Small farms & labor laws

I’ve written before about our insistence on doing everything above the table here, including paying our employees. We don’t accept regular free labor and make sure everyone has an I-9 and records of pay in compliance with IRS policy. We also don’t take unpaid interns. Many small farms around the country do operate outside labor laws, whether intentionally or otherwise, and take a serious risk in doing so, both legal and liability-related. Here’s an excellent article from California that demonstrates why we’re such sticklers for this.

The state Department of Industrial Relations has conducted inspections of at least nine Marin County farms in the past two years, resulting in two citations and one fine. Another farm, County Line Harvest on the Marin-Sonoma border, received an $18,000 fine for labor law violations in February…

State labor officials insist they haven’t been targeting organic farms specifically, and that their criteria for farm employment is no different from that used for any other business. “If people are willing to work for less than society says is necessary, that has an impact on wages and protections in that industry as a whole,” said Carl Borden, associate counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “In addition, if you have a farmer complying with those regulations – at considerable expense – that puts that farmer at a competitive disadvantage with another farmer who is not complying with those requirements.”

Though this is a difficult issue, I tend to think the above quote is right. Farms are businesses like any other, and need to operate within the law. If the law is changed to reflect the unique situations faced by small farms, great. We can all lobby for that if desired. But until then we’re not special. And it often gets on our nerves to see other farms cutting corners that we don’t cut, and getting a competitive advantage from it (such as selling cheese under the table, not remitting sales tax, or not paying workers properly). Another good quote:

“Small organic farms seem to have a particular mindset about the righteousness of their cause, and maybe they just don’t think about such a thing as the employment laws covering their operation,” Borden said. “Some of them said, ‘This is the way we’ve been doing it, and if we had to treat interns as employees and comply with these standards, we wouldn’t be able to stay in business.’ But that’s the cost of doing business. If they can’t compete that way, then they can’t be in that particular business.”

It does seem harsh to take that stance, and it does make farming that much more difficult. But the proper answer to this sort of barrier is not to ignore the law, or to assume it doesn’t apply to you, but to (a) work to change it if necessary, and (b) be creative and entrepreneurial about how you approach the problem. The latter is how we developed our paid-in-products employment model that meets IRS and state labor standards while not creating a serious cash-flow problem.

At the end of the day, the rule of law is part of what makes this country so stable and worth living in. None of us are so special that we should operate outside the law, no matter how righteous the cause. And I can only hope that by being responsible business owners and trying to do the right thing, we’ll be rewarded in the end with more security, not punished with unfair competition.

That being said, I’ll happily acknowledge that when rules and laws are written or interpreted in truly absurd or impractical ways, it becomes that much harder to expect compliance with them. The first case in the article is an excellent example; shared family labor should be an obvious difference from outside help. This is, I suspect, what turns many people away from faith in government; it’s not just the complication or expense of laws, it’s their evident absurdity or unfairness in many cases.

There are so many laws, at so many levels, and through so many different divisions of government, that it’s really quite hard to be educated about all of them. All it takes is one person from one department finding one thing you didn’t comply with or know about, and they can nail you for it, but there’s really no credit given for good-faith efforts to comply. And there are some really obscure, pointless laws out there. Take, for example, this gem from the City of Columbia’s code, attempting to exempt market farmers selling within city limits from needing a city business license (section 13-29):

The terms of this article shall not be held to include persons selling for nonresident, bona fide wholesale establishments to retail dealers in the city, nor to milkmen, ice men or newsboys whose employers have been duly licensed by the city, nor shall it include or apply to farmers or producers or any employee of any farmer or producer who offers for sale or sells, or who peddles from house to house or in any market, fruits, vegetables or garden products produced and grown by such farmer or producer from lands cultivated by him within the state; however, every such farmer or producer who claims exemption from the license requirements of this article shall file with the business license administrator a certificate under oath, setting forth the full legal description of the land upon which such farm or garden products are produced and grown, and which certificate is certified to by the county assessor of the county in which such land is located; and, all attractions, devices, races or exhibitions under direct contract with the Boone County Agricultural and Mechanical Association (Boone County Fair) are exempt.

Any bets on how many farmers at either market have properly filed a certificate of location? The sad thing is, we called the City years ago (before we found this charming piece of ’30s nostalgia) to ask if we needed a business license for our market farm. We were breezily told that no, farms didn’t need licenses. Nothing about the above rule. Unfortunately, some bureaucrat could come after us for this someday, and we can’t claim ignorance of the law even though we were told otherwise by a city representative.

There’s no penalty for mistakes on the government end, only on the private business end. They can give out all the misinformation they want, but we’ll be the ones paying the fine if it ever happens. Revenue departments work the same way; we’ve been given many different answers on certain business tax questions, but will still get in the same amount of trouble if we get it wrong.

The whole system is screwy.

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