Mea Draper co-owns a three-quarter-acre organic farm in San Anselmo. She was recently fined over $1,000 when the state labor department discovered that her relatives were working on the farm in exchange for produce. David Briggs

A small organic farm in San Anselmo found itself in hot water last month when a random sweep by the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement fined it for breaking the state’s farm labor laws. Jerry and Mea Draper received a $1,050 fine for occasionally allowing their sister, niece and nephew to work on their three-quarter-acre farm in return for fresh produce. Jerry’s 86-year-old father was fined $250 for having a volunteer help with office chores. 

“You’d think that a ‘family farm’ means a family farm,” Mea Draper said. “We didn’t realize that this isn’t the case. We’re so careful, I thought that all of our books were in order.” Under state law, interns and most family members must be given salaries, workers’ compensation and documented hour records. Only a farmer’s spouse, parents and children are allowed to work without pay—and siblings can only work for free if they are co-owners. 

But small-scale farmers have traditionally relied on family members and other sources of unpaid labor, like summer interns, to offset the high cost of maintaining their agricultural operation. Farmers offer internships or apprenticeships to young men and women interested in the food production industry. Instead of a paycheck, interns expect to learn new skills like irrigation methods, crop rotation techniques and animal husbandry. 

But under California regulations, interns must be part of an accredited academic program, paid, and proven not to have replaced other permanent job positions. “With volunteers, there are a lot of gray areas,” said Carl Borden, an associate attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “There’s not a lot of case law regarding [volunteers].” 

Many think that state farm labor laws should be restructured. In Marin County, small-scale organic operations like Draper Farms play a small but crucial role in the agricultural industry—about 40 certified organic farms provide tens of thousands of pounds of produce to residents and local businesses. 

“I think everyone is struggling to find a solution,” said assemblyman Jared Huffman, who says he has been researching the problem over the last several months. “We’re looking at possible legislative solutions that address the special circumstances that you see here. The one thing that seems clear is that you need to be very narrow with introducing legislation. Labor laws are there for a reason. But I think there’s a way to do it.”

Petaluma organic David Retsky was fined $18,000 for labor infractions last February, and two other small-scale Marin County farms were cited since 2008. California Department of Industrial Relations has inspected at least nine Marin farms in the last two years, and makes occasional random sweeps to ferret out illegal interns.

Huffman has been pledged his support of the Drapers, and intends to write a letter urging that the fine be withdrawn. The Drapers’ fine, though steep, is not likely to put them out of business. 

Borden says that it is a difficult road to introduce new legislation to politicians when Sacramento is so influenced by large conventional farm lobbyists. “I think there’s scant hope for change in these policies,” he said. “I think organized labor and big interests that are well represented in the capitol would take a very skeptical look at changes to labor policies that have taken decades to put into place.”

For now, Jerry plans to appeal the fine. “We think they’re going to come to their senses,” he said. “When the hearing comes we’re going to present our side, and we hope and pray that the hearing officer will look at our evidence and overrule the decision of the inspector.”