Milwaukee-Area Farm Puts Costs & Labor Into Perspective

Sep 14, 2017

In our Full Plate series, Lake Effect has been exploring the many facets of agriculture, from city bee farms to the history of our state fair to how teaching agriculture to communities can help cities in the long run.

However, one topic that has made a resurgence in the news cycle, particularly with concerns about immigration and DACA, is migrant labor. Contributor Dave Kozlowski operates Pinehold Gardens in Oak Creek, a smaller farm that does not employ migrant labor. His operation can help put into perspective what running a farm exactly entails:

READ: Jesus Salas: A Lifetime Advocating for Migrant Workers' Rights in Wisconsin

As a produce farm, Pinehold has 40-50 different crops on about 16 acres of cultivatable land. "According to the USDA, we fit in with a little better than a third of the farms in the United States based on gross sales,"  Kozlowski explains.

Dave Kozlowski plants tomatoes in the greenhouse at Pineholds Gardens.
Credit Pinehold Gardens

From 5,000 acres to only 16, he says produce growing, in general, is labor intensive. Even with advances in technology, changing farming methods, and machinery, "it's still men mostly (and some women) in their 30s, a big chunk of them undocumented laborers, cutting the cabbages and picking the tomatoes and strawberries."

Kozlowski works approximately 3,000 hours a year - most of it spent in the field from mid-April through mid-October. Kozlowski, his wife Sandy Raduenz, and two seasonal employees do a majority of the labor, along with worker shares through Pinehold's Community Supported Agriculture Program in which members exchange labor for produce.

"Farmers tend to plan like pessimists, but plant like optimists."

While farming is a business and is about profit, he says that it is different from other businesses because it largely depends on nature as a variable. "Farmers in bad weather lose money, there's just no other way around it," Kozlowski states.

When planning a budget, Pinehold needs anywhere from $25,000-$30,000 to start up the season. This number typically includes costs for equipment maintenance and seeds for planting, according to Kozlowski.

"Farmers tend to plan like pessimists, but plant like optimists," he says. With nature and consumer habits being less than dependable, Kozlowski says each and every season is a game of chance - especially for small farmers.

"So far chemicals are cheaper than hands and labor, so a conventional farm's profit margin is going to be a little higher than an organic farm's. That's one reason why organic food costs a little more," explains Kozlowski.

He also notes that most farmers, including dairy farmers, have to take the price that the market gives them for food pricing. "In the case of produce farmers, particularly who sell direct, our market is really priced according to what people are willing to pay for," Kozlowski adds.

READ: Milk Prices 101

In order to keep costs manageable and turn a profit each season, Pinehold Gardens is diversified - selling to CSA members, restaurants, and to consumers.

Credit Pinehold Gardens

Without the worker share program through their CSA, Kozlowski says that hiring more workers or increasing wages would have a huge effect on their operations. However, when it comes to large farms and agribusiness who rely on migrant workers, such a change would not affect them - or the cost of food - as much as they would lead you to believe, he says.

"If the large California growers were to raise the wage of workers to $15 and hour, which is reasonable, it would increase the average consumer's food costs $21 a year. Nothing, basically," he says. "That's not quite the same for smaller farms, though. It will have a bigger impact on your business and profitability."

Instead of focusing on strictly the labor issue, Kozlowski says that our food operations as a whole should be reformed. He points to the example of Hurricane Harvey closing down one of the busiest ports in the country.

"The amount of food that we have in the pipeline is three days. If there is a cataclysmic something that happens in California or Mexico or Canada or China - we don't have a lot of resiliency in our food system," says Kozlowski.

"I wonder if we wouldn't be better off, if the consumer wouldn't be better off if we started thinking more on a regional basis than national or global."

Kozlowski says that if consumers really want to impact farm labor and the price of food, the "ball is in their court." Farmers will follow market and consumer trends in order to stay current and in business, so unless those factors change significantly, farming practices that reduces quality of food and quality of life for its laborers will continue.

"I should hope that eventually consumers would raise a voice and start wanting to see changes in the food system," he says.