10th Organic Producers’ Conference 27-28 January 2016

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 10.14.07Don’t miss the Organic Research Centre’s producer conference in Bristol next week; tickets still available for the Thursday! A whole strand of sessions have been organised by the OGA on vegetable and fruit production, plus plenty of sessions on soils, new entrants, profitability and other farming issues. I am organising a fringe session on labour on Wednesday evening, looking at the issues around using volunteer labour rather than skilled workers or trainees and apprentices – come and add your thoughts to the debate!


Is There Such A Thing As ‘Free Labour’?

kate_collynsI am currently trying to arrange a fringe session looking at volunteers, skilled labour and apprenticeships at the Organic Research Centre’s Producer Conference (27th-28th January 2016); mulling over several issues that I’ve been pondering all year. On the one hand, I did a two-year apprenticeship (see my Soil Association blog here), and know the value of training, experience and mentorship when it comes to training up people for a new career. On the other hand, as a grower runnning a (very) small business, the idea of someone a) working for free sounds great on the face of it, or b) already trained up and competent is also attractive, ie needing less management time or training. In reality, actual labour falls somewhere along this sliding scale, of ‘free’ labour or volunteers, through low-skilled but paid-for workers and trainees eager to learn more, to highly skilled and experienced (usually more expensive) paid labour.

There are pros and cons of each type of course. ‘Free labour’ or volunteers rarely exist as just that (and why should they?): the reasons why people volunteer are varied: some want to gain work experience or skills in the short or medium term; some are filling in time between jobs or other commitments short-term; others are retired or otherwise independently wealthy so happy to be involved in a project they believe in (could be short, medium or long term); plus many others in between. New volunteers will need managing, especially very inexperienced people who may do more harm than good to your crops or plot; this is time you could have spent more profitably elsewhere on your own. Overall however, I think volunteers can be a great thing; as long as you, the grower or manager, have the right expectations. This is the important bit. Volunteers will (and should) expect something in return I feel; whether it’s skills and experience, to then go on and become a skilled and paid worker; being part of a group; making contacts; simply enjoying the work and being good for the soul (in which case it’s an idea not to give them all the rubbish and monotonous jobs to do); getting food/board in return (usually while also learning too, such as Wwoof)… Whatever the ‘reward’ is other than money, it’s probably not a great idea to view volunteers as ‘free labour’, as this can lead to volunteers feeling used and undervalued; and not staying for long. Plus there is a danger that if an industry or business relies on volunteers, it’s not sustainable, and gives food-growing and farming a repuation of being non-essential, a lifestyle choice or hobby, rather than a fundamental need such as health and education (would we expect our schools and hospitals to be filled with volunteers?). Skilled, paid-for workers and businesses employing them could be undermined by too much free labour and go out of business.

Trainees and apprenticeships are essential in an industry where the average age of growers is in the 50s-60s; a local food system will not exist in a few decades unless we seriously increase new entrants. However new trainees and apprentices don’t always have much experience (that’s why they’re doing the apprenticeship doing, after all), and will need some management and mentorship. However as dedicated, paid-for labour, they are committed, enthusiastic and often pick up skills quickly. Plus they often cost less than already skilled or trained workers; but as paid-for workers they are usually more reliable than volunteers.

Highly skilled and experienced workers are of course great: they need little management, take on lots of responsibility, and are very productive. However they are (and should be) at the top end of the labour costs spectrum, so can be a difficult option for small businesses to choose when looking at budgets. Like many things, it comes down to time and money: have you enough time to manage or train volunteers or trainees, and even redo some of their work/mistakes? Or is your time too precious and valuable, in which case perhaps a skilled employee is a better option?

In an ideal world, it would be great to take on all three types of labour of course: having enough money to pay trained people well, freeing up some of your time to dedicate to training up the next generation of growers, and allowing anyone who wanted to volunteer to be part of the family too, who may then be inspired to sign up to an apprenticeship. This I think is the goal; the real challange is trying to work out which type or combination of types of labour will get us there.

While I’ll Be Voting Green

GreenI find it incredible that people still talk about a ‘wasted vote’. The only wasted vote is one that is not cast; literally wasted and non-existent. What’s the point of not voting? Democracy is the best system we have; not perfect, but the best workable model. Spoil your ballot paper if you must; or better still, if no party fits your world view, start your own; or convince your local candidate to take on your ideas and policies. Not voting just means you don’t have the right to have a say. Idiots.

A vote is saying what you think, what you believe in. It’s not asking you what you don’t believe in: ie a vote against a particular party. Tactical voting might be understandable when it comes to choosing the lesser of two evils; however I think this idea has bred the kind of negative politics we have at the moment. We complain that the main parties don’t seem to have a cohesive central philosophy, that they are simply chasing votes and crowbarring in random policies, making a piecemeal manifesto, rather than a strong central standpoint from which all other policies will naturally evolve. But if everyone did in fact vote for the candidate & party that they really did identify with, and for policies that they really would like to see happen – imagine that!

Perhaps the reason many people tend not to vote for the smaller parties they really believe in isn’t always because of tactics and trying to keep one major party out: perhaps it’s because we want to feel that our voice is being heard, and that voting for a likely winner means our voice is heard. But that’s a bit skew-whiff – either our 1 vote counts, in which case you can vote for anyone and it will carry the same weight; or it makes little difference to the numbers, in which case you can vote for whoever you want, and voting for a likely winner you don’t really believe in & doesn’t really need your vote is senseless.

When it comes to the thousands or people voting, your 1 vote might not count for very much in terms of the numbers returned – but the real difference is in the voter themselves. Of all the parties the Green Party is probably the most closely allied to my core beliefs: therefore, if I want a say, I should of course vote Green. If I vote for a larger party, that has some similarities with my beliefs, but many differences (such as not putting the environment paramount, from which a good health service, education, equality etc naturally follows), I can’t get too cross when they don’t always act in the way I’d like.

Perhaps another reason people tend not to vote for what they truly believe in is because they are scared: scared that if their desired party were to gain power, they would make mistakes and be ineffective, as all previous governments have been. Perhaps they think it’s better to have the moral high ground, and never put these beliefs to a practical test. But this is of course nonsense. I do have a lot of sympathy with the Lib Dems, since they were put in this position in the last election – compromising principles, in order to be pragmatic, and get at least some of the policies into legislation. Thanks to them, I now have a higher personal tax allowance, for example; which when on a grower’s income, is invaluable. But I think as voters we really do need to be brave, vote for what we truly belive in, and be prepared for our favoured candidates if elected to make mistakes and get it wrong; but gain experience and hopefully get some things right too. At least if we vote for what we really believe in, we then have the right to get honestly frustrated at whoever is in government. If you vote for anyone else, you forfeit that right, since you have been trying to play the system as much as the politicians.