Q&A with Erik Nicholson, Executive Director of Semillero de Ideas

Written by:

Elizabeth Melton

8 minutes

We recently had the honor and privilege of interviewing Erik Nicholson, a renowned and beloved expert in preserving farm worker equity.

Erik’s had a storied career working for the United Farm Workers of America and PCUN labor unions, the Equitable Food Initiative, and Fair Trade USA over the past 30 years. He’s undoubtedly left his mark on all of those organizations and continues to elevate the dignity of the essential women and men in the fields as Founding Partner at Pandion Strategy.

In this interview, we wanted to discuss how Erik got involved in farm work, the racism and bias he’s seen in the field, and what opportunities farm workers and consumers have to confront the tidal wave of investment in technology that isn’t designed with the farm worker in mind. Let’s dive in.

Erik, you’ve had a tremendous impact on the farm worker community. What prompted you to get into that field (no pun intended) originally?

Well, this story starts when I was 15 years old and applied to be a foreign exchange student. On my application, I indicated that I wanted to be placed in Australia or Western Europe, but I didn’t end up getting what I wanted一I went to Bolivia.

The community I volunteered in was largely indigenous, although Spanish was the common language so I had to learn Spanish super fast. And what I started to pick up on after that was that my host family and their friends were extremely welcoming towards me, but there was very strong anti-USA messaging everywhere else. I couldn’t understand why they liked me and not my government.

So when I got home, I went to Borders bookstore, got a book on Bolivia, and started reading. I realized that our government was supplying arms to leaders who were harming the Bolivian people. I got obsessed with what was happening there and the history. So obsessed, that I read all four books Borders had on Bolivia, which then led me to start reading about Central America. Eventually, this influenced my decision to study Cultural Latin American Economics at Duke.

This interest persisted in college. After graduating, I spent two years documenting human rights abuses in Nicaragua. Coincidentally, I ended up meeting the President of PCUN, a farm worker union in Oregon. He offered me a three-month internship back in 1990…The rest is history.

So you’ve talked and written about the fact that emerging agtech companies have racial bias hardwired into them, doing more harm than good. What are a few ways in which this growing focus on agtech is detrimental to farm workers?

To understand racism’s role in farm work, you have to go back to Black Lives Matter. Had black lives mattered in the 1930s, the situation for essential workers would’ve been totally different. The southern congressional delegation had no interest in giving black farm workers the same protections as their white counterparts as laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act were being enacted, excluding them from overtime, paid breaks, workers compensation, and more.

This decision set precedent for excluding farm workers and people of color from this Act and other key labor legislation, like the National Labor Relations Act. Without the protection of these key bills, working conditions lagged behind pretty much all other industries. Efforts to unionize farm workers largely failed due to growers being able to do pretty much whatever they wanted to quash those efforts. This discriminatory framework further resulted in growers depending on the economic desperation of immigrants from other countries to work in the fields to do the work that most people born in the US refused to do. So the US continues to depend on the economic desperation of people from other countries like Mexico, China, Japan, and the Philippines.

We know that technology is not racially neutral. Bias has been and continues to be programmed into what’s being developed. We already see this happening with things like facial recognition not being able to identify people of color, racial bias in AI-driven profiling, and more.

While we haven’t seen such blatant, concrete manifestations in farm work yet, all the tech I’ve seen is geared towards eliminating farm workers altogether, rather than enhancing the already essential work done in the field. That’s hardly a perspective that makes farm workers, and those of us who value their labor, feel warm and fuzzy.

There’s been no effort (that I’ve seen) to sit down shoulder-to-shoulder with a worker and talk with tech designers about how technology could increase their dignity and safety at work. Instead, much of the technology that’s currently being developed is about supplanting the essential women and men employed in agriculture. We’ve seen in other venues, such as warehouses, where the deployment of AI has actually made the workplace more dangerous for human workers.

But there’s another layer to this discussion that rarely is articulated; the value of data. There’s no vibrant conversation in agriculture about data, who owns it, how it’s analyzed, and who the economic winners and losers are going to be. As I like to say, robots are as much about picking an apple as Facebook is about connecting friends and family.

In your opinion, why does the farm worker community need an “offensive play” to counteract this growing focus on agtech? And what would be an ideal one?

As I’ve said, there’s been little to no public discourse about who the winners and losers will be if some of these agtech products are put into practice. In fact, I find that most people default to describing the emergence of technology in agriculture as “inevitable,” and that it’s the growers’ and farm workers’ jobs to accommodate it.

There’s not been much talk about values as this technology is being developed. Why is no one talking about using technology to enhance the work experience for farm workers? How about ensuring that technology builds the economic resilience of rural communities, rather than empoverishing it? That tech should do no harm to workers, much less the environment.

It’s important to remember that much of this technology is being developed in a pre-regulatory environment. Seems to me that those of us who care about the essential women and men who feed us and the largely rural communities where they (we) live, need to get going on ensuring whatever technology comes into the fields are consistent with our values.

But in this case, the farm worker community has leverage. They have expertise. They have know-how. They have years of experience. But most valuable of all, they have data. And this allows them to challenge the status quo. They can become the innovators.

Farm workers can take an offensive position by reinvisioning who they are. Who they can be. They are passionate about working the land, they feel a spiritual connection with the crops they harvest, and they have incredible ideas. In my opinion, they are experts in agriculture and should be regarded as such. That expertise could be supported so they drive the development of needed technology, both improving the work experience and their own bottom lines.

You’ve talked to the Entidad team quite a bit about their digital products. What makes them unique as compared to other tech companies you’ve seen in the farming industry?

Right off the bat一look at who they are. They are the only, or at least one of the only, Latino-led firms in the space. That should tell you something about their integrity and perspective.

Beyond that, the Entidad leadership shares a vision of designing with farm workers. They actively test their products with farm workers in the field, gathering feedback and learning from it, iterating on each version.

And, frankly, Entidad’s products work. During COVID, Entidad partnered with UFW to help thousands of farm workers access emergency relief packages and free meals. They were also able to combat fake news about immunizations and convince farm workers to visit vaccination sites to get their COVID shots. Currently, Entidad is working on new features to streamline the immigration process, report workplace incidents, and apply to new jobs. There are just so many areas they can lean into to educate and empower the farm worker community.

But again, I would say that the most distinguishing factor about Entidad is that they are building a trusted relationship with the farm worker community. With greater adoption, their technology will help farm workers rise up, command more respect, and start executing on that offensive play.

Today, data is king. How can groups like Entidad use the data they collect for progressive purposes?

There’s really no getting around it; the reality is that data is going to be collected. What we need to ask is who is collecting this data, and to what end?

In some ways, data can enrich our ability to serve the farm worker community. If you think about Entidad, maybe they can supplement their existing product suite with devices that monitor farm worker heart rates, oxygen levels, and pesticide exposure. And when levels are too high or low, the Entidad app can point farm workers to the nearest doctor and explain their rights when it comes to requesting time off from their employer.

Not only that, Entidad could also aggregate data about farm workers’ skills to develop an algorithm that suggests new jobs to suit farm workers’ expertise or certifications farm workers can get to level up their skills. Entidad could also introduce surveys to harness information about farm workers’ poor working and living conditions in order to campaign for government assistance. And I know part of this is already in the works, but Entidad can use farm worker data to recommend next steps in the naturalization process or explain benefits their children can take advantage of.

Of course, if data gets into the wrong hands, it can be detrimental to the people whose health we are trying to protect. Think about an E. Coli outbreak, for instance. This could immediately be blamed on an unsuspecting crew, and a whole group of farm workers could lose their jobs. This is where security in technology becomes a non-negotiable.

Any parting thoughts?

I’d leave everyone with this quote from Kentaro Toyama, “technology is an exacerbator”. And we’re experiencing this first-hand with heightened racism and displacement of work in the fields. Eventually, this will accelerate the concentration of wealth and power into the hands of people who may not have everyone’s best interests at heart.

But we, as consumers, have the agency to decide what’s best for society. Rather than waiting for the “inevitable” to happen, why don’t we do something about it? Why don’t we start a conversation about what’s good for our rural communities? Why don’t we take a deeper look at the state at farm work, and find ways that technology can make it better?

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Julette Martinez

CEO, Farm Worker Organization