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May/June 2011 – Regarding unpaid farm labour

Volunteer workers solve a farm mystery

It was into week two of Stéphane’s tenure with us last spring when I had two tractor-seat kind of revelations. The first was that Stéphane, a young Frenchman working for us, like so many volunteer farm helpers are these days, for room and board, had solved one of my long-held dilemmas: how to run a financially viable small farm and a well-functioning one too? The answer? Unpaid farm labour!
Until Stéphane appeared at our door, we had variously had a viable but poorly run farm (chronically understaffed, machinery not maintained etc) or a well-maintained but less-than-viable farm. With unpaid labour we could have viability and quality. Money in the bank and fences fixed! I’ll never forget the feeling that day: so that’s what is missing.
We had such a good time with Stéphane that we promptly signed up with an agency to get more volunteer farm workers this year; we are currently hosting a young German woman and a young Italian man, both of whom are superbly helpful and fun to have around, and when these two leave a couple of Austrians arrive. If I have my way the farm will always be hotbunking—departing farm workers will be replaced with new workers so swiftly the beds won’t have time to cool off. I can not imagine the farm running well without this kind of help.
At the same time, and even in my elation, I had a sister thought: using volunteer farm labour has about it the whiff of exploitation.
Consider this: they work for no pay, under terms similar to that of regular employees. Their tenure is at the discretion of the host. They are as powerless as a non-unionized worker at a Burger King, only instead of a paycheque they get three meals a day and, too often, a buggy old school bus to sleep in.
If an office supply store tried the same stunt they’d rightly be hauled up for labour code violations.
However, farms are not ordinary businesses and what they have to offer workers is far beyond ordinary experience. A worker coming to a farm is immersed in the life of the farmers—often sharing meals, accommodation, spending time together during and after work. And farmers don’t get an ordinary worker—they get a slice of another life, another culture.
If you don’t think farms have something special to offer a visiting worker, read the letter on p 29 by Maurizio Corradin, a 21 year-old, who has been working on several farms in Canada. Before coming to Canada, Corradin writes, he was a nightclub kind of guy in his native city, Milan, in Italy. But on farms here, he discovered the outdoors, what it is like to be responsible for livestock, and he fell in love with a horse named Valentino. Of animals, he learned, “If you give them love you will receive from them love.”
Wow. No, let’s say that again. Wow!
There are legitmate concerns about how unpaid farm workers are treated, but if we can find a way to ensure that they have a rich and rewarding experience and that farmers get good value for the cost and effort of hosting these workers, we’ll have a wonderful arrangement.
Well-maintained fences and well-loved horses—it’s too good to be true!