In 1975, the legendary farmworker advocate Cesar Chavez won one of his greatest victories when he convinced the California Legislature to ban the short-handled hoe. Workers had to stoop low to weed with the 12-inch tool, which caused them back pain and injuries. The ban was meant to increase use of the long-handled hoe, which lets workers chop weeds while standing. Since then, however, California agriculture has moved in a direction few labor advocates foresaw, and some say the protections Chavez fought so hard for are being undermined.

In 1975, California farmers planted about as many acres in wheat as they did in vegetables, and organic agriculture was still the pet project of a handful of hippies and enterprising restaurant owners. Over the next three decades, falling crop prices, rising property values, and increased consumer demand pushed farmers toward high-value specialty crops, such as vegetables, fruit and ornamental flowers, grown both conventionally and organically. By 2002, farmers planted almost three times as much acreage in vegetables as they did in wheat.

Unlike wheat, which can be managed and harvested mechanically, specialty crops are often delicate and labor-intensive. Weeding those crops is one of the most labor-intensive activities of all. For example, spring mix salad, grown in dense mats on raised beds and blanket-harvested with band saws, has to be weeded by hand, says Bob Martin, general manager of Rio Farms and president of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.

State labor law allows hand weeding, but the work is even more backbreaking than using a short-handled hoe. Since the early 1990s, worker advocates have tried to convince the state Legislature to ban hand weeding, with no success. Ironically, some of the most vocal opponents of the ban have been organic farmers, who sell their wares for a premium to consumers who often consider themselves ecologically and socially responsible.

Aimee Shreck, a sociologist at the University of California at Davis, says that to see organic farmers fighting what labor organizations call a human rights issue "raises some questions about the promise of the (organic) movement."

Nurturing the land, burning out workers?

Only 1 percent to 2 percent of California’s crops are grown organically, but ever-increasing consumer demand makes organic farming the state’s fastest-growing agricultural sector. In 2001, farmers in the Golden State planted over 40,000 acres with organic vegetable crops — about 57 percent of the country’s total organic vegetable acreage. And because organic farmers use no traditional pesticides or herbicides, those vegetables often require hand weeding.

"Hand weeding is the way farmers can make a living without pesticides," says Claudia Reid, policy director for the California Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, a nonprofit coalition for sustainable and socially just agriculture. Reid guesses that 85 percent of the hand weeding in California takes place on organic farms.

Judith Redmond, co-owner of Full Belly Farms, an organic farm northwest of Sacramento, agrees that the issue is "a quandary." But she says that most organic farms are small operations that sell locally, and they’re diverse enough so that workers don’t have to spend all day doing the same activity.

But just because a carrot was grown organically doesn’t mean it wasn’t mass-produced. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average size of California’s certified organic farms more than tripled between 1985 and 1991. In 2000, for the first time in the organic movement’s history, more organic food was sold through conventional supermarkets than through farmer’s markets or food cooperatives.

"More and more of the large corporations have been transitioning a good portion of their farms into organic," says Ron Strochlic, a research analyst at the California Institute for Rural Studies. And many people in the organic industry worry that the Department of Agriculture’s 2002 National Organic Rule, which set nationwide organic standards, will make it even easier for large-scale growers to take over the organic market from smaller producers.

Redmond, the organic farmer, acknowledges that if an organic farm is large and highly specialized, the scene is set for "farmworkers (to) inch their way down rows and rows of monocrop," and end up hand weeding all day.

Loophole lets hand weeding continue

In 2003, state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, introduced another in a long string of bills that would ban hand weeding. The bill didn’t pass, but it was strict enough to convince farmers that they would be better off negotiating for regulatory change than continuing to fight in the Legislature, says José Millan, deputy secretary of the California Labor Agency.

The following year, farmers and farmworkers’ groups sat down with California’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board and worked out a compromise. The board added "emergency" hand-weeding restrictions to state labor regulations. Permanent standards should be in place by the beginning of May, but some question whether they will solve the problem.

Under the new rules, growers who make their workers hand weed unnecessarily will be fined $5,000; fines for repeat violations can reach $25,000. But growers can still use hand weeding if there is no "reasonable alternative," as in situations where the long-handled hoe would damage crops. Intermittent hand weeding, defined as less than 20 percent of a laborer’s weekly work time, is still unregulated. And the regulations do not apply to seedlings, planter containers, high-density crops such as spring mix — or to organic crops.

While not all farmworker advocates are thrilled with the new rules, they say it’s a step in the right direction, and they’ll continue monitoring the workers’ situation.

In the meantime, some observers say organic farmers have a real problem on their hands: The hand-weeding debate "pits organic farmers against farmworkers," says Strochlic at the Institute for Rural Studies, "(which) is contradictory to the premise of sustainable agriculture."

The author is a former HCN intern.