'No supervisors, no boss': Upending farm labor by owning the land

Tired of mistreatment and not being able to afford the food they harvested, two Bellingham farmworkers left corporate agriculture to start their own berry cooperative.

Ramon and Modesto weed a row of blueberry bushes

Modesto Hernandez, left, and Ramon Torres work on weeding around the blueberry bushes on their farm Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty Cooperative) on Jan. 24, 2020. The pair own and run the Bellingham farm themselves. Both worked for corporate farms in the past and have a collection of negative experiences, including abuse and not being able to afford the very food they were working with. The goal is to eventually have several farmers living on the land and contributing to the farm.

It’s the middle of winter, and in the darkness of early morning, Modesto Hernandez and Ramón Torres drive up to their fields of raspberries and blueberries in Bellingham to make their morning rounds.

The bushes are skeletal and dark, with a thin sheet of snow dusted over them. The two stay in the car, peering over the fields, and strategize. Usually they patrol each row of bushes, checking the plants for damage. They need to pull up weeds and remove the dead parts of the bushes before February’s end to ensure that the plants survive Bellingham’s coldest weeks of the year. The 65-acre parcel they co-own is fairly small as far as berry farms go, and they can’t afford to lose any of their crop. 

“If you have the money, you do the job in December and January,” Torres says. “It’s the most common and most recommended because of the snow, too.” This year, they didn’t have the funds to get extra help to do that until February; even so, Torres and Hernandez have to do a large part of the weeding on their own. 

Torres has a few errands to run and Hernandez wonders if they should wait for the sun to come out and melt the snow. They decide to come back later. 

The delay pays off. By 11 am, the snow has almost completely melted, and with a helper in tow, the two clear a row in about an hour. They work swiftly and quietly, sickles gently swishing as they tear through weeds. Torres’ baby pit bull, Lola, runs between the rows and occasionally rests on his lap when she gets tuckered out. 

At any other farm they’d worked at, their morning would have looked much different: They would’ve started their work at the same hour, maybe six or seven in the morning, every day. They wouldn’t be allowed to run errands or bring a dog to work. 

Hernandez last worked at a corporate agriculture farm in 2008 as a contracted farmer. That year, he was ordered to work in the fields in the middle of winter, with snow on the ground. He got frostbite on his feet after hours of pruning and spent seven months in the hospital as a result. Eventually, he had parts of his feet surgically removed. He now uses prosthetics and walks with a cane.

“If they’d listened to me at first, it wouldn’t have happened,” Hernandez says. “That’s what happens [in a corporate farm].” 

Looking back on his frostbite injuries, Hernandez realizes he could have sued his employers.  

“I didn’t understand the rights as I know them now,” he says. “I didn’t understand the city… and because of that I didn’t know where to go.”

Ramon Torres prunes blueberry bushes on the farm he owns with his business partner Modesto Hernandez, Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty Cooperative), on Jan. 24, 2020. The pair do most of the work on their blueberry and raspberry farm themselves, including weeding and harvesting.

But he co-owns the land he farms now — 65 acres of it, although only 30 acres are currently in use. Torres, 35, and Hernandez, 43, founded the organic berry farm Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty Cooperative) together after leaving jobs on corporate farms. Both had spent years farming for big companies and had grown disenchanted with it, experiencing unpaid breaks, unreliable pay (often paid by the pound rather than the hour) and a lack of flexibility that made it difficult to tend to needs outside of work.

They’d surveyed farms around Washington and said that it was difficult to find an organic farm with the working conditions they sought. For the two, owning land was the only way to ensure a better life for themselves, and a workers’ cooperative was the way to do it. The cooperative model enables them, as it one day will enable other farmers, to own and operate the land themselves.

There are plenty of farming cooperatives around the country — the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives reports that there are nearly 3,000. They’re often groups of farms that come together and focus on one aspect of production, like supply cooperatives that collaborate when selling their products. But worker-owned farming cooperatives like this one,  which works as a unit on all parts of production from start to finish and focuses on laborers’ rights, are fairly uncommon.

“There are no supervisors, no boss, no ranchers,” Torres says. “This gives us the ability to be our own bosses one day, to have a house, so this is really different from everything that is capitalism. We share our winnings, all as a collective.”

Still, it’s an incomplete vision: The farm isn’t yet financially self-sufficient, staying afloat mostly through grants and community donations and selling their crops through u-picks. They hope that in a few years, they’ll be ready for other farmers to join their cooperative and share a portion of its profits. It could be a haven for farm workers looking for the autonomy that Torres and Hernandez made for themselves.

The rich farmland in Skagit County is the nation’s largest producer of red raspberries, and has a long history of farming — and farm-worker activism. Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of farm-workers' advocacy organization Community to Community, calls farm workers the “frontline workforce” in this country’s food system. She thinks any holistic changes to the way Americans access our food should start with them. 

“I truly believe that the way to have a better food system is to address labor,” she says.

Guillen says farm workers have been advocating for workforce improvements since the movement exploded in the ’50s. She grew up on a Skagit County berry farm and became an organizer over 30 years ago.

Modesto Hernandez laughs as he prepares carne asada and tortillas for himself and other farm workers on Feb. 15, 2020.

“[There’s a] deep-rooted fundamental idea that the production of the food on the land has to be as [cheap] as possible,” Guillen says. “That's been the biggest challenge for farm workers since Cesar Chavez started organizing.”

In the past, farm workers pushed back against harsh working conditions by unionizing. Torres joined the farm-workers’ union Familias Unidas por la Justicia (United Families for Justice) when he grew tired of the abuses he says he faced when working for a Sakuma Brothers berry farm in Bellingham. He says the reasons were plenty: bad pay, unpaid breaks, constant exposure to pesticides. Torres and Hernandez have both seen elderly people and children working in the fields, too.

“I know a guy who’s almost 80 years old — he has to work, and his children do, too,” Hernandez says. “I wouldn’t let my dad work like that.” 

After Torres joined FUJ, he and other farm workers successfully negotiated a contract giving Sakuma Brothers Farms workers an average wage of $15 an hour in 2016. He’s now that union’s president. It was through Community to Community that Torres met Hernandez, who’d connected with the organization after his injury. 

But Guillen says that unions aren’t always the answer. While unions are one way to push back against an agricultural system that fails to care for its workers, a worker-owned cooperative business puts direct control back in the hands of the laborers themselves.

“Cooperatives are an alternative — almost like a transition into a different type of sustainability within the capitalist system that we live in,” Guillen says.

Typically, she says that farm workers are a “landless workforce.” 

“For the most part, most of us don't own property, not even our own homes,” Guillen says. Cooperatives allow them to “organize in a way that you know you're not going to exploit the land, yourself, other workers, and begin to change the local economy.”

There’s no magic recipe for creating a farming cooperative. Guillen says that different ones around the country mold themselves to fit the needs of individual communities. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, for instance, focuses on supporting declining Black-owned farmland in the South. 

Hernandez wasn’t able to work at the farms he used to after getting frostbite. But the cooperative gives him another chance to work and support himself in his field — this time in a place that accommodates his needs. Torres says Hernandez is no longer beholden to aggressive quotas: “He can do the work that he can.”

Ramon Torres takes a moment with his dog Lola while weeding around the blueberry bushes on the farm he runs with his business partner Modesto Hernandez, Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty Cooperative), on Feb. 3, 2020. Though the farm is still relying on grants and donations to function, its goal is to be financially self-sufficient and house other farm workers who will also own and work on the land.

Torres lights up when he talks about his planned vision for the cooperative. Owning land and starting to grow crops is just the beginning.

With proper funding, the two will recruit other farm workers to their cooperative. They’ll train them and give them an opportunity to rise in the ranks; eventually, they want up to five other farmers to live on farm property with their families and become co-owners, sustaining themselves on its profits. After that, they’d begin to form other cooperatives throughout the area. Torres says it’s a radical vision, but one he swears by.

“We’re sacrificing a lot to make this happen,” Torres admits. “Not all families can do that. All we have is faith and desire.” 

It was only seven years ago that Torres was working on the Sakuma Brothers farm. He came to the United States at 18 and began working on farms for the first time simply because it was the only job that would take him. He says many workers like him take what they can get, and any abuses they encounter are either normalized or endured.

For a long time, he couldn’t see beyond his eight-hour work days to the cooperative he’s envisioning now. He took the way the farm operated as a given. It’s only now that he looks back, incensed at the wages and treatment he’d once endured: “I thought that was normal for years, until I came here.”

“It shouldn’t be possible that I go out to pick watermelons and then I go home and I can’t buy any. It’s not fair. What kind of joke is that?” Torres says. “How does that make sense, that I have to work but I can’t pay for rent, I can’t pay for what’s most important?” 

Hernandez and Torres weeded for an hour that February morning before leaving the farm early to help another farm worker they know who’s had flooding in his house following the week’s heavy rains. They’re the only two full-time workers at the cooperative, but they’re hoping that’ll change soon. One day, they hope to have a cooperative with many locations and workers living on it — the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is an example, which now has members in several Southern states after beginning with one in Jacksonville, Mississippi. Other smaller cooperatives, like New Roots in Maine, focus on their cultural connection to farming. But large-scale cooperatives are still uncommon, and fewer still focus on Latin American immigrant farmers as does the Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad.

The two shed their farming overalls in the small building by the gate of the cooperative. On a table is a leftover bucket which they’d used to dole out portions of carne asada during their cookout the day before — Torres said that a handful of workers played music and unwound together on the farm after a day of work. It’s the way he thinks work should be: a job that leaves room for workers to be human. 

“I’d rather be here 10 hours than working in Sakuma for an hour,” Torres says. “[Now] I work because I want to.”

Modesto Hernandez, right, and Ramon Torres work on weeding around the blueberry bushes on their farm Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty Cooperative) on Feb. 3, 2020. 

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About the Authors & Contributors

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira is formerly a reporter for Crosscut, where she covered Native communities, the changing region and environmental justice.

Dorothy Edwards

Dorothy Edwards

Dorothy Edwards is formerly an associate photo editor at Crosscut.