Elizabeth Henderson speaks on community supported agriculture and ‘justice’ for farmers at NOFA’s conference this month.

New Jersey farmers, home gardeners, and consumers interested in local, organic, and sustainably grown products and the issues surrounding them will come together late this month for the 27th annual winter conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ). The conference’s two full days of workshops — 50-plus in all — are open to the public and will take place at the Rutgers New Brunswick campus Saturday and Sunday, January 28 and 29.

NOFA-NJ, based in Hillsborough, has assembled an impressive roster of speakers, such Adam Lemieux, the product manager and a new product developer for Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a longtime, respected resource for organic gardeners and farmers.

Elizabeth Henderson, who founded Peacework Farm in Wayne County, New York, 28 years ago and who is on the NOFA Interstate Council and the Agricultural Justice Project (which she co-founded), will lead two sessions on particularly timely and pressing matters: the national decline in participation in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, the most common form of which is purchasing a “share” in a local farmers seasonal crop and picking up the produce weekly; and how to attain food “justice” for farmers, farmworkers, and consumers.

In a recent phone conversation, Henderson talked about the importance of these issues and what she will cover in her workshops. As the abstract for the session on justice acknowledges, “When worker advocates propose raising minimum wage above the poverty level, regional farmers, dependent on hired labor, howl — this will wreck farming! When farmers, hard pressed to cover expenses, demand higher prices to pay increased wages, food justice advocates warn — ‘unfair: low-income people can’t afford more for food!’ How to balance these just demands? Currently, farm earnings are dropping, especially for dairy farmers. Eighty percent or more of regional family-scale, community-based farms survive due to someone’s off farm work that brings benefits — health insurance, money for retirement.

Farms ‘in the middle’ — that is farms large enough to generate income that should support a family — depend on hired labor, but due to low wages, social attitudes, and immigration policies, have trouble finding enough good workers. Even though market demand for regional values-based food is relatively strong, especially for direct sales farms, farmers remain price-takers rather than price-makers in most supply chains.”

In other words, Henderson says, “there’s very little justice for all three. We have in this country a system of cheap food, and you get what you pay for. There’s constant downward pressure on pricing. That hasn’t always been the case. Until 1956 our government had a system of parity pricing and had to pay farmers enough to cover their cost of production, and an important cost of production is wages for farmers themselves and wages for workers who work on the farm. Until we have living wages for the people who are working on the farms, we won’t really have a system that’s just.”

Nor safe, Henderson adds. “Farm workers are paid by the piece. They are under continual pressure to work faster, not better or smarter.” She gives strawberries as an example. “Let’s say there’s a patch of strawberries, and there are deer droppings in that patch, but the workers have to just pick right through it because the supervisor wants them picked, because the strawberries are ripe.” But, she says, that patch shouldn’t be picked, because the deer droppings represent a health risk not only to consumers, but also to those who are working at breakneck pace amid them.

“In this country we have lost millions of farms — three and a half million in my own lifetime,” estimates Henderson, who will be 74 when the NOFA-NJ conference convenes and lives in Wayne County, between Rochester and Syracuse.

“The last dairy farm in my area went out of business. At the time, they were losing $4 for every hundredweight [i.e., hundred pounds] of milk. To give you some idea, $23 per hundredweight would just barely cover their costs. Over the course of this century the people who sell fertilizers, pesticides, and tractors and the people who process food and who sell the processed food get more of the share of farm dollars. There’s money in the food system. It doesn’t get down to the people who grow and pick it.”

Because of this, Henderson doesn’t think consumers would need to pay more for safer and more just food. “Just put more limits on these profits!” she says. “The money is in the system already, it’s just not going down to the farms. Four huge companies control most of it. Now our anti-trust laws should go into effect when a few companies control more than 40 percent of any given market. But that is not happening.” She hopes to awaken people to these facts with her workshop.

Having founded her own Peacework CSA almost three decades ago, Henderson is well qualified to answer the question posed in the title of the other workshop she will lead at the NOFA-NJ conference: “30 Years of CSA! Where to go next?”

The description asks, “A trend? A marketing scheme? A visionary movement?” The session promises to review the history of CSAs, see what has made them thrive, and describe the current state of play. Henderson will then address their future in these terms: “Where are CSAs going strong? Where are they struggling? What limits CSA growth?” and asks that participants bring their ideas and questions.

Henderson has some ideas of her own on this topic. “I was recently at a conference in Montreal held by Equiterre, an organization heading up a network of Canadian CSAs that was celebrating its 20th anniversary. There are currently 110 CSAs in the province of Quebec that are part of Equiterre. Membership fees are used not only to promote each CSA, but also for programs like training new farmers. So having this high-functioning network, Quebec CSAs have not experienced the drop in membership that we’ve seen in the U.S.”

As an organic food and farming activist, Henderson has been involved with NOFA since its earliest days and helped shape the Organic Food Protection Act, which was included in the 1990 Farm Bill. The NOFA-NJ winter conference will have other presenters who are also involved in policy, among them Jack Kittredge, policy director of NOFA-MA and editor of the Natural Farmer.

Among the workshops specifically for home gardeners are: No-Till Veggies for Gardeners, Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, and Growing Herbs in Containers. A demonstration on making fermented foods at home will be led by a forager and herbalist who goes by the name Dan De Lion.

NOFA-NJ’s 27th Annual Winter Conference, Saturday and Sunday, January 28 and 29, at Rutgers Douglass Student Center, New Brunswick.