Labor and Fair Trade


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Understanding Domestic Fair Trade for Agriculture of the Middle

Even though market demand for regionally-grown food is relatively strong, farmers remain price takers rather than price makers in most supply chains. Indicators of success for regional food production include labor availability, fair working conditions and adequate income for all who move food from field to market, particularly hired labor. Given the labor shortage in agriculture, what can be done to improve labor conditions and wages? Fair trade may offer strategies for securing labor for values-based supply chains, especially if market relations and public policies can support regional food production.

The UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) led a participatory effort to better understand labor issues on small- and medium-scale farms involved in local and regional food systems. In addition to UW-Madison researchers representing diverse fields of study (economics, sociology, human ecology, law and anthropology), project partners include the UW-Extension School for Workers, Wisconsin Farmers Union, the Domestic Fair Trade Association, the Labor Network for Sustainability, national and international labor experts, and family farmers. This project builds on and expands the work of the Agriculture of the Middle project by exploring fair trade strategies for values-based supply chains, especially for mid-scale farms. It is funded by the USDA-NIFA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI).

Participatory research

Our research aimed to understand domestic fair trade activities and clarify opportunities to develop a values-based labor market and income stream for regional food production. We did this through participatory research, by investigating efforts to improve fair labor practices and applying lessons learned from the global fair trade experience. Mid-scale farms and food businesses are organizing to address these issues, and we engaged them in the research process to ensure that our work was grounded in real-world concerns. Our research team explored certification, negotiation, coalition building, and public policy strategies to ensure a fair return on labor and good working environments.

Communicating results

The team investigated ways that farmworkers, farmers and their supply chain partners are innovating to achieve a fair return on labor and just working conditions in the food and agriculture sector, and documented findings:

We aim to get the results of this project out to the organizations and people who can put them to work. Our communications strategy includes publications for both grassroots and research audiences. Team members have given numerous presentations at Domestic Fair Trade Association (DFTA) conferences.

The project is part of CIAS’s programmatic commitment to regional food systems research. For more information, contact Michelle Miller, 608-262-7135,