“I’m not out
to tell other farmers what they should be doing, but
I do want to show them that it can be done."
strawberries, ollaliberries, artichokes, broccoli,
200 acres, mostly leased, with 50-80 acres in
production per year
retail supermarkets, on-farm sales, farmers' markets
Just inside the roadside stand at
Swanton Berry Farm, across from refrigerators soon
to be packed with organic produce, preserves and fresh baked
pies, hangs a large, framed photograph of César Chavez.
In the picture, the famous union organizer and human rights
activist walks with his head down, a shovel slung over his
shoulder. The modesty and hard work conveyed in the portrait
are qualities shared by Swanton’s owner and founder
Cochran has grown organically for more than 20 years and
was the first organic strawberry grower in the country to
sign a contract with United Farm Workers of America/AFL-CIO
The photo of Chavez, who founded the UFW in the early 1960s,
offers a glimpse at how serious Cochran is about producing
outstanding fruits and vegetables with the highest labor standards.
The California-based Ecological Farming Association recently
named him one of the country’s most “successful
farmers” at the 2005 Eco-Farm Conference. Although flattered,
he doesn’t boast about the accomplishment or others
he’s had over the 25-year history of his farm. He doesn’t
wag his finger either at strawberry farms across California
where chemical additives are the norm and worker benefits
for a mostly Mexican labor force are scant if they exist at
“I’m not out to tell other farmers what they
should be doing, but I do want to show them that it can be
done,” he said early this spring amid rows of blossoming
strawberry bushes rustling in the wind whipping off the Pacific
Ocean just a few hundred yards away.
What he’s done is create one of the most sought after
strawberries in the Bay Area, prized at natural food stores
and farmers' markets. His product displays the certified organic
label alongside an angular drawing of an Aztec eagle –
the mark of the UFW. For Cochran, the stamps carry equal weight.
It’s the middle of March, and the first flecks of red
from new fruit can be seen atop 14-inch high strawberry beds
in one of Swanton’s newer fields off U.S. Route 1 between
Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay.
The farm has grown steadily over the years from just four
acres in the early 1980s to a somewhat scattered patchwork
of about 200 now. Cochran crops 50 to 80 acres a year while
the rest of the land is under cover crop or fallow.
years ago, nobody in the [strawberry] business
had any clue that the customer wanted fruit
that tasted good and wasn’t sprayed."
The exorbitant cost of real estate in coastal California
made leasing the only option when Cochran got started. Land
is still too expensive, he says. He has four landlords now:
the state park service, a land trust and two private owners.
They all appreciate what he’s doing and he says the
relationships have never been a hassle.
It took five years of farming before Cochran turned a profit,
and for that stretch he kept a construction job on the side.
For the last 20 years, though, he’s made his living
entirely from the land--nothing lavish, he says, but he likes
Vegetables suited to coastal California such as artichokes,
cauliflower, and broccoli, and ollaliberries (a type of blackberry)
have always been a part of Swanton Berry Farm, but strawberries
were Cochran’s niche from the beginning.
He got his start in the strawberry industry as the business
manager for a cooperative of large, conventional strawberry
farms in California. Although he spent a bit of time in the
field with that job, his relationship with the fruit was more
economic than scientific. He still doesn’t consider
himself much of a soil scientist or expert on the minutia
of organic growing, preferring to call himself an intuitive
“If it doesn’t look good, out it goes,”
he says pointing to the first six rows of a strawberry field
dotted with mostly scraggily plants and rust-colored leaves.
Despite no formal training in farming, it didn’t take
Cochran long while working with the cooperative to realize
there was room for improvement in the strawberry industry.
“Nobody in the business had any clue that the customer
wanted fruit that tasted good and wasn’t sprayed,”
he says. “But I also came at this from the social justice
side. It would have been silly to pay a huge amount of attention
to soil fertility and not the workers.”
At first, Swanton Berry Farm was fifty-fifty, organic to
conventional. Cochran transitioned to completely organic after
It wasn’t until eight years ago that Cochran signed
his first contract with the United Farm Workers. Before that,
he says, it didn’t make administrative sense to go union
because he had so few employees. Nowadays more than 50 people
work on the farm in the spring and early summer when the harvest
“The Jim Cochrans of the world are few and far between,”
says Marc Grossman, a UFW spokesperson, commenting on the
beginnings of the Swanton/UFW relationship.
For starters, Grossman says, it’s not typical for the
grower to initiate talks with the union. Especially in the
strawberry industry, he says, where there’s a history
of farm owners going to great lengths to stifle worker-organized
But as Cochran’s work force grew to around 30 people,
that’s just what he did – first researching the
particulars of union contracts and then informally talking
with union representatives. He also hired an attorney, a step
he recommends to any farmer thinking about unionizing, to
make sure he followed all the laws surrounding the procedure.
not typical for the grower to initiate talks with the
union. Especially in the strawberry industry. But as
Cochran’s work force grew to around 30 people,
that’s just what he did.
Although one other berry farm, Coastal Berry, signed a union
contract after Swanton, the vast majority of berry farms in
California are non-union. Swanton is also one of the few organic
strawberry growers. There are currently about 540 acres of
organic strawberries in the state compared to 32,636 acres
of conventional berry land (88 percent of the United States’
strawberries come from California), according to figures from
the California Strawberry Commission.
For most strawberry farmers here, labor is the only controllable
cost, whereas variables like weather and the price fruit will
fetch at market are more fickle. With a steady supply of immigrants
-- willing to work for not much more than minimum wage --
streaming across the Mexican border everyday, it’s no
wonder that many farm owners avoid unions and the benefits
and higher wages that go with them.
Growers also take advantage of the fact that so many of the
immigrants are undocumented and are reluctant to go to the
authorities if working conditions are sub-standard, Grossman
says. Also, he notes, there is little incentive for employers
to retain workers in the strawberry business because the work
is so physically demanding and many laborers are quick to
take a job in a neighboring vegetable field if a position
Cochran admits that unionizing is not cheap. He spends about
$2.50 per hour, per worker on health insurance and other benefits,
which comes out to more than $50,000 a year. That number is
always changing, however. In leaner years, he says he works
with the union to scale back benefits; when the berry business
bustles, he offers his workers more.
“Part of the reason we unionized was to show that a
good relationship with a union was possible and it’s
been exactly that,” he says.
An end to family farms?
Cochran’s goal is a highly decentralized, "meritocratic"
farm, based on the Roman principle that any person can rise
to the position of leader. His vision is to move away from
the hereditary, family farm model, which he likens to a kind
of monarchy—a benevolent monarchy at best, but still
a monarchy. At Swanton, Cochran’s son (also named Jim)
will have to work for ownership just like the rest of the
is to move away from the hereditary, family
farm model and towards a decentralized farm
featuring stock-ownership opportunities, profit-sharing,
and joint decision-making for key employees.
In the last few years, Swanton adopted a “stock ownership
program,” where workers not only get a financial stake
in the farm (and are promised to have their stock bought back
if they leave), but play a key role in all on-the-farm decision
making. So far, eight employees have joined the program and
more are expected.
“I want a group of people to hold this together and
as that becomes a reality so will things like taking more
time off,” Cochran says.
The stock plan was partially born from what he saw as an
inherent flaw in the farm cooperative system. It was irksome,
Cochran says, when farmers that often didn’t contribute
as much to the co-op could show up to a meeting, for example,
and have an equal voice for the direction of the group. In
a meritocracy, only the employees who show a willingness to
work hard and be involved are asked to be a part of the stock
The union label and the potential for profit sharing have
lured employees back to Swanton year after year. Some of Swanton’s
workers have been with the farm for more than 10 years and
more than 50 percent of the crew has worked there for around
5 years. A strong retention rate, according to Cochran, is
a real advantage in terms of having a staff that knows the
Swanton system--a system that depends on top quality strawberries.
A better berry
“[The costs of going organic and union] are expensive,
but we manage by paying serious attention to quality of fruit
and quality of service,” Cochran says.
Strawberry seedlings are transplanted toward the end of fall
in California. Cochran chooses a variety (he prefers to keep
the name to himself) that typically produces about two-thirds
of the volume of other strawberry varieties, but packs a more
Swanton’s size, tiny compared to some strawberry farms
that employ as many as 3,000 workers, allows for more marketing
maneuverability. Cochran’s crews harvest berries riper
than other growers and typically get them to market within
two hours after they’re picked. About half of Swanton’s
strawberries go to natural foods stores in the San Francisco
Bay Area (Whole Foods is the farm’s biggest buyer);
the rest are sold directly at farmers' markets, the farm stand
and through a pick-your-own program.
a very good customer base now, but it’s also a
very discerning customer base. People don’t want
to pay extra for crap.”
The lines between marketing and education for Cochran are
fuzzy. He estimates that he spends about $5,000 a year educating
his customer base, and that doesn’t include his personal
time commitment. He speaks in public about organic and union
farming, he writes brochures, leads farm tours and maintains
an information-packed website. It took five or six years,
he says, before people started to appreciate Swanton’s
commitment to organic farming. Similarly, it took time for
customers to understand the farm’s commitment to using
union labor. The educational investment and zeal for good
quality almost always ensure Swanton is paid a top price.
“We have a very good customer base now, but it’s
also a very discerning customer base,” he says. “People
don’t want to pay extra for crap.”
What they will pay for, he says, is a strawberry with aromatic
oils that balance flavor and just the right amount of sugars
for a perfect sweetness.
Or perhaps the great taste of a Swanton strawberry is a consequence
of happy farmers living healthy lives.
“I don’t know if our methods here are the future,”
Cochran says. “But it’s worth a try.”
UFW union label list
Jackson and Perkins (J & P)
Meilland and Star
Family Farm Mushrooms
California Mushroom Farms LLC
||Mann's CA Apples
Elwin R Mann
||Coastal Berry Co. LLC
||Chateau Ste. Michelle
Scheid Vineyards Inc.
|Old River Sod