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Organic Farming in America Labor Intensive

From the Field to the Table — The Journey of an Organically Grown Salad — I have always scoffed at the relatively high retail costs of organic produce in the USA. But this was before I began working on an organic farm in Maine. Before this experience, I had no idea how labor/ time intensive [...]

From the Field to the Table — The Journey of an Organically Grown Salad —

I have always scoffed at the relatively high retail costs of organic produce in the USA. But this was before I began working on an organic farm in Maine.

Before this experience, I had no idea how labor/ time intensive organic farming methods are. It seems as if this sort of farming is a colossal hark back to the days when men and women toiled in fields under hoe, weeding by hand, planted crops by squatting down and sticking them one by one into the earth, and doing just about everything without the noxious aid of any semblance of modern devices.

On a modern organic farm, man is again the machine; the beast of burden is yours truly. Physical, brute, by-hand labor is what puts the seeds in the fields, it is that which raises those seeds to planthood, and it is still that which retrieves the food once it has grown.

The Journey of a Salad: From the Field to the Table

Compost is continually collected and put into a large pile on an organic farm. This is the mother load of nutrition for the crops and for the soil. It is added to all the fields at the beginning of the farming season. The compost is collected and turned manually, though it is my impression that it is spread in the fields with a small tractor.

The salad — in this case mixed greens (i.e. mesclun, mustard greens, dandelion greens, and a few other greens) starts out as seeds placed in seed blocks: plastic containers. These seed blocks are then put into a greenhouse to grow into seedlings.

Once they grow into seedlings they are transplanted by hand into the fields. Sometimes hundreds of seedlings are transplanted in a day. In a long afternoon, I once helped plant by hand over a thousand small corn stalks.

The cultivator is one of the hand tools that we use to weed the fields

The fields are continuously maintained and weeded by hand and with hoes, cultivators, and roto tillers throughout the growing season.

Each leaf of the mustard is plucked by hand. Literally, pounds of these leaves are picked by hand every morning on The Farm

When ready, the greens are picked by hand. The mesclun is cut bunch by bunch with a small knife. The mustard and other greens are plucked by hand — leaf by leaf. All of the freshly picked leaves are put into boxes and carried from the fields to the barn.

washing-organic-vegetables

The salad greens then go through a double washing in two tubs in order to remove any soil, weeds, insects, or anything else that does not belong. This is all done by hand.

After being washed, the salad greens go through a tumbler in order to dry them a little. They are then re-boxed by hand and loaded onto a pickup truck. The truck then drives them out to organic retail outlets, restaurants, and farmer’s markets to be sold the same day they were picked from the fields.

The salad is then sold for approx. $10 a pound.

With the amount of labor that goes into commercial organic farming, the profit margin is sometimes difficult to grasp. No longer can I gasp with disgust at the price of organic produce, for I now know that nearly every dollar that goes into purchasing these organic products is put directly back into their production. From my experience of working on an organic farm in Maine, I must proclaim that it is not the farmers who are banking great amounts of cash off of the recent organic-everything boom in the USA.

It is safe to say that $10 a pound for a bag of salad greens is just about the amount of money needed to produce them.

organic-lettuce

Box of organic lettuce picked fresh from the field

Organic farming methods are highly labor intensive.

Vagabond Journey on organic farming in Maine

Filed under: Economics, Farming, Maine

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3411 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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9 comments… add one

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  • Baron July 16, 2009, 7:12 am

    Good post Wade.

    It’s always pissed me off to see the outragous prices for organics. I always figured the prices were “trend prices”. This was insightfull.

    I still have doubts though. Modern farming may not be as labor intensive, but there’s a lot of cost for machinery, maintenance, and fertalizers. So, your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to find work on a modern farm and write a comparison article.

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    • admin July 16, 2009, 3:45 pm

      I always thought the same thing as well. But I have been careful to calculate the money that I observe the farm bringing in and how much they pay out in worker salaries, and I cannot see how they make any sort of profit. I think the people who own the farm do it just because they love it . . . as they are not making much money.

      I will try to get a job on an industrial farm soon . . . just to see how they differ. Good suggestion.

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  • Russ July 16, 2009, 5:33 pm

    Wade, I personally am a big proponent of organics, and while I think there is some trendiness to it, I also think that when it comes to food quite often you get what you pay for. However, that said, do you think it is the fact that it is organic that makes it expensive, or the fact that it’s a small farm which uses manual labor rather than the “assembly line” approach like the bigger industrial farms do?

    I personally have always believed that in paying for organic products I am getting a better product and putting more money into the hands of the farm rather than big business, however now that organic is becoming trendy the industrial farming complex is cashing in on that, using their same industrial approach, just minus the pesticides and chemicals that are in other commercially farmed foods. So I would imagine that in these cases they really are just charging a premium for the organic label because they can, even though their labor costs are much less than those of the small farms.

    But I do agree that these small organic farms aren’t in it for the money, they are in it because they believe in what they are doing. So it is good to know when I buy these products from these small farms for a higher price that it is helping cover their costs. Farming is a hard life and it is actually kind of sad that it can’t pay better, there are probably a number of places like this that just throw in the towel since they can’t make ends meet.

    As an aside, my brother worked on a dairy farm in CT many years ago, and it was the same deal there, the guy who owned it was up at 5AM every day busting his butt all day long, and ironically he was able to make more money selling plots of his land to developers than he actually did by farming.

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    • admin July 18, 2009, 7:54 pm

      Russ,

      Your points are very right on. Especially about the big farms turning towards organic but keeping much of their production systems the same. I asked the farmer a lot of questions yesterday based off of some of your assertions here . . . and he basically said that organic farming is more of a philosophy — an approach — than a method or system.

      It is a philosophy of quality in all aspects of production, and I agree, organic produce is a lot better.

      Thanks for this great comment,

      Wade

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  • TS Gordon August 8, 2009, 5:25 pm

    I’ve been composting for, humm, well, since 1968. Just a few days ago I signed on to sell a line of organic fertilizer products, made by Ray Neilsen in Florida. My ‘tests’ are inconclusive, but I learned a VERY important principle worth sharing. Make sure to use your (green) grass-layered composts for the plants that require up-shoot, and use your (brown) fungal-based composts for those plants that grow slowly, like trees and shrubs.

    “Total” when applied 1Gal per acre, is higher in fungal support than it is in bacteriological. This makes it Excellent for mushrooms, azeleias, blueberries, and fruit trees. We saw great first-application results on orchids (not my specialty) and almost NO up-shoot support for the vegetables. In short, it uses fish emulsion, builds-in major micronutrients and would be ideal in conjunction with a cow-manure compost mix.

    ‘Soil Science’ is not a particularly pretty dinner table discussion toipc, but it is of VITAL civic importance. Today, hardly anyone here in the US ‘farmland’ actually maintains a simple household garden. Obviously, things are changing for the better, but as this article shows, it’s starting to a story of too little, too late!

    Seek, and purchase “Certified Natural” products, as this is a great new baseline-standard which enables neighbors and friends to be the judge of Your produce, -NOT ‘C.O.’ which can be rescended at the whim of the *Monsanto-approved* clowns at the USDA and the FDA.

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  • Joe Vittale August 29, 2009, 10:42 am

    bobcat tractor

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  • Jack March 18, 2010, 12:40 pm

    Thanks for the great post!

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  • Amar Bahadur Gurung December 17, 2012, 10:55 pm

    Dear Sir/Madam.

    I am Amar Bahadur Gurung ,

    Form Kathmandu, Nepal,

    i am Work in Farm sheep in my village in Taksar. 2001 to 2005 i am now work
    on farming in kathmandu, Nepal, i one to like work in Your framing in sheep. i am
    part time work in Draive in framing tukter, + vane, and car

    .i am fast work in my vilage in sheep. 4 years, now i am work in kathmandu
    farm.. my 1 Friend hi is also work in my farm. me and my friend job apply
    your farm. your send me informant.

    your send me any fram sheep job vacancy i am apply job for your farm.

    Thank You

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