Longtime sustainable agtivist and Chelsea Green author Elizabeth Henderson was honored at the 2014 EcoFarm conference in California , receiving the organization’s annual “Justie” award.
Henderson, author, along with Robyn Van En, of Sharing the Harvest , the book that helped inspire and inform the CSA movement, was honored for “advocating for social justice as a critical aspect of sustainable agriculture and food systems.” That work is currently ongoing through The Agricultural Justice Project (Elizabeth is pictured below (r) with AJC director Leah Cohen (l) .
Congratulations, Elizabeth! It was an award immediately recognized and cheered by her peers — such as the folks over at Greenhorns  — who understand this is a well-deserved honor for someone who has been an inspiration to many in the sustainable ag movement.
Below is Elizabeth’s speech to the attendees at the awards ceremony, and she has given us permission to share it with you. Enjoy and get inspired!
Thank you. This is a great honor. Not just for me, but for the Agricultural Justice Project team – working together since 1999 to give new energy to fairness in organic and sustainable agriculture. Leah Cohen, our director, and Michael Sligh of RAFI are here with me this evening, Marty Mesh of FOG and Nelson Carrasquillo of CATA, the other founding parents, are busy elsewhere.
While some people come to a commitment to social justice through some crisis or transformative experience, I drank social justice with my mother’s milk. My parents, Laura and Sydney Berliner, had a life-long commitment to peace and justice – and they were already the second generation in our family – my mother’s uncles fought for freedom from oppression in the Revolution of 1905 in Poland, then fled to the US to avoid conscription into the tsarist army, and spent their lives as union activists. It gives me great satisfaction that the 4th generation carries on this work – my son Andy Henderson devotes his talents and energies to teaching youngsters here in CA in a double-emersion Spanish-English program, helping children grow up to be literate active citizens.
The meaning of food justice is complex. The most widespread understanding is access to healthy food for low paid or unemployed people, and I have made a tiny contribution in this area working with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) to provide subsidies to CSA shares in the inner cities of Rochester and Buffalo, New York. But there are two other equally important aspects of food justice. There is the struggle for living wage, fairly remunerated work for everyone who labors in the food system. CSAs like mine (Peacework Organic CSA) can play a role. The direct relationship with our members gives us the opportunity to negotiate with them for better prices and to ask them to share with us the risks of growing their food. And this is where AJP comes in – our standards require that buyers pay farmers prices that cover the full costs of production and that all food system employers pay living wages, guarantee safe working conditions and recognize the right of working people to freedom of association. And finally, for food justice to become a long-lasting reality, there must be local, community control.
If we hope to build a movement that will have the strength to replace the industrial food system, we farmers need to work as allies with all the other food workers from seed to table. Despite owning significant amounts of land and equipment, the earnings of farmers like me and many of you are more like those of industrial workers than captains of industry. The profits in the food system go to the other sectors – “… the agricultural family unit is only a subcontractor caught in the vise between upstream agroindustry… and finance… and downstream … the traders, processors and commercial supermarkets.” (p. xii, Food Movements Unite!) Family scale “sustainable” farmers will only break this vise by taking our place alongside other working people in the food system in solidarity with their struggles which are really our struggles as well.
Since I was a child, these words of Eugene v. Debs have had a special resonance for me. When he was sentenced on November 18, 1918, to ten years in prison, he said: “Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
If we at least begin demanding that farmers, farm workers and all food workers make living wages with full benefits, (health care, compensation for injuries and unemployment, and retirement) from a 40 hour week, we may start moving towards an agriculture that will sustain us into a future worth living. And that is what the Agricultural Justice Project is all about – a set of tools to help build value chains, changing relationships to bring alive the Principle of Fairness that is basic to organic agriculture all over the world.