MFU Member Vilicus Farms Receives $100k USDA Grant

MFU Member Vilicus Farms Receives $100k USDA Grant

In June, the USDA announced $50 million in Farm Labor Stabilization and Protection Pilot Program Grants to 141 recipients, including $100,000 to Vilicus Farms to help with creating an employee handbook and implementing incentives such as bonus pay and sick leave programs.

Goals of the voluntary USDA program include increasing access to agricultural labor through the H-2A visa program, strengthening protections and pay for farm workers, and building pathways for legal immigration. National Farmers Union engaged throughout the pilot process to ensure the FLSP would support family farmers and farm workers, enhance the resiliency of the U.S. food supply chain, and support lawful migration pathways. 

The program will make it easier for responsible ag employers to find and hire qualified employees, said NFU President Rob Larew. “The result is a mutually beneficial solution that will create a more functional and compassionate farm labor system.” 

Anna Jones-Crabtree, who runs Vilicus Farms and Vilicus Institute with her husband Doug Crabtree, said she hopes the new programs and clear expectations the grant will help them implement and layout will help bridge the mismatch between what employees want for work-life balance versus the demanding hours and limited security of farming. “It has to be more than just getting paid dollars per bushel.”

Since founding their organic farm north of Havre in 2009, Anna and Doug have sought to address how to attract and retain employees in a rural area with limited housing and services. Initially, they worked with interns but had trouble recruiting U.S. workers when other jobs in the agricultural sector offer steady pay and hours.

The past several years, Vilicus has used the H-2A program. This year’s crew of three women and two men from South Africa are eager to work, but the same workers don’t always return, and Anna said they must train new employees to help with their complex operation that includes upward of 15 crops laid out in smaller strips, conservation programs like pollinator habitat, and integrated grazing.

“It’s a significant time sink in terms of the energy drain every year. Just the onboarding is huge,” Anna said.

Time spent training is time that could be spent investing in value-added opportunities or being more responsive to ideal windows of time for seeding and harvest. “It’s not just our time; it’s impactful to the farm,” she said.

The employee handbook the USDA grant is helping them finalize also will be used to pursue a Regenerative Organic Certification. “The certification’s not just how you grow a product, it’s also how you’re treating your people, and that allows us to have a different conversation about marketing and pricing,” Anna said.

Ultimately, the USDA grant will help them be proactive in providing employment opportunities that are fair and supportive for workers, Anna said. “In Ag, we need to figure out how we can step up. For Doug and me, it’s about the team.”

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