Nelson graduate student receives grants to increase justice within food systems

March 16, 2021

For Nelson Institute Environment and Resources doctoral candidate Sarah Janes Ugoretz, ensuring a healthy and professional relationship between employers and employees is a key aspect of a sustainable and just food system. As such, Janes Ugoretz has spent her academic career working to better understand the employee-employer relationship on organic vegetable farms. Thanks to assistance from a Baldwin Funded Seed Project Grant, a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant, and a North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCR-SARE) Graduate Student Grant, this research is contributing to the development of employee-informed labor management recommendations as well as a farmer-facing labor management training program and associated toolkit. These resources will specifically support farmers and employees working on organic vegetable farms in the Midwest.

Having grown up in the region, Janes Ugoretz knew she wanted to focus on Midwestern organic farms. “I wanted to really dig-in and better understand the labor experience from the farmer and the employee perspective” Janes Ugoretz shared. “I had been thinking about the organic certification process, which ensures a certain degree of environmental sustainability, but it doesn’t automatically create social or economic sustainability. I’m mindful that when someone is buying an organic product, there may be an assumption built in that by buying organic, they’re supporting thriving and fairly treated farmers and employees, but the organic label doesn’t guarantee that.”

This led Janes Ugoretz to explore what organic vegetable farmers were doing to support social and economic sustainability on their farms.

“I began by talking with farmers, and one of the things that kept coming up was the connection many would make between their employees and the long-term sustainability of their businesses,” Janes Ugoretz said. “Many also shared that they struggle with attracting and retaining employees from year to year. So that has pivoted my work in a way that I didn’t expect, but I’m happy that it did.”

Thanks to funding from the Baldwin Grant, Janes Ugoretz was able to talk with regional farm employees for her second round of interviews to learn more about “how they perceive, experience, and create socio-economic sustainability on certified organic vegetable farms in the upper Midwest.” While talking with employees, Janes Ugoretz asked them to share things that they value in a labor experience and factors that might keep them on the farm from one year to the next.

Through these interviews and with previously collected data, Janes Ugoretz is developing resources and tools that can strengthen positive employer-employee relationships and increase equity. These tools are being shared in two ways. First, through a report Janes Ugoretz is compiling to share farm employee feedback and showcase labor management tools, policies, and practices that may serve as jumping off points for farmers who are interested in harnessing this information in a targeted way. Secondly, by offering free, virtual workshops that provide education and training in topics that farm employees have expressed interest in. The first event, organized in coordination with Claire Strader of FairShare CSA Coalition and Alexia Kulwiec with the School for Workers, took place in early 2021 and had 24 attendees from eight different states.

“The evaluations reflected a positive experience, which is of course exciting,” Janes Ugoretz said. In fact, one attendee shared the following in an evaluation. "While I've been a manager on the farm in some capacity for several years, I've never done any formal learning about management skills or conflict resolution. I think this is so useful and important for anyone in management positions--even for people who have been doing it for many years. I really appreciate the work you all are doing."

Janes Ugoretz also shared that an additional outcome of these events is the formation of a listserv that allows farm managers to connect with one another to share experiences, troubleshoot challenges, and more.

In addition to this work related to the Baldwin Grant, Janes Ugoretz is also working with Strader, Kulwiec, and a group of organic vegetable producers to create a labor management training program. The program, Peer-to-Peer Labor Management Training for Diversified Organic Vegetable Producers, is funded through a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant and through an NCR-SARE Graduate Student Grant.

For Janes Ugoretz, working on these hands-on projects that are built upon and incorporate farmers’ and employees’ needs and interests feels like what she’s been working towards. As a child she often helped her family in the garden and she has long been involved in organizations that support food systems and equity within the food system. After completing her dissertation, she looks forward to continuing this work in her capacity as the manager of the Organic Vegetable Farm Manager Apprenticeship Program at FairShare CSA Coalition.  

In the meantime, she’s thankful for the support she’s received from the Nelson Institute and the campus community.

“My advisor Mike Bell [a professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology] has been really supportive throughout, always encouraging me to pursue my ideas and supporting me through the challenging parts. I started my PhD journey in C&E Sociology in 2012 and left and returned a few times, really unsure of what my path was. Happily, I landed in Nelson, but Mike has been with me the whole way, cheering me on.” Having the opportunity to do applied work has been crucial for Janes Ugoretz. “Being in conversation with farmers and employees has made this work feel very meaningful.”