Healthy workers, healthy label

  • Family farmers, from left, Diana, Ken, Barbara, Bob and Bridget Bailey, and Elizabeth Bailey Nisley


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Harvesting Poison."

The Bailey family grows more than cherries on their 1,500-acre orchard in The Dalles, Ore. The fourth-generation farmers are also trying to nurture worker-friendly conditions.

They offer employees decent housing, such as modular trailers and small brick houses, equipped with showers, toilets and air conditioning, and they help provide access to daycare and healthcare.

“I’m trying to make an effort to be responsible to my employees,” says Diana Bailey, who employs 400 seasonal workers, three months a year.

The effort extends to how the crops are sprayed. The Baileys use a different, much less-toxic chemical cocktail than that used by many other orchards. The commonly used organophosphates are nerve toxins that kill insects by paralyzing their nervous systems. Effective and relatively cheap, they can wipe out an array of bugs in just three or four sprayings a season. But that’s not always a good thing, says Bailey: The nerve toxins also wipe out beneficial insects, such as ladybugs. They can hurt farmworkers, too.

Instead, for a decade the Baileys have been using pesticides that target specific pests by mimicking the females’ pheromones (secretions that influence behavior), confusing the males and thereby disrupting the mating process. The Baileys lose 3 percent of their crop to bugs; if they used heftier pesticides, they would likely lose nothing. The pheromones cost slightly more, but the Baileys say it’s worth it: Their trees are healthier, and not one farmworker has gotten sick from the spraying.

“We have 90 percent of our workers coming back every year, and those employees are experienced pickers. That’s good for our bottom line,” says Bridget Bailey, Diana’s cousin.

The Baileys’ commitment to minimizing pesticides has earned them a special new certification that generates interest in their product. The Food Alliance, a Portland-based nonprofit, has created a label to help consumers identify growers whose products are raised under such healthier working conditions (HCN, 2/17/03: Eco-groovy food for skinny). Alliance-certified fruits and vegetables must be grown and harvested by sustainable farming practices, with little or no pesticide use. The Baileys and more than 100 other growers in the Northwest, Idaho and Montana are now certified by The Food Alliance, and the label is showing up in grocery chains such as Thriftway.

“We want to recognize farmers who are looking at the whole picture,” says Rebecca Siplak of The Food Alliance. “(An) organic label assures that workers aren’t exposed to pesticides, but it doesn’t address other labor issues, such as good housing, access to health care or equitable wages.”

The Food Alliance has its critics, who point out that inspectors only visit certified farms once every three years and that farmworkers have no role in creating the certification. Even low levels of pesticides don’t guarantee worker safety, they say. Farmworker advocates like the United Farm Workers call for a “fair trade” label, which would be more concerned with wages than with pesticides.

For now, the Baileys see The Food Alliance as a good way to certify their family’s long-standing concern for workers. Bridget Bailey remembers, “My grandfather always said that migrant labor was the beginning or end of his business.”

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