07.21.06

Thinking about options for living wages in agriculture

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:04 am by webjefa

What would it take so that the poor were less poor?  This article from Alternet discusses some strategies that folks have taken….

Poverty wages for farmworkers were the problem. As Dick Nogaj figured it, blueberries were the answer. On vacation in southwest Florida in 1997, Nogaj and his wife Florence heard about a hunger strike by migrant workers in Immokalee, an agricultural town 35 miles inland from Ft. Myers. The Nogajs immediately drove to Immokalee. They were appalled at how hard the tomato and citrus pickers worked and how little they got in return. The average farmworker in the area, according to researchers at the University of Florida, brings home from the fields an annual income of between $6,500 and $7,000. To boost these wages, Dick Nogaj put his faith in consumers. “We can end poverty in the agricultural sector if only 10 percent of the public pays 10 percent more for their food,” he says. That’s where blueberries entered the picture. The market for the anti-oxidant-rich fruit was growing, particularly among Florida retirees. A variety capable of prospering in south Florida would allow Nogaj to dominate the market for at least a month and possibly two, between the fading of Chilean imports and the ripening of more northern varieties. Higher prices for spring blueberries could translate into higher wages for farmworkers.

In 1999, having recently sold his Illinois engineering firm to its employees, Nogaj invested millions of dollars to turn 36 acres of Immokalee’s sandy soil into a blueberry farm. He took a risk on a new variety developed by University of Florida researchers. He waited two seasons before harvesting the first crop. These “leaps of faith” were motivated by Nogaj’s experience with Habitat for Humanity and a personal philosophy that is equal parts progressive Christianity and solid Midwestern liberalism. Today, he boasts of paying his workers $8.50 an hour, two dollars above Florida’s minimum wage, and his piece-rate pickers as much as $12 to $14 an hour. Nogaj thinks his blueberries, on sale at Whole Foods and other outlets, represent a new model for agriculture in Florida and nationwide.

Continues at http://www.alternet.org/story/385

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