Olivia Baxter-St.Pierre (She/her)

Olivia is currently in law school in Vermont studying agricultural law, with an emphasis on labor, migrant workers’ rights, and how labor laws apply to people who are farming and not farm owners.

I’ve been farming basically my whole life.

My mom is a farmer who does not have her own farm. She has been at a farm for 14 years in a management position. Before that she was in various labor positions at various farms.

I grew up going to work with her and helping her, she was a single parent without childcare.

I started working on different farms since I was about 10 – whether paid or not. I’ve done a lot of work on the farm that she is at now, as well as their sister farm.

I worked in the berry fields for three summers, a little bit of vegetable farming and potato farming. Predominantly I was in the berry sphere of things, and I’ve worked on two different flower farms. 

Growing up my mom always told me ‘You don’t want to farm, it’s hard work, you don’t get paid enough, do something where you use your brain.’ I always felt it was the future of food and our culture, and I want to be a part of feeding our community.

The biggest motivator was being able to feed my community and doing so in a more sustainable way.
When I started my own separate farming from my mom, I wanted to learn as much as I could on sustainable agriculture, which isn’t something my mom necessarily did. 

My mom is really proud of me being in law school. She has come to terms with agriculture not being something I’m leaving behind. I’m a first generation college student, too.

It’s a point of pride that I’m following something I love, but also I can support the family for years to come and make change.

I don’t think people are paid fairly. I grew up in a culture of ‘You have to work hard, and this is what you’re getting paid and don’t complain about it’. I fall into the trap of that all the time.

People are really not compensated for the amount of back breaking labor that you do in the field and the amount of hours that you put in. 

Looking at my mom who has risen to a management position, she is there 24/7, 365, Which is stressful. She loves it, but it definitely takes a toll without having breaks. 

On small farms, there is really not the labor force to take breaks.

I think within that there is a whole myriad of issues with people paying overtime. Labor laws say people have to be paid overtime, in Rhode Island at least.

My understanding is that people who work in retail are entitled to overtime, but people who are farm laborers are not entitled to overtime.

Well who is considered retail and who is considered labor?

A lot of the farms do have a farm stand or have merchandise for sale. It becomes this political thing where the employers only have so much income and they don’t want to be shelling out tons of money in overtime. They can’t get the amount of labor that they need, but there are these under the table conversations of paying overtime hours next week and people feeling like they have to be forced into accepting that for the sake for keeping their jobs.

It’s super problematic, I’ve seen it at more than one farm. 

My whole life revolves around agriculture – to the people I know, the food I eat, the way I interact with the world. leaving agriculture and leaving a rural or semi-rural environment would be impossible for me.

I used to think you had to put in your time to be considered a farmer. For the future of farming, anyone who wants to farm or be a farmer or wants to participate should.

A beginning farmer with new farm experience is just as valuable as someone who has been farming for 20 years.

It’s a low paying, high physical demand type of work – they are in it because they want to be here, not for any other reason. 

I think that there needs to be more awareness of the resources out there for farmers.
This is a seasonal position and a low paying one. They qualify for social services, unemployment and other assistance.
In our state of Rhode Island, farmworkers couldn’t get unemployment benefits for those four months that they were unemployed, and that’s not fair because most people I know don’t have savings for those months. Luckily now, people can more easily access unemployment benefits, but it’s been hard for seasonal workers.

Temporary workers or farmers who have been on the same farms for 5 or 6 seasons aren’t entitled to health benefits per their employers and may be making too much for medicaid.

A lot of farm workers who are in that middle age range of 30-50 and working 50 hours/week aren’t eligible for medicaid and can’t afford health insurance. Employers aren’t paying for it and they are more likely to get sick.

food for thought….

It has been a bit baffling to me since coming to law school to see classmates go to Whole Foods/Trader Joes/etc 50+ miles away to buy “organic” and “healthy” foods at exorbitant prices when there are countless local farms who are struggling to stay afloat in our own community, offering those same products locally at much lower prices.

For example, there are many family dairy farms in my town that offer raw and pasteurized milk products, as well as farm stands that have 24/7 access coolers with fresh beef, lamb, and poultry. The dairy farm that I get my milk from supplies Organic Valley. While a half-gallon of Organic Valley milk will cost around $5 at Whole Foods, if you buy a jug directly from the farm it is only $2.50.

In conversations with my classmates, I have encountered a variety of reasons why they shop the way they do – one that stuck out to me was “local meat freaks me out, because I see those cows out every day when I drive by”. Folks are unaware of the hard work that goes into producing the food that they eat, which in-turn perpetuates a commodification mindset.

Another reason that I’ve heard from folks as to why they prefer to shop at large markets like Whole Food rather than directly from farm stands, or at farmer’s markets, is that there is a misconception that it is more expensive.

I think it is fabulous that there is a growing desire for folks to eat sustainably, but I also believe that often times these conversations focus too heavily on the “organic” label and certain brands, and not enough on the importance of supporting local farms.