Photo Essay: A Cooperative Farm Giving Farmworkers Liberation | Civil Eats

Photo Essay: A Cooperative Farm’s Long Path to Liberation for Farmworkers

Tierra y Libertad in northern Washington is the first farmworker-owned co-op in the Pacific Northwest; after years of uncertainty, the group is focused on growing a solidarity economy.

Benito Lopez in a crew cleaning a tulip field. In 2022 after a short strike, tulip workers like Lopez, belonging to Familias Unidas por la Justicia, convinced the largest grower, Washington Bulb, to recognize their workers' committee.

Benito Lopez, a member of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, in a crew cleaning a tulip field. (Photo credit: David Bacon)

On the Sakuma Brothers farm, over 200 angry Mixtec and Triqui farmworkers stopped work in 2013, over the firing of a coworker. They needed a spokesperson to present their demands, and Ramon Torres was an unlikely choice. He wasn’t Indigenous, like most of the workers, and that meant he didn’t speak the same language. Torres had been a city boy, raised in Guadalajara, and he was the son of a construction worker. But he was a blueberry picker like they were and he lived in the labor camp with everyone else. Most important, he had shown a willingness to stand up to the supervisors.

Torres proved to be capable and dedicated. Over the next four years, the workers repeatedly voted him president of their strike committee, and later of their newly formed union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Finally, in 2017, they convinced Sakuma Brothers Farms—which occupies more than 1,500 acres in Washington State—to sign a pioneering collective bargaining agreement. Torres helped bargain the contract, and is still president of their union.

Two years into the bitter struggle, Torres was fired from Sakuma Brothers. He tried to eke out a living working on other farms in the area while spending countless hours strategizing with the Sakuma workers. Then, in 2015, he made another unlikely choice; he became the lead organizer of the first farmworker-based farming cooperative in the Pacific Northwest.

He and his compañeras and compañeros (or compas, as they call each other) named their co-op Tierra y Libertad (Land and Freedom)—in honor of the rallying cry of Mexico’s rural revolution of 1910–20. They chose the face of Emiliano Zapata, the campesino revolutionary, as the symbol for their banner and the labels of their produce.

Torres was convinced to make the decision by Rosalinda Guillen, founder of Community2Community, a women-led advocacy and organizing center in rural Skagit and Whatcom Counties, two hours north of Seattle. Guillen has decades of experience helping farmworkers organize unions, and Community2Community organized the support base for the Sakuma workers. The new co-op started as a C2C project.

Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community2Community Development, at the start of the 2023 May Day march.

Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community2Community Development, at the start of the 2023 May Day march.

Torres says that the co-op idea grew out of the fight to get the union organized, and to change the conditions for Sakuma workers. At the beginning, many weren’t convinced that a union contract would change their conditions. “They kept talking about needing another route, and Rosalinda talked with us about a women’s co-op she’d formed earlier. So, workers decided to set one up.”

Farmworkers were excluded from both the 1935 National Labor Relations Act and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (although the 1938 Act was eventually amended to partially include ag workers). Although only a small percentage of farmworkers are unionized, a surge in organizing over the last three years has led to a historic 2022 union win in California and the passage of laws giving farmworkers overtime pay in Washington and Oregon.

2019 - Supporters of the Tierra y Libertad coop carry its banner on a march to protest the death of Honesto Silva, an H-2A guest worker.Coop members and supporters carry the Tierra y Libertad banner in a 2023 May Day march.Ramon Torres shakes hands with Danny Weeden, general manager of Sakuma Brothers Farms, after signing the first union contract.

Left: Farm workers and their supporters during a 2019 march to protest the H2-A guestworker program and the death of Honesto Silva. Center: Coop members and supporters carry the Tierra y Libertad banner in a 2023 May Day march. Right: Ramon Torres (right) shakes hands with Danny Weeden, general manager of Sakuma Brothers Farms, after signing the first union contract in 2017.

To build Tierra y Libertad, there were many discussions. C2C organized trainings in cooperative principles, which are still ongoing, eight years later. “Nevertheless, only a few workers actually decided to participate,” Torres remembers. “It was very hard to convince them. They’d ask, who’s going to give me a paycheck? Many thought they’d have to put in money they didn’t have. The reality was that we had nothing, no place even to begin planting. We really didn’t know if we could do it or not.”

Torres and a group from the new union rented their first small piece of land near the Canadian border, and sold berries to local food co-ops and markets. “Twelve of us were committed to it, but the money didn’t come in the way we were hoping,” he says. The time commitment was more than most workers could sustain. In the training sessions someone would always be missing. To get to the land from Mt. Vernon, where most lived, was a 45-minute drive.

“People were putting in 10-hour days,” Torres recalls. “They’d arrive at the co-op at 5:00 in the afternoon, put in an hour and a half, and then have to drive back. In those years, before the union contract, people would go to work at another farm for a few hours after working at Sakuma, because pay was so low they needed the money to survive. So, they had to choose between working that extra job or coming to the co-op. Each day we might get two or three workers, and then the next day two different ones. The weekends were even harder. Saturday is a work day, and Sunday is the day for everything for the family—washing clothes, buying food, all the rest.”

LYNDEN, WA - 20JULY18 - Benjamin Salcido cleans the land of the Familias Unidas por la Justicia union's new cooperative. Copyright David BaconRamon Torres fixes a leak in the irrigation system.

Left: Benjamin Salcido clears land at Tierra y Libertad. Right: Ramon Torres fixes a leak in the irrigation system.

Finally, only three members remained of the original 12. And after the group had fixed the farm up, putting up a greenhouse, and breathed new life into its rows of red raspberries, the owner wanted it back. It was a blow, but they found another piece of land near Sedro Wooley, even further away. Finally, in 2017, they found the 75-acre plot where the co-op farms today. It’s still a long drive from Mt. Vernon, but the members hope to buy the land.

The co-op’s fortunes began to rise when the union contract was signed in 2017. The income of Sakuma workers rose dramatically. “Before, people would take home a paycheck for $400,” Torres says. “Even the fastest and most experienced pickers took home $600. When the contract went into effect, they began making twice as much, even up to $2,000 a week at the height of the season.”

With more income, the pressure relaxed to work a second job after a day in Sakuma’s fields, making participation in the cooperative more possible. Today, additional workers will often come out to help when more hands are needed to meet an order. They’re learning how to develop a solidarity economy, Guillen says.

“It was very important to learn how to organize ourselves, how to fight for our rights,” Torres explains. The union changed the culture of the workers. Instead of meetings with litanies of complaints, they now talk about plans for new projects. “We’re healthier. We feel confident that with the union we can pay the rent. We’re not killing ourselves at work and we can look for other things. Especially those who were there at the beginning can see how both the union and the co-op changed and grew.”

a goat at tierra y libertad farmsRamon Torres prunes blueberry bushes at the Tierra y Libertad cooperative.EVERSON, WA - 5AUGUST19 - Ramon Torres, President of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, on the land of the union's new cooperative, Tierra y Libertad. Copyright David Bacon

Center: Ramon Torres prunes blueberry bushes at the Tierra y Libertad cooperative.

The culture also changed for women in the community. Some began working as promotoras, or community health workers, for C2C, spreading knowledge about healthcare and workers’ rights. The men no longer sit separately from women in meetings, and when women speak the men listen.

Tierra y Libertad still grows and sells blueberries and raspberries, but members have begun to rethink the commercial berry production model. “In that first stage, workers tried to replicate what they could see around them, mimicking what other farmers were growing,” Guillen explains. “Trying to outdo well-established farms was exhausting, however, and eventually they realized that competing in the mainstream marketplace wasn’t going to work.”

The co-op began looking to the workers’ Indigenous culture to find new products to grow, and a market for them. Co-op members experimented first with nopal, or prickly pear cactus. Nopal is a staple in Mexico, used in everything from salads to scrambled eggs. Some of the first year’s crop was lost to cold weather, so today the plants begin in a greenhouse long before being replanted outside.

Nopal seedlings in a Tierra y Libertad greenhouse.A young chilacayote seedling in a Tierra y Libertad greenhouse.Chilacayote seedlings in a Tierra y Libertad greenhouse.

Chilcayote and nopal seedlings in a Tierra y Libertad greenhouse.

At the same time, with C2C’s help, the co-op began working with the local food bank. It pays a premium for berries—$4.75 a pint, while the local organic groceries only pay $3.75. Now the food bank also buys nopal at $4.50 per pound. It then distributes the co-op products to low-income people, especially to many ndigenous Mixtec and Triqui families.

Last year the co-op also began experimenting with chilacayote, a squash the size of a watermelon. All parts of the plant are eaten in Oaxacan families, and the flesh can be boiled down to a kind of candy, or piloncillo, that is very popular. This year the co-op’s greenhouses are germinating thousands of plants, and four more greenhouses are in the works.

“The food banks are buying it to give to our people,” Torres says. “We’re not producing for the general population, who don’t usually eat these foods. We’re planting for our own people, the food they need and want.”

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Today the Tierra y Libertad co-op includes three owners who work on the farm full time, and are supported by C2C. They hope next year the co-op will be completely self-supporting. C2C will still provide administrative support, digital invoicing, and marketing help.

A member of Familias Unidas por la Justicia prunes blackberry bushes in a Sakuma Brothers Farms field.Monica Atkins, of the Climate Justice Alliance in Jackson, MS, was invited to spend time at the Tierra y Libertad coop, and picked raspberries in a field with Ramon Torres.

Left: A member of Familias Unidas por la Justicia prunes blackberry bushes in a Sakuma Brothers Farms field. Right: Monica Atkins, of the Climate Justice Alliance in Jackson, MS, was invited to spend time at the Tierra y Libertad coop, and picked raspberries in a field with Ramon Torres.

“C2C is an incubator for worker-owned co-ops,” Guillen says. “Organizing a co-op based on farmworkers is very difficult because of their lack of resources, and the need to develop a culturally appropriate model. But what we see is that they fall in love with the land. It speaks to them and they become more free, more themselves.”

Meanwhile, other workers in the union are joining a larger discussion about a project in which families will buy land and begin small-scale farming, while still working at Sakuma Brothers Farms. According to Torres, “There’s more interest because they’ve seen what we’ve done here. If we can buy the land, then the workers can work it in a collective way, and sell what they grow with the help of Tierra y Libertad.”

Building the co-op always depended on building the union, Guillen emphasizes. “Tierra y Libertad would not exist if not for the union. It came from the union, which developed a group of liberated farmworkers who were not afraid. It gave them a path to liberation that’s still evolving.”

 We spoke with a number of co-op owners; we’re sharing three of their stories below.

Ramon Torres, head of the strike committee and president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, reports to the strikers at Sakuma Farms about the effort to get the company to sign an agreement.

Ramon Torres in 2013, reporting to the strikers at Sakuma Farms about the effort to get the company to sign an agreement.

Ramon Torres

My father was a construction worker and my mom cleaned houses. We also had a business on the weekends selling tacos. We all had a task, whether it was chopping greens, blending the chile, or making the tacos.

It was my dream to be an architect, but after I finished middle school, my dad told me that I could not keep studying because we did not have enough money. That was when everything changed and I came to Delano, in the San Joaquin Valley.

I had never in my life worked in the fields because I lived in Guadalajara, a city. For the first two months no one wanted to give me work. Then my cousin told me he would teach me. I started in the desojar, or the removal of leaves [on grape vines]. It was very difficult. The whole crew would finish their rows and I barely had 10 vines, and there are 90. But they would come out of their rows and help me.

I had never worked outside, eight hours in the sun and the rain. I had never worked on my knees, cutting rings on the vines, which is very painful. I had these huge blisters around every finger because of the knives that we would use. I could not even grab a knife because I could not feel it.

In California, if a crew would not do it for a certain wage, another crew would work for an lower wage, just to work. And this was one of the reasons I left California, because it was a little worse than Washington.

Even here, though, I started to see the abuse. I was working in the berries with Indigenous workers, and often a supervisor would come and scold them. I could hear the supervisor do this right in front of their mom or dad or their children, right there in the row. People would not say anything and would lower their heads. I would ask why, and they would say [if they defended themselves] they would be fired.

Many Indigenous workers would want to leave after eight hours when it was raining, and the supervisors would not let them. I would get up and leave, and to me they would not say anything. That is when I started to see the discrimination, the preference for a lighter skin color.

I began to be a little more conscious, but I never thought that we were going to start organizing. I met Rosalinda, and every day she would tell me that I had to be an organizer. When the strike started, I didn’t know if the committees we formed were going to work, or when I went to schools if the students would listen. But we had the idea that anything was possible. When we started the cooperative, I had the same faith that it would work.

Jesus Pablo inspects the chilacayote seedlings in a Tierra y Libertad greenhouse.

Jesus Pablo inspects the chilacayote seedlings in a Tierra y Libertad greenhouse.

Jesus Pablo

In Guatemala my family had a farm near Huehuetenango, where we planted potatoes, corn, and beans. I’m from an Indigenous family, and I grew up speaking Mam. When I was 12, I started working with my father, and I learned everything from him. He’s 60 now, and still lives on the farm there. I’m 24 now.

Here the growing season is different. In the winter it’s very cold and you can’t plant anything, and then the summer is very hot.

In Guatemala, we don’t have any greenhouses. We don’t have the money to build them, but we don’t need them the same way we do here; the climate is very moderate and doesn’t change much. On the farm there we plant our seeds for corn and potatoes in March, in the field, just using the hoe. Then we harvest in September.

We decided last year that we would grow chilacayote, so I asked my mom to send us seeds, and she sent 5,000. I’m using my experience from Guatemala to grow them here, but of course we have to start the plants in the greenhouse because of the cold.

We make every decision like this, the three of us all together. It’s wonderful to do it this way, where we don’t have a boss. If I have an appointment, for instance, I don’t have to ask permission to leave.

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I became involved in the cooperativa because my sister works as a promotora for Community2Community. Rosalinda Guillen invited me to a training, and I went. It lasted five months, and it was about principles and values, about our rights and what we can and can’t do. Now I’m both a worker and an owner here.

Ana Lopez inspects a tree seedling in a Tierra y Libertad orchard.

Ana Lopez inspects a tree seedling in a Tierra y Libertad orchard.

Ana Lopez

Until I was five, I lived on a farm in near Tlaxiaco, in Oaxaca. I grew up speaking Triqui, the language of my town. Then I left with my mother to work in Baja California picking tomatoes, chiles, and cucumbers. I was 8 or 9.

When I was 12, we went back to Oaxaca, and lived there another five years. That’s why I have experience working the land—from that time. I cut wood for fuel to make tortillas, and I had to carry water from far away because we didn’t have a faucet.

Then we came here, and I’ve been living here almost 20 years. I’m very proud that I’m from Oaxaca, and that I’m a farmer and farmworker.

In Oaxaca I worked in the milpa. We planted and grew corn, and then we’d harvest it. We also grew chilacoyote. In Oaxaca we don’t use chemicals. We only use bono, which is the waste from chickens, pigs, and goats. It’s good for the plants, and it’s natural. That’s what we’re using here in the co-op too. It’s good for the strawberries and blueberries, and when the plants are happy, they grow.

When I got to this side of the border, I began working in the strawberries and blueberries. I worked for Sakuma for 18 years. I was in the strike, and participated until the owner agreed to treat our people better.

Then I spent a year as a promotora. I got the training from Rosalinda about the cooperativa. After that I decided to become an owner. I thought it was a beautiful idea to be on a farm here. It’s working in the free air, and on the free land, with the chickens and animals.

No one gives orders. If there’s something that we don’t know, we talk among the three of us, to see if we can find a good solution.

I’m a woman who’s worked in many places—with crabs, getting pinched by their claws, or in the packing house during the strike. I admire women a lot; when we have a lot of work, we just do it. Then, no matter how tired I am, I can’t go home and rest or lie down. I have to cook, and then there are clothes and dishes to wash. If the house is dirty, I have to clean it.

I have five children. The oldest is in Mexico, and I have four here. Two of them are adults already. They’re working, but they can’t support me. My daughter is 19 and now she’s working as a promotora, too. The income from the farm isn’t enough to live on, and everything is getting more and more expensive, but we have enough.

I’m very proud of all this. We have to make an effort and work hard, and the co-op will move forward and get bigger, with the help of God. But we have to do the work. No one’s going to do it for us.

All photos © David Bacon.

David Bacon is a California writer and documentary photographer. A former union organizer, today he documents labor, the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights. Read more >

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