Way beyond organic
California maverick Jim Cochran became the first strawberry farmer, and the first organic farmer, to sign a contract with United Farm Workers. And his management innovations haven't stopped there.

By Patrick Connors
Posted April 19, 2005

“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." --Jim Cochran

FARM-AT-A-GLANCE

Swanton Berry Farm
www.swantonberryfarm.com

Location: Davenport, CA

Primary crops: strawberries, ollaliberries, artichokes, broccoli, cauliflower

Acreage: 200 acres, mostly leased, with 50-80 acres in production per year

Organic since: 1987

Union since: 1997

Primary markets: 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 Jim Cochran.

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 (UFW) (www.ufw.org). 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 all.

“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.

Getting started

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.

"Twenty 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 living simply.

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 farmer.

“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 two years.

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 is busiest.

Unionizing

“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 union drives.

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.

It’s 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 opens up.

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 farm’s employees.

Cochran’s vision 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 option program.

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 complex flavor.

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.

“We have 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.”

Complete UFW union label list
Roses
Mushrooms
Nursery Flowers

Armstrong
Jackson and Perkins (J & P)
Meilland and Star

 

Monterey Mushrooms
Money's Mushrooms
Family Farm Mushrooms
Prime Mushrooms
California Mushroom Farms LLC

  L.E. Cooke
Vegetables
Apples
Strawberries
Muranaka
Balletto
  Mann's CA Apples
Elwin R Mann
  Coastal Berry Co. LLC
Swanton
Almonds
Wine
Citrus
Montpelier   Chateau Ste. Michelle
Columbia Crest
Saddle Mountain
Farron Ridge
North Star
Snoqualmie
St. Supery
Dollarhide Ranch
Scheid Vineyards Inc.
Charles Krug
C.K. Mondavi
  Sunkist
Sunworld
Airdrome
Big Jim
Sod
Old River Sod