In the Strawberry Fields

The management of California's strawberry industry offers a case study of both the dependence on an imported peasantry that characterizes much of American agriculture and the destructive consequences of a deliberate low-wage economy

Just before sunrise farm workers appear on the streets of Guadalupe, California, emerging from the small houses, backyard sheds, basements, and garages where they spent the night. The men wear straw cowboy hats or baseball caps, windbreakers on this cool morning, sneakers, and ragged work clothes. The women have scarves and bandannas wrapped over their hair, hung around their necks, and tied across their faces, so that only their eyes can be seen. From a distance they seem draped in brightly colored veils. Soon a long line of vehicles is double-parked along Highway 1, awaiting passengers--not the spectacular Highway 1 that hugs the Pacific but a less familiar stretch, four miles inland amid the Santa Maria Valley, halfway between Los Angeles and Salinas. Here Highway 1 becomes Guadalupe's main drag, lined with Mexican restaurants, boarded-up storefronts, and bars. As dawn approaches, the procession of old Buicks, pickups, ancient school buses towing portable toilets, and beat-up vans heads for the neighboring fields. A handful of workers walk along the shoulder of the road, silhouetted by headlights. Two young men ride bicycles; most likely they slept outdoors.

When the sun rises from behind the coastal range, crews of thirty assemble at the edges of huge fields and start picking strawberries, slowly making their way down the long furrows, hundreds of men and women bent over at the waist, grabbing fruit with both hands. In the early-morning light it looks like a scene out of the distant past, the last remnant of a vanishing way of life--and yet nothing could be further from the truth.

migrant picture Twenty years ago there were about 800 acres of strawberries in the Santa Maria Valley; today there are about seven times that number. The strawberry is one of the most labor-intensive row crops. It is risky and expensive to grow, but it can yield more revenue per acre than virtually any other crop except marijuana. On the same land outside Guadalupe where family farms raised dairy cows not long ago, strawberry farms now employ thousands of migrant workers. Most of these migrants are illegal immigrants from Mexico, a fact that helps explain not only California's recent strawberry boom but also the quiet, unrelenting transformation of the state's rural landscape and communities.

Agriculture is still California's largest industry. For more than half a century California has led the nation in agricultural output; it now produces more than half the fruits, nuts, and vegetables consumed in the United States. Hundreds of commodities, from the mundane to the exotic, are grown in California, primarily in the Central Valley, an area that contains perhaps the best farmland in the world. In some respects, however, California agriculture is in decline. The value of its annual output, adjusted for inflation, has fallen 14 percent over the past two decades. During the 1980s roughly 20,000 acres of Central Valley farmland were lost each year to urbanization. Wide-open fields are giving way to subdivisions and strip malls. Water long used for irrigation is being diverted to cities and towns. Improved cooling and transportation systems have opened the American market to overseas competitors. Air pollution has begun to diminish crop yields.

Meanwhile, the fastest-growing and most profitable segment of California's farm economy--the cultivation of high-value specialty crops--has also become the one most dependent on the availability of cheap labor. Nearly every fruit and vegetable found in the diets of health-conscious, often high-minded eaters is still picked by hand: every head of lettuce, every bunch of grapes, every avocado, peach, and plum. As the demand for these foods has risen, so has the number of workers necessary to harvest them. Of the migrants in California today, anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent, depending upon the crop, are illegal immigrants. Their willingness to work long hours for low wages has helped California to sustain its agricultural production--despite the loss since 1964 of more than seven million acres of farmland. Fruit and vegetable growers in the state now rely on a thriving black market in labor--and without it more farms would disappear. Illegal immigrants, widely reviled and depicted as welfare cheats, are in effect subsidizing the most important sector of the California economy.

The rise in the number of migrant workers in California, along with the growth in the proportion who are illegal immigrants, reflects a national trend that has passed largely unnoticed. During the 1960s it was commonly believed that within a decade there would be no more migrant farm workers in the United States. Experts predicted that technology would soon render migrants obsolete: if a crop could not be harvested mechanically by 1975, it would not be grown in the United States. Census figures lent support to this scenario. Philip L. Martin is a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California at Davis and one of the nation's foremost authorities on farm-labor demographics. According to his estimates, during the 1920s there were some two million migrant farm workers in the United States. During the 1940s there were about one million. And during the early 1970s, when Cesar Chavez's labor-organizing drive among migrant workers was at its height, there were only about 200,000. Then the number began to climb. Today it is impossible to gauge the size of the migrant work force with any precision, among other reasons because so much of it is composed of illegal immigrants. Martin believes that 800,000 to 900,000 migrant farm workers are now employed in the United States. And not only are there far more migrants today but they are being paid far less. The hourly wages of some California farm workers, adjusted for inflation, have fallen 53 percent since 1985. Migrants are among the poorest workers in the United States. The average migrant worker is a twenty-eight-year-old male, born in Mexico, who earns about $5,000 a year for twenty-five weeks of farm work. His life expectancy is forty-nine years.

The rise of the strawberry industry is in many ways emblematic of changes that swept California agriculture during the 1980s. The strawberry has become the focus of a California industry whose annual sales exceed half a billion dollars. American farmers now receive more money for fresh strawberries each year than for any other fresh fruit grown in the United States except apples. And strawberry pickers are not only the poorest migrants but also the ones most likely to be illegal immigrants. During the recent strawberry harvest I spent weeks traveling through three regions in California where the fruit is commercially grown, meeting workers, farmers, academics, and farm-labor activists. My trip took me through the Santa Maria Valley, where rural poverty has recently become entrenched and where cruel sharecropping arrangements have trapped farm workers under mountains of debt; through the area around Watsonville and Salinas, where about half the state's strawberries are grown and where this year's heavy rains made many hard lives even harder; and through northern San Diego County, where the needs of farmers and real-estate developers increasingly conflict, and where a migrant work force lives in Third World shantytowns within throwing distance of expensive suburban homes. In the strawberry fields of California, I believe, one may find answers to many of the pressing questions raised by illegal immigration, along with some ethical questions that are much more difficult to resolve.

THE INDUSTRY: A SHORT COURSE

A strawberry field is not a beautiful sight. It lacks the charm and character of a citrus grove, an apple orchard, or even a field of corn. Strawberries now begin and end in plastic. Before planting, an entire field is sealed with plastic sheeting and injected with methyl bromide, a chemical brew that kills harmful microbes and nematodes. Then the sheeting is removed and workers install drip-irrigation hoses in the beds, cover the beds with new, clear plastic, and insert the plants through the plastic by hand. This plastic helps retain heat, keeps the soil moist, and prevents erosion. At the end of the harvest, workers rip the plants from the ground and throw them away, along with the plastic and the drip-irrigation hoses. Second-year plants tend to produce smaller berries.

California did not always dominate American strawberry production. In the early 1950s the state was responsible for only a third of the nation's strawberry crop. Then California strawberry production began to surge, impelled by new growing techniques, new plant varieties, and an abundance of inexpensive labor. From 1974 to 1994 California's strawberry output more than tripled; prices fell, and Americans doubled their consumption of fresh strawberries. Last year California shipped 76 million boxes of fresh strawberries (a box, also called a flat or a tray, holds a dozen pints and weighs roughly eleven and a half pounds), an all-time record. The state now accounts for 80 percent of the strawberries grown in the United States and about a quarter of the world's commercial strawberries.

In a good year strawberries can be one of the most profitable row crops in California. But they are also one of the riskiest. The fruit attracts a wide variety of pests, including aphids, eelworms, and red spider mites. Even more threatening is the weather. No matter how carefully a grower prepares the field, no matter how well-bred the plants, the size of the harvest will be determined in large part by the weather. Ideal growing conditions for strawberries include cool nights and warm, sunny days, with no wind above five miles an hour and no rain once the berries have appeared. Weather that falls short of the ideal may quickly and irreversibly damage the crop. Frost can burn the blooms. A strong wind will rub leaves against the berries, marring their skin with brown streaks. A heat wave will stunt and soften the fruit. Worst of all is heavy rain. Strawberries are so fragile that prolonged rain opens small tears in their skin, and the tears are quickly infected with botrytis, a gray mold. A few days of rain can destroy an entire harvest of strawberries.

The market for strawberries can prove just as unpredictable and disastrous as the weather. The perishability of fresh produce exposes growers to considerable risk. Ten days after a strawberry is picked, it begins to spoil. "I can't stuff my berries into a silo like a wheat farmer does," one grower told me, "and then run computer programs to decide when it's the best time to sell." Wholesale prices for fresh strawberries fluctuate widely, from $4.00 to $22.00 a box, depending on the quality of the fruit, the supply, the time of year, and all sorts of imponderables. Growers who produce specialty crops do not benefit directly from any government price supports. Although the strawberry plants now grown in California often produce fruit continuously for nine months, a fourth to a third of the berries reach maturity at the peak of the harvest--a period that lasts only a few weeks. A grower has little choice but to accept the prevailing market price for those berries. Strawberries for processing, which eventually can be stored, sell for about twenty-five cents a pound.

The most successful growers cultivate a high-quality strawberry, have enough capital to ride out the bad years, and sell their berries through a prominent marketing consortium. Such growers may earn annual profits of $10,000 to $20,000 an acre. But others often find themselves at the mercy of the weather and of a volatile free market. As in most fruit and vegetable production, the steady profits are usually earned by the middlemen--processors, cooling houses, distributors--and not by the growers. In the strawberry industry a grower's annual losses can be huge. The cost of strawberry production is anywhere from $12,000 to $30,000 an acre. A fifty-acre strawberry farm producing high-quality berries requires an annual investment of at least $1 million. There is very little a grower can do to limit the fixed costs: the payments on the mortgage or lease, for the plants, the pesticides, and the drip-irrigation system. The only cost over which a grower can exert any real control is the cost of labor.

Many strawberry growers play by the rules and treat their workers well. Indeed, strawberry pickers all aspire to jobs at farms affiliated with Driscoll Associates, where the fields are immaculate and the wages are the highest in the industry. Other organizations--such as Naturipe, Sweet Darling, Calberi, Figueroa, Gold Coast, and Boskovich Farms--are also highly regarded. It would be wrong to imply that all strawberry growers routinely mistreat their workers; but some do. Since labor costs constitute 50 to 70 percent of the total costs in strawberry production, cutting labor costs can mean the difference between a profit and a loss, or between a bad year and a disastrous one. The temptation to break the law can be great. The punishments for doing so are rarely applied. And in recent years some growers have shown little self-restraint.

One of the easiest ways to reduce labor costs is to keep workers off the books. Growers are often obligated to pay unemployment taxes and workers'-compensation premiums for each of their employees, in addition to Social Security and Medicare taxes. Paying an "invisible worker" in cash lowers the cost of that worker by at least 20 percent. Ignoring California's rules about overtime--which in agriculture do not apply until the workday reaches ten hours--effectively cuts those wages by 50 percent. And paying less than minimum wage brings the greatest savings of all. The vast number of illegal immigrants in the migrant work force is an invitation to break the law. They are unlikely to approach authorities about a violation of the labor code.

Sharecropping is the most insidious means by which growers avoid responsibility for their workers. The sharecropper is a straw man, an intermediary, usually a middle-aged farm worker, to whom the grower shifts many of the legal and financial risks. Sharecropping has a long history in the strawberry industry. It is a practice that in the past few years has often resembled not so much a type of agricultural production as an elaborate, well-organized fraud.

THE NEW SERVITUDE

When I met Felipe (a pseudonym, as are all the other names presented without surnames), he seemed in bad shape. His clothes were dirty and torn, his face haggard and unshaven. His strawberry field looked like hell too. The rows were littered with rotting berries, old boxes, and soda cans. There were broken irrigation hoses; no plastic enclosed the beds. "Too expensive," he told me. "The company doesn't pay me enough." Nearby, his workers picked "cat-faces"--small, deformed berries--off second-year plants. Rain had seriously damaged the field. Felipe was selling his fruit for twelve cents a pound. He couldn't understand why the price for strawberries for processing was so low, but the terms of his sharecropping contract required him to accept it. "They use us all year as slaves," he said. "They pay us whatever they want to." He promised to send me legal documents proving his claims. The season was just beginning, and Felipe was already $50,000 in debt--half of that amount rolled over from last year. He owed the IRS an additional $5,000. "I can't remember any time I've been in good shape," he said. "I'm always down in the hole." Felipe had been a strawberry picker when his grower approached him one day and asked if he'd like to become a "farmer." Now, after sixteen years as a sharecropper, Felipe owns few assets and is ready to quit.

Sharecropping has existed in the California strawberry industry throughout this century, rising and falling in popularity according to changes in the law and the labor supply. At various times the straw men have been called sharecroppers, sharefarmers, and tenant farmers. The underlying strategy, of shifting the greatest risks to the farm worker, has only become more refined. During the 1980s sharecropping thrived--not just for strawberries but also for raspberries, snow peas, and squash. Under a typical arrangement a grower assigned a portion of a strawberry field to a farm worker and his or her family. Instead of paying them wages, the grower promised to split the profits fifty-fifty. The sharecropper became the employer of record, responsible for hiring strawberry pickers, paying their wages, withholding their taxes, and checking their green cards. The grower was responsible for all other production costs and for the overall management of the strawberry farm. By setting up farm workers as supposedly independent operators, growers shielded themselves from labor and immigration laws--and from heavy losses. The sharecropper assumed a large part of the risk. He or she had no way of knowing whether there would be profits in a given year or whether the grower would share them fairly.

A number of hardworking and enterprising sharecroppers managed to succeed under this arrangement, earning enough money to become growers themselves. These farm workers turned farmers are now known as mexicanos, and the Figueroa family of Santa Maria is a notable example. But many sharecroppers did not fare so well. At the end of the year they had often earned less for their efforts than farm workers paid minimum wage. And sometimes they earned nothing at all.

The California Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that sharecropping arrangements in the pickle industry did not permit growers to ignore the state's workers'-compensation laws. Sharecroppers were not independent operators, the court said, and growers could not avoid their legal responsibilities simply by inventing a new name for their employees. But after subsiding briefly, sharecropping reappeared a few years ago in the strawberry industry, in a new version that makes the old one seem enlightened and humane. Behind many of the current sharecropping schemes are growers and former growers determined to eliminate all risk from the business of producing strawberries. Instead of paying the operating costs of a strawberry farm, these growers--now called commission merchants--lend sharecroppers the money for operating costs at interest rates as high as 19 percent. Under the old arrangement, if things went wrong, sharecroppers simply would not be paid for hard work; under the new one, they are being saddled with thousands of dollars of debt.

Mike Meuter, an attorney at California Rural Legal Assistance in Salinas, thinks that as much as half of the strawberry acreage in his area, which includes Watsonville, is being farmed by sharecroppers. A survey by CRLA staff members in Santa Maria found that half to three quarters of the acreage in the valley is being sharecropped. These estimates may be high, but there is no doubt that the practice is once again widespread. Jeannie Barrett, a CRLA attorney who has watched sharecropping arrangements come and go around Santa Maria for almost twenty years, thinks the new version is the worst yet. "It's basically a form of debt peonage," she says.

Presented by

A contributor to The Atlantic since 1994, Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness, and Chew On This. He has also written for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and others.

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