In this still relatively new century, labor rights in the United States—the right to a living wage, the right to safe working conditions, the right to fair labor practices, the right to work-life balance, the right to professional development—are not ubiquitous. Profit-driven corporations continue to create divides between haves and have-nots. Profits are not realized in a vacuum—in order to generate profits, a company must leverage intellectual capital, ecological capital, and human resources capital, all visible and quantifiable elements within a supply chain.
During the farming seasons of 2018-2020, the RMFU Cooperative Development Center and UpRoot Colorado collaborated to create and test a mobile farm workforce, which was envisioned to become a year-round service owned by the ag laborers themselves. During this pilot project, it became evident that there was a great demand from landowners for general farm labor but also that there were many other services needed and desired by farmers and ranchers. Accounting, marketing and sales, food safety plans, and legal services—to name a few—were cited by landowners in personal interviews about desired services. Gleaned from these interviews the RMFU center drafted a business proposition for a professional agricultural worker services cooperative.
In 2021, we invited a group of service providers to discuss several organizational models and determine their viability. An orientation session was held for prospective worker members. A steering committee was formed and has met to discuss the needs of the producers and the needs of the workers. Although recruitment of workers lagged, and the project stalled during the pandemic the demand for agricultural workers in our three-state area continues to disrupt the production of Colorado farmers and ranchers.
Post-pandemic, farmers and ranchers in our three-state region continue to struggle to attract and maintain qualified agricultural workers. The current H2A
program does not support the labor needs of small- to mid-scale farmers and ranchers in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Developing a professional agricultural worker-owned cooperative of skilled members will fill the unique labor needs of rural farmers and ranchers. Allowing worker-owners to scale up their skills and invest in a worker-ownership model will create a more dignified and stable environment. This is in contrast with a system where laborers are often exploited, and farmers and ranchers are left without reliable labor and therefore unable to scale up their operations to meet market demand.
During 2022-2023, the RMFU Center partnered with the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center who brings in expertise and an excellent track record with worker co-op development and assistance, including for the Spanish-speaking population of Colorado communities and a variety of immigrant and minority groups. Our combined experience with worker co-ops and connections to underserved communities will provide a platform from which to focus on rural economic and workforce development. We expect to see results of the professional agricultural worker-owned and governed feasibility study by the end of 2023, where the question is answered with respect to whether the agricultural worker-owned model idea has merit and value. Go or no go, we continue to make progress in addressing the labor needs of small family farmers and ranchers in Colorado.
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