Jim Cochran shares how he helped pioneer organic strawberry farming—and how he continues to work today to keep changing the industry for the better.
“I began my career as a farmer back in 1970 by helping former strawberry sharecroppers and farmworkers to form co-operatives in order to control their own destinies. By the late seventies, the co-ops had grown, and I went back to work for them for four years. At that time, the co-op members used conventional methods for growing strawberries.
“One day, I went out into a field before dawn to double-check that the helicopter had actually applied a pesticide as scheduled at about 4am. I didn’t smell anything until sunrise, when I began to feel the full effects of pesticide poisoning. It turns out that the pesticide was activated by sunlight. I was sick and shaking uncontrollably.
“This experience, along with many other day-to-day exposures, convinced me that I had to find another way to grow strawberries without using hundreds of pounds of dangerous pesticides on each acre of fruit. After all, the farmers and farmworkers were exposed to this stuff every day!
“But the co-op members felt that it was too risky to experiment with organic methods, since none of the commercial strawberry growers in the region—or in California—had grown a commercially viable crop of fresh market strawberries using organic methods. And the bank would not loan on an unproven, or long-lost farming method.
“So, that’s when I decided to try growing strawberries on my own, using my own money, and taking the risk myself. I started small.
“After figuring out how to make a living solely on a crop of organic strawberries, I turned my attention to figuring out how to improve the economic condition of the people who did most of the work, so that they, too, could make a living. In 1998, I took a big step in that direction by negotiating a contract with the United Farm Workers. It was a big leap of faith, because I would have to raise my prices. But my customers stuck with me!
“Today, I am gratified that the public is beginning to ask about the working conditions of the people who are bringing food to their table. It’s not just a matter of hourly wages, but also the overall work environment, as well as health and dental benefits, pension plans, vacations and holidays—all things that most workers expect to get with a full-time, year-round job. It costs a lot more money to farm this way, but I don’t see any point in farming organically without paying a proper wage and providing good benefits and working conditions. For 18 years now, the United Farm Workers has been my partner in making the farm a success for myself, my employees, and our customers. We all thank you!”
Jim Cochran uses his business to fight for healthy food and healthy workers. Earthjustice fights in court for these same principles. Our legal and policy work has removed dangerous pesticides from the shelf and helped create stronger worker protections for farmworkers. Will you join us?
Published on March 25, 2016.