By Esther Chong
The sun rose above the quiet two acre farm in Blaine, Wash. Ramon Torres, Edgar Franks and Pedro Torres of Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad, wandered through rows of blueberry bushes. Gently gathering blueberries to distribute to both Bellingham Community Food Co-op locations.
Their vision is to set a standard; pesticide free, humane working conditions, and localizing economies. “This is an important cooperative to set an example to other farmworkers to be your own boss,” Torres said. He hopes that the cooperative will inspire farmworkers to organize and to put decisions in their hands.
With help from local advocacy group, Community to Community Development, their vision became a reality. Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad, the Land and Liberty Cooperative, is a farmworker owned cooperative. They took matters into their own hands to bring power back to the people.
Torres worked in Skagit County for Sakuma Brothers which supplied their produce to California’s berry giant, Driscoll Berries. He said he watched his employers disregard the health of the people who made the business thrive. Unpaid breaks, exposure to harmful pesticides, and very low wages to just name a few.
In response, they organized a farmworkers a union, Familias Unidas por La Justicia, Families United for Justice, to demand fair treatment from their profit driven employers. They took took on agriculture hierarchies through a grassroots movement in 2013, the boycott of Driscoll Berries.
“You have to organize your community. You can’t just vote your way to justice.” Franks said, who said many employees are immigrants who don’t have the ability to vote.
“Here, no one’s counting how many berries you’ve dropped, no one’s yelling at you to go faster. If you’re tired, you can take a break without letting the team down. If you’re sick, you take the day off. If the weather is unbearable we all take the day off.” Franks said.
In a profit driven industry, Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad is unique in their practice. “Our priorities lie in the health of our employees, consumers, and the land,” Franks said. Franks described pesticide usage as a feedback loop, pesticides affect the atmosphere, which affects the plants and the land, which drives more pesticide usage.
On top of pesticide usage, profits drive farms to distribute their produce all over the world, increasing their carbon footprint. “We get to see our berries being sold to our local communities.” Franks said, who described how meaningful it is to see their work sold at the local level.
The cooperative distributes their berries to local businesses who share their vision. They’ve teamed up with local Bellingham businesses, Fiamma Burger, Mallard Ice Cream and both Community Food Co-op locations.
Two miles from the U.S. Canadian border is one of two locations the cooperative maintains. The two acres in Blaine, Wash. are owned by a woman named Grace, who had to abandon the land to maintain her three jobs.
Grace found the cooperative through Facebook, their message resonating within her. She decided to reach out and offer her two acres. “They put a lot of work into their produce. I don’t think they get enough back in return.” she said before heading off to work.
Border patrol cars drove back and forth on the quiet farm road, watching above from cameras on posts. “They make it hard to unionize. You’re afraid to ask for basic rights.” said Franks.
For three years the land was unkempt. The crew took on the opportunity, spending the first year picking weeds managing the prickly blackberry bushes. By the second year big blueberry plants began to sprout.
“You just know when a berry is ready. It’ll come off on it’s own,” said Pedro Torres. The cooperative is very selective when picking berries for markets, only choosing the ones that they’d want to eat, snacking on berries frequently along every step of the process.
“It’s hard work but we’re confident in our product,” Torres said. “It was difficult this last year to pay for labor but we will be better set for this next coming year.” Although their process takes more time they decide their own work environment.
Torres smiled as he turned on upbeat Cooridos ballads on his phone, “We do this or we go back to the companies who steal from us,” Torres said. “I’ll stay here.”