a dozen or so Stemilt employees gathered to talk around the watercooler in the break room of a Quincy, Washington, ranch last summer, it wasn’t just idle watercooler chitchat.
In fact, the workers, who were part of a leadership training course, were practicing problem-solving skills by developing a water jug management system — how many were needed, how they would be transported, who would clean them and how to keep them off the ground, for starters.
“It sounds so simple, but it’s not something anyone would think through,” said Brianna Shales, Stemilt Growers’ marketing director. “In the past, it would have been the manager’s problem to fix. This approach takes input from all parties and comes up with an agreed-upon solution.”
That bottom-up, problem-solving approach and the “leadership team” itself are part of the Equitable Food Initiative’s efforts to ensure farmworkers have a voice in the workplace. The organization is the brainchild of leaders in the retail and produce industries, along with farmworker advocates, who wanted to promote and certify farms enacting good labor practices. The approach has recently attracted several tree fruit producers, including Stemilt — which plans to certify three more ranches and its packing operation this year, providing leadership training for dozens of employees.
“What EFI really set out to do is make it safe for the worker to raise their hand and say, ‘Oh, there’s an issue here,’ and to feel that they are in a safe place to raise that,” said LeAnne Ruzzamenti, EFI’s communications director. Workers have more trust and are encouraged to speak up when they see management address concerns they have raised, such as insufficient water jugs at Stemilt’s Quincy ranch.
“You are ultimately changing the culture on the farm,” she said.
How EFI works
Participating growers — which now include Homegrown Organic Farms’ California stone fruit program and Washington tree fruit producers Stemilt, Rainier Fruit and Domex Superfresh Growers — form a leadership team with representatives from every part of the workforce on the farm or in the packing shed. That team undergoes a week of EFI-facilitated training focused on team building, communication and problem-solving. The goal: Ensure that everyone in the workforce knows someone on the leadership team, someone they can trust with their concerns who has the skills to make a change, Ruzzamenti said.
That’s the training side. When it comes time for the certification, inspectors ask employees if they know about the EFI team and who they would reach out to if they have a problem, she said. Certification also involves hundreds of standards around responsible labor practices, worker safety, food safety and pesticide safety.
Once certified, retailers Costco and Whole Foods will label the produce and sell it for a small premium — 1.5 cents per pound on apples and stone fruit. That premium is split between EFI for marketing efforts; companies to cover some costs of participation; and workers, who get the lion’s share in the form of bonuses.
EFI was founded in part by a former Costco vice president who wanted a way to assure customers that its suppliers were doing the right thing when it came to food safety and labor practices, Ruzzamenti said. The conversations with stakeholders began about 10 years ago, and the nonprofit officially launched in 2015. Currently, 47 farms in North America have been certified, with more on the way.
Costco urged Domex Superfresh Growers to consider the EFI program, said Kristin Kershaw Snapp, director of corporate affairs for the Naches, Washington-based grower-packer-shipper.
“It fit within our company goals and culture and how we want our culture to evolve,” she said. “As part of our company culture, we want everyone to understand that their voice matters. It doesn’t matter what your job is, you know something important.”
Three years ago, they hosted their first leadership training, which Kershaw Snapp described as a “complete transformation” for some of the employees. In particular, the team included two H-2A employees who had just arrived from Mexico and who seemed very nervous about a week in a conference room. They hid in the back, hesitant to talk or make eye contact, she recalled.
“We came back five days later and every single person on that leadership team is standing tall and confident in front of the whiteboard, demonstrating what they had learned about how to identify problems and how to solve them,” she said.
Problems solved by the EFI team at Superfresh Growers include development of mobile break stations — trailers carrying folding tables and shade tents to the orchard where crews are harvesting — and purchasing additional fall protection equipment for crew members working on tall equipment, such as wind machines, according to Derek Tweedy, the company’s food safety director. Then, when the pandemic hit, the EFI team members helped the company adapt quickly and build trust around the resulting changes. Overall, the process has empowered employees at all levels in the company, he said.
“That’s something very difficult for an organization to do on its own,” Kershaw Snapp said. “Management says we want everyone to have a voice, but how do you get people to believe it and act on it?”
On the certification front, Kershaw Snapp said Superfresh Growers was one of the first tree fruit producers and Washington state farms to work with EFI, so there were a lot of things to figure out to align standards with state laws and typical industry practices, such as piece-rate pay. Full certification across the company’s orchards and packing operations is expected this year.
She said the return on investment in the EFI program has come far more from the leadership trainings than the fruit premiums they expect to receive. California stone fruit grower Vernon Peterson, who hosted an EFI training in January 2020, agreed.
“It’s not something you can justify with a calculator,” he said. “It’s something you can justify because you want to have an effective, empowered workforce.”
Peterson owns Peterson Family Farms, which grows about 250 acres of organic stone fruits and operates a packing shed that serves his citrus-growing neighbors as well. He markets through Homegrown Organic Farms, or HGO, a vertically integrated fruit company representing over 100 growers. Aligning with EFI offered a way to shine a light on the people-first company culture both Peterson Family Farms and HGO pride themselves on — and to build on it, said HGO marketing director Cherie France.
“Agriculture has always been a top-down approach. This approach to business and the management of people has at times created unhealthy work environments and, frankly, a very uncaring approach to how we treat people,” said Homegrown CEO Scott Mabs in an email. “When we spent time evaluating EFI’s approach, we recognized that they were thinking in a very similar manner as we were and had some great ideas in how to break down the walls that at times exist within the organization between different departments and structural layers.”
HGO started with its stone fruit program, because “Vern is extremely bought-into helping his people succeed,” France said. The company’s blueberry operations are next up.
For Peterson’s part, he said he initially liked the idea that his company could “get credit” for their strong benefits and people-first company culture and also provide bonuses to his workforce of 45 year-round and 75 seasonal employees. But the week of leadership training had a far bigger impact than he was expecting.
“It’s really rare that a line employee would get to spend 40 hours with the ownership talking about how to make the company better,” he said.
Changes included equipping tractor drivers with whistles during harvest, so pickers know to stay back from the bin trailer when it’s about to move, and switching to textured gloves from slick ones in the packing house. Then, the pandemic hit, and Peterson said the new leadership team helped devise strategies to keep employees safe and maintain trust.
Until more retailers join in the program, the financial return in terms of premiums falls short of the investment in EFI trainers and the time his team spent with them, Peterson said. The bonuses for the workers were a couple hundred bucks last year. He hopes more retailers see the value of it and hopes the third-party certification can be coordinated with the certifiers he already uses for organic certification and GlobalGAP.
“The first year, it is a big ask,” he said of the costs of participating. “But look, probably 75 percent of my cost in the field is labor. So, to have the best people doesn’t cost me, it earns me. We were doing that already, but this is another way for people to feel empowered and help us solve some challenges and have some buy-in.” •
—by Kate Prengaman