Building Non-Violent Agricultural Economies

What We Have Inherited:

A Violent Agriculture – 21st century agriculture in Washington has tried its best to mimic the type of agricultural development that defined 20th century industrialized agriculture in California. Contrary to public relations marketing campaigns, few agricultural corporations practice this type of large-scale, vertically integrated (controlling the agricultural commodity from seed to market) organization of production. The nature of this violent monopoly agriculture is to concentrate most of the wealth generated by these commodities in the hands of a few powerful growers.

Like most extractive industries, this unsustainable form of agriculture has been market driven. In an effort to compete on a global scale, agri-corporations tend towards a monoculture plantation organization of production. This large-scale intensive type of agriculture requires large amounts of temporary labor. Because of the demand upon this large temporary labor force to produce large quantities in a short amount of time, it is an organization of production that throughout history has led to worker uprisings. In the United States there have been historical precedents to the type of agriculture that is dominating the current political economy of Washington State:

  1. Southern Plantation Agriculture:


    Linda Alchin – Cotton Slave Plantation in the Southern Colonies, N.D.

    Paul S. Taylor argues that plantation agriculture in the United States was much more extensive than we have been led to believe. The image of the plantation as “a large agricultural enterprise run by a white-skinned operator called the planter, using numerous Negro slaves to grow cotton, rice, indigo, sugar or tobacco on great landholdings in southern States”(Taylor, 1954, 9) describes only a small portion of the diverse systems of agriculture utilized.

    Taylor argues that, “the notion that the plantation system depends on slavery was never true.”(Ibid, 142) Which he supports with the evidence that, “the rise of slavery followed rather than proceeded the beginnings of plantation agriculture” in the production of cotton for example (Ibid, 142-143). This is similar to the introduction of African slaves to the Caribbean by the English after the production of sugar cane rose and consumption of sugar developed in the colonies (Mintz, 1985, 43-47).

    In the United States, the plantation system of agriculture was established in Virginia in the 17th century based on indentured servitude (Taylor, 1954, 143). Slavery, on the other hand was not legally practiced until the eighteenth century (Ibid). The rise of industrialization in the U.S. was accelerated by wage-labor freed via the imperial acquisition of the northern half of Mexico after the Mexican-American War and the opening of a massive market in California via the discovery of gold in 1849. This was followed by the intensification of the class struggle in the form of slave rebellions, banditry and colonial conflicts in the United States, which by the mid-eighteenth century led to a civil war and the emancipation of southern slaves.

    At this moment of economic crisis, “southern planters were obliged to seek another labor system” (Ibid, 143). As they were “denied the right of holding slaves, they turned quickly to…sharecropping and wage labor” (Ibid).

  2. The Dust Bowl Disaster:


    Source: U.S. National Archives

    The introduction of large scale monoculture farming to Mid-Western prairies coupled with the tecnological advancement of mechanization that allowed for deep plowing of large tracts of land led to extreme erosion due to dust storms and by extension the massive loss of crops due to severe drought in the 1930s.

    Situated within the context of the Great Depression, it is estimated that over 100,000,000 acres of farmland were affected in the Dust Bowl region of Oklahoma and Texas as well as parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. Leading to the second largest internal human migration since the gold rushes of the West Coast a century earlier. Over 500,000 were left homeless due to a severe storm in 1935 and it is estimated that 3,500,000 people moved from the plains states to California.

  3. California, Great Exception No More


    Source: UC Davis Repository, 2004

    Walter Goldschmidt (1949) was the primary critic of what he considered the “social consequences of agribusiness” which Devra Weber summarizes for the larger 20th century as consisting of: “wages below the poverty level; abysmal housing and working conditions; the painful human toll recorded in the high rates of sickness and death and the short life expectancy; child labor and the attendant low education rates” (Weber 1994, pg. 2). McWilliams described the massive industrialization of California Agriculture as the “Great Exception” that resulted in the “rape of the public domain” by land monopolies and the intensification of monoculture.

    California, unlike other parts of the U.S., “has been hurtled forward, rocket-fashion, by a series of chain-reaction explosions” (McWilliams, 1949, 25). As Carey McWilliams argues, what makes California the great exception began with the discovery of gold “just nine days before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed” (Ibid). This accelerated the settlement of California and accomplished in a few months, “what Imperial Spain had been unable to accomplish in three centuries” (Ibid). This acceleration continued with the development of mining, the extraction of oil and other natural resources, and the accelerated development of capitalist agriculture that made use of the readily available labor.

    Land tenure was another major factor in the accelerated development of capitalist agriculture in California. Being that California was a part of Mexico before 1848 the hacienda system in the form of expansive cattle ranches had already centralized the ownership of land in California. This facilitated the large purchase of land in California by land speculation and fraud, in effect circumventing the goals of the Homestead Act of 1862. According to Walter Goldschmidt,

    The massive holdings acquired during the last century are not, of course, still operated as single farms. But their former existence had certain direct and specific effects. The first of these was to create a pattern or tradition of large landholdings and tenure relationships which has dominated California’s agricultural scene. The second was to create a demand for cheap labor which, once supplied, came to be capitalized into the value of the land itself. The third was to make the lands subject to speculation and speculative prices, and such prices have regularly constituted a burden upon the working farmer who attempted to wrest a livelihood from the soil (Goldschmidt, 1947, 8).

    These three components of land tenure created very quickly the conditions necessary for the centralization of land ownership and propelled the development of agricultural production in California towards intensification.

    Irrigation paved the way for the completion of that intensification of agricultural production and for that matter, the entire western coast of the United States (Taylor and Vasey, 1936, 283).

    According to Paul Taylor and Tom Vasey,

    The intensification of agriculture accounts not only for the large percentage of farm laborers in California; it is responsible, also, for the long line of immigrant nationalities which have played so large a role in the agriculture of the state (Ibid, 289).

    Lloyd Fisher argues that there is considerable evidence that the volume and character of the supply of agricultural labor-power in California was a major driving force that allowed for the intensification of capitalist agriculture (Fisher, 1953, 4). Even so, California could not escape the limits of capitalist agriculture in regards to labor as worker struggles in California’s agricultural belt generated, “conflicts which are at times of violent intensity”(Taylor and Vasey, 1936, 295).

    The “bloody shirt” that Carey McWilliams alluded to was the violent expulsion of the Chinese people in the 1880s. This was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to the violence experienced in the fields of California as multiple class struggles emerged and continue even to this day between agricultural workers and their employers, in particular during periods of capitalist crisis (McWilliams, 1949, 183).


    Anti-Chinese Riots, Illustrated in Harpers Weekly, 1886.

    In California, the Chinese were replaced by the Japanese, who were then made prisoners of war confined to concentration camps during World War II, and finally the labor-power of colonial holdings made their appearance in larger numbers from Mexico and the Philippines.

    Were it not for climate change, California would likely continue this vicious cycle of expulsion and foreign recruitment. By all means, the Obama Administration has accomplished the removal of over 200,000,000 immigrants during his terms as President of the United States of America.

    Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 8.41.58 AM

    This type of violent agriculture has been unsustainable due to predatory over-use of soils in California coupled with the lack of water due to drought. This mode of production has been artificially extended due to chemical technologies and by the hydraulic piping of water in from great distances that stresses the economic stability of the entire North American Pacific rim.


    We are already seeing the effects of climate change in the global South where in labor sending communities in Mexico, “due to a greater incidence of heavy percipitation and the damage to crops this entails, it is anticipated that employment in the agricultural sector will be adversely affected, especially seasonal jobs that depend on harvesting and crop-processing” (Rosemberg 2010). Laura Elena Ruiz Meza, for example links the decrease of employment opportunities in Southern Mexico due to climate change to increased migrations. (Ruiz 2010).


    Internal to the United States, it appears that over the last decade, the internal migration of displaced hispanic, mostly Mexican farm workers has drastically changed the demographics of the U.S. South and Mid-West, and continues to steadily grow in the Pacific Northwest and along the northern border.

  4. Washington following the footsteps of California.


    Washington Apple Pickers, Photo by Bob Brawdy, 2011

    In 2007, Washington State’s farmers and ranchers produced $8.3 billion in food and agricultural products. This places the Evergreen State as the 12th largest producer in the United States. 

Nearly $9.3 billion in food and agricultural products were exported through Washington ports in 2007, the third largest total in the U.S. The figure includes agricultural commodities, primarily grains, from other states exported from Washington.

    Des O’Roarke observed that apples, milk and wheat were the top crops in Washington exceeding $100 million in revenue in 2006, and they had been the top crops since at least the early 1980s according to state authorities (O’Roarke 2006). By 2006, Washington became the top producer of apples, sweet cherries and red raspberries (among other crops) in the entire United States producing over 40% of the national production of these crops (Ibid).

    O’Rourke found that “85% of farms in Washington were owned by individuals or families,” and of these “6.3 percent were organized as partnerships and 7.6 percent as corporations” in 2002 (Ibid). O’Rourke also found that as more farms came to produce specialized agricultural commodities a trend towards increased integration was also emerging that was “both horizontal and vertical”(Ibid). He cited the move by land extensive farmers to diversify the crops they produced on their land and the move by both packinghouses into production and fruit producers into the packing industries much as has been well documented in California. The result O’Rourke argues, is that “the volume and value of sales of many Washington commodities have become concentrated in increasingly fewer, larger entities” further this, “concentration is likely to continue as producers face increased pressure from major retailers” (Ibid 6).

    In 2006, Washington exported $6.72 billion worth of food and agricultural products, an increase of 74% since 2002, when agricultural exports were $3.87 billion. 

About two-thirds of all farm exports are destined for Asia. Washington ports are the closest mainland U.S. ports to Asia. Japan, China, Canada, Taiwan, and South Korea are the top five markets for Washington agricultural products. 

As the result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and declines in the Asian market, Canada has become Washington’s second largest market.

    According to the 2012 agricultural census only 6,102 farms made over $100,000 in sales. Because of the disproportionate accumulation of wealth, the average net income of a farm in Washington was $633,039, while the average farm production cost per farm was $210,436. The vast majority of these type of farms in Washington State, over 80 percent, were smaller than 200 acres. Yet even though small-scale farmers persist in numbers, their political power has diminished as large-scale growers and agri-corporations began to control seed and the supply chain.

    A Violent Agriculture


    Farmworkers at Sakuma Bros Farms, c. 2004

    Over the last decade, Community to Community Development has been been documenting the violence of industrialized agriculture along the northern coast of Washington and patiently building an alternative.

    Of immediate recollection within the past few years include:

    1. A farm worker losing his feet to frostbite;

    2. A farmworker family being torn apart due to racial profiling along the northern border;

    3. The continued sexual harassment of women in the fields;

    4. Violations by corporate berry growers of child labor laws;

    5. And a large corporate berry grower violating the Clean Water Act.

    All of these recent events paint a grim picture of the current level of violence perpetuated upon Mexican farm workers and upon the earth at the hands of the captains of industrialized agriculture along Washington’s Northern Coast.

    The Northern Coast is a region were small-scale farms still out-number the larger growers, however the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture indicates that 96% of the wealth generated by the sale of berries was concentrated in the hands of 15% of all berry growers in Washington State. (Agricultural Census 2012 Washington State County Level Data). Large growers by far have imposed the most violence upon farm workers and the earth causing an extreme disconnect between the growers, the farm workers, and the environment.

    In the context of campaign finance reform and the rise of corporate personhood, political power has been violently stripped from the hands of small-scale growers and the general public. This concentration of political power in the hands of a few extremely wealthy, vertically integrated corporate growers has led to the further marginalization of farm worker families and is leading to their ultimate displacement through the encouragment by special interest labor contracting organizations such as the (Washington Farm Labor Association) for large-scale growers to utilize a loop-hole left over from the Immigration and Nationality Act to access temporary guest workers in times of crisis.

    The H-2 program had been created in 1943 in order to hire Caribbean sugar cane workers in Florida (see H2 Worker. The program was revised in 1986 via the Immigration Reform and Control Act dividing it into the H-2A and H-2B program.

    The guestworker program was originally designed for use in times of crisis, such as the recession of 2007-2009. The detention and deportation of over 2,000,000 undocumented workers between 2009 and 2014 artificially perpetuated this labor crisis beyond the recession.

    In Washington, political power in the hands of a few growers and special interest groups has led to the informal institutionalization, via heavy lobbying by organizations such as WAFLA and growers organizations, to seek H-2A workers in a manner beyond its original intent.

    Immigration enforcement policy, much like California during the 20th century, was increasingly influenced by a strong corporate grower lobby, that continued to make record profits from bumper crops in Raspberries and Apples, while having an ever-growing presence and financial influence in the State Capitol and in Washington, D.C.

    These lobby efforts culminated in what came to be known as The Washington Compact for a comprehensive immigration reform bill S-744, which if passed would have fully institutionalized and expanded the guest worker program into a W-Visa that would have extended the availability of guest workers beyond agriculture to new industries including construction, hospitality, processing and light manufacturing and exponentially increase the amount of high-tech guest workers to the United States.

    These changes would have greatly increased the power and income potential of vertically integrated corporate growers at the expense of small farmers and would completely displace the current domestic agricultural labor force.

    In Washington, because of aggressive lobby organizations such as the Washington Farm Labor Association, we are already experiencing the displacement of entire communities. In the Wenatchee Valley where Washington Farm Labor Association has most of their H-2A contracts. Foreign guest workers from Indonesia, Jamaica, and Mexico have displaced long settled Mexican farm workers who have had to settle elsewhere. This trend has spread to packing houses in the area as well, recently an estimated 800 people were notified that they were going to be laid off due to an I-9 audit (Hundreds face layoffs after immigration audit of Cashmere firm). WAFLA’s aggressive approach of marketing labor contracting as the only answer to stabilizing the agricultural labor force has resulted in this displacement.

    This type of violent and voracious system of industrialized agriculture is unsustainable precisely because it is breaking the fabric of our rural communities. It is for this reason that we have been working for a long-term and structural just transition towards a local solidarity economy based upon cooperative principles and domestic fair trade.

Our Alternatives:

A Just Transition toward a Non-Violent Agriculture: By linking Climate Change and Labor, “worldwide, trade unions have developed a point of view on the issue that is encapsulated by the concept of ‘Just Transition’, the notion that the transition process to a greener economy has to be inclusive of all stakeholders, and that the unavoidable employment and social costs of the transition have to be shared by all” (Cunniah 2010, p.122).

There is no sustainable future for Whatcom County that excludes farm workers and their families as stakeholders, this is also a basic tenent of Domestic Fair Trade.

Domestic Fair Trade: The concept of Domestic Fair Trade brings the vision and goals of the fair trade movement into the context of the United States. Our participation and leadership in the Domestic Fair Trade Association brings the following into practice in our relations with other stakeholders including small farmers, farm workers, labor organizations and civil society.

The mission of the DFTA is to insure that the following standards are met in order to be considered fair trade:

  • Contributions of all workers and farmers are valued
  • Human rights and human dignity are affirmed and promoted
  • Fair Trade is synonymous with fair wages, fair prices, and fair practices
  • Risks and rewards are equitable and shared, and this information is open and available to all stakeholders
  • Information is readily available on the origin, processing, and distribution of every product
  • All practices are environmentally, economically, and socially just, sustainable, and humane
  • Direct trade and long-term relationships dominate the economy
  • Strong local communities are the foundation of society
  • Power is shared; development is community-driven and cooperative
  • Cultural and indigenous rights and diversity are recognized, honored, and protected.

Community to Community’s broad base farm worker membership has participated in developing the vision and direction of the DFTA which functions on a national level. On the local level, we seek to build our relationship with small-scale farmers through the introduction of farm worker cooperative farms to Whatcom County. One cooperative farm lasted a total of three years before becoming a private Mexican farm worker owned enterprise, and a new cooperative farm, Finca Esperanza is in the incubation stage.

Cooperatives: We imagine building upon long term relationships between small-scale farmers, farm worker families and the diverse rural communities through the practice of basic cooperative principles. We plan to shift the culture of this region by building a local solidarity economy where worker and consumer cooperatives make up at least 15% of the economy by 2020. Cooperatives function independently based upon the following cooperative principles:

Cooperative Principles

  1. Voluntary and Open Membership
  2. Democratic Member Control
  3. Members’ Economic Participation
  4. Autonomy and Independence
  5. Education, Training and Information
  6. Cooperation among Cooperatives
  7. Concern for the Community

Community to Community Development has been able to foster several farm worker and immigrant cooperatives over the years and is currently in the process of building a Cooperative Training Center named after the first catering cooperative that was found which happens to be named after a Solidarity Economy Umbrella Cooperative in Porto Allegre, Brazil named Las Margaritas.

Following the model of Las Margaritas in Brazil, the Cooperative Training Center will house cohorts of women-led and farm worker led cooperatives that will build the foundation of Whatcom County’s Solidarity Economy.

The Solidarity Economy: The “Solidarity Economy framework is a grassroots approach to economic and social transformation, rooted in the belief that the best solutions come from collective knowledge and wisdom” (Transforming the Economy from the Ground Up). The solidarity economy seeks to provide an alternative to the unsustainable economies that have remained over the centuries that have influenced the development of agriculture described above, that are based upon slavery, feudalism, theft, alienated and unwaged labor, and mass accumulation.

The Solidarity Economy is a grassroots alternative to Capitalism and is based upon the following values:

  1. Social and Economic Democracy: Universal rights to education, sick and parenting leave, health care, child care, care for the elderly and access to technology are assured through public means rather than private control. These rights also include decision-making and ownership of one’s economic future through such mechanisms as collective bargaining and worker-ownership.
  2. Cooperation and Shared Power: Ownership and decision-making power must be shared across communities, all people and businesses; collaboration among different sectors and communities is essential.
  3. Equity and Justice in All Dimensions: We do not have a level playing field, and thus need to strive for freedom from discrimination while addressing historical and current institutional and cultural oppression in all aspects of life.
  4. Democratic Participation: Everyone should have the ability to participate in the economic, social and political decisions that impact one’s life.
  5. Sustainability: Clean air, water, and land should be for all people and living things—not privatized for control by a few. All decisions should be guided by the responsibility of care for the earth and her resources.
  6. Pluralism and Organic Approach: Replace a one-size-fits-all approach with one that allows people directly affected in their communities to identify and develop flexible strategies that meet their needs.

We believe that another world is not only possible, but is already here as posited by Arundhati Roy. Community to Community Development has made considerable headway towards making a solidarity economy a reality, beginning in Whatcom County and moving outward.

Our proposal:


To make rural Whatcom county a a beacon of hope within the United States: Following the example of Detroit Summer in Detroit, Michigan; the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement of Jackson, Mississippi; and the Movement of Landless Workers (MST) of Brazil. Community to Community Development has worked hard to give farm workers access to land; create a local democratic process that re-integrates farm workers; and to foster women’s leadership by being explicitly women led and by following an eco-feminist approach.

As was the case for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement of Jackson, Mississippi part of the work at hand was to build inroads into building community across difference by hosting People’s Movement Assemblies. In Jackson the MXGM chapter was able to create policy initiatives to increase local food and food security in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita as well as increasing local representation via the electoral system and the adoption of a progressive policy agenda. We do this as a recognized organization of the World Social Forum and US Social Forum and participation in Grassroots Global Justice.

Community to Community has used the Domestic Fair Trade Association to build inroads into the local small-scale farmer community and has becoming a Worker Center affiliated with the Interfaith Worker Justice Worker Center Network in order to build stronger relationships and partnerships with the local faith community.

How we plan to do it:


Steps to Building a Whatcom County Local Solidarity Economy:

  1. Political and popular education that deconstructs the current reality while envisioning a new system and enterprises for the present and future.

    Community to Community has run a series of political, legal and social justice campaigns in order to deconstruct discriminatory practices in our community.

  2. Resisting and organizing against destructive policies and practices.

    The Campaign to End Racial Profiling was formed to create a more accountability within the local legal and law enforcement systems. Community to Community has also provided solidarity support to local farm worker struggles who have self-organized into their own independent union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia in order to stop many of the abuses described in the beginning of this article.

  3. Developing and advocating for progressive policies and practices to create a legal framework that supports alternative infrastructures on local, national and international levels.

    Community to Community Development’s participation in the Dignity Campaign, to provide a people’s alternative to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform proposed by corporate special interest groups.

  4. Developing infrastructure, transformative models and Solidarity Economy enterprises on all scales.


    The launch of the Las Margaritas Cooperative Training Center is our contribution towards creating the transformative model in our community for a Solidarity Economy that will consist of multiple cooperatives, many of which we hope will be farm worker and immigrant led. Together we will forge a path along with local small farmers to strengthen our rural community and build a non-violent agricultural economy.

    Organizing for a new economy comes not just from resisting or protesting against a system or industry, but from creating entirely new and alternative paths to ensure the livelihood and sustainability of our communities and the people that build that community (The Praxis Project 2014)

    Join us as we move forward with this important work.


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