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


California never enjoyed a period in which family farms dominated the rural economy, employing hired hands who could expect someday to own their own land. Its society never remotely resembled the Jeffersonian ideal. Monopolistic patterns of land ownership established under Spanish and Mexican rule were unaffected by California's admission into the United States. The vast bonanza wheat farms that emerged in California during the mid-nineteenth century offer the earliest example of modern American agribusiness, a model soon emulated by the state's fruit and vegetable growers. California's agricultural potential seemed limitless. The soil was rich, the climate was almost perfect, and water for irrigation was abundant. All the state lacked was an army of laborers to harvest its apples, melons, oranges, and dates. The historian Cletus E. Daniel has called the initial phase of large-scale agriculture in California "the search for a peasantry." First Chinese and then Japanese worked the fields, until the Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Gentleman's Agreement of 1907 limited their supply. In the early years of this century Mexicans were hailed as the solution to California's perennial farm-labor shortages. The Mexican, it was argued, would not only work hard for low wages whenever needed but also go home when no longer required.

There was complete freedom of movement between California and Mexico until 1929, when undocumented immigration to the United States became a crime--a misdemeanor carrying no legal punishment. By then 70 to 80 percent of the migrant farm workers in California were Mexicans, and the Mexican population of Los Angeles had grown larger than that of any city in Mexico except the nation's capital. Illegal immigrants from Mexico have long been a mainstay of California's rural economy; the proportion of illegals in the state's population is little different today from what it was four decades ago. Midwestern migrant workers, the "Okies" immortalized by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, were a historical anomaly. For nearly eighty years the vast majority of California's migrant workers have been Mexican immigrants, legal and illegal. The nationality of these migrants over generations seems as unvarying as the nature of the work. Most of California's produce is harvested today exactly as it was in the days of the eighteenth-century mission fathers.

Machines have been invented to harvest almost every kind of fruit and vegetable grown in the United States. Such machines are introduced, however, only when the cost of mechanization is lower than the anticipated costs of paying migrants to do the same work. During the 1970s the United Farm Workers achieved great success organizing migrants in the California grape and lettuce industries. The influence of the UFW extended far beyond these crops; simply the threat of unionization persuaded many growers to raise wages, offer benefits, and improve working conditions. At about the same time, California adopted some of the most pro-union legislation in the country, guaranteeing farm workers the right to collective bargaining, a minimum wage, and unemployment compensation. As labor costs increased, mechanization became a top priority for California growers. But successive Republican governors, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, gutted the Agricultural Labor Relations Board and relaxed enforcement of the state's tough labor laws. Union workers were fired; illegal immigrants replaced them; and growers avoided prosecution for workplace violations by hiding behind the legal fiction that labor contractors and sharecroppers were the actual employers of migrants. Hard-won benefits such as sick leave, vacation pay, family housing, and health insurance were eliminated. The living and working conditions of migrants steadily declined.

At the beginning of the 1980s the UFW had perhaps 60,000 members. Today it has between 5,000 and 10,000. Migrant workers have become so cheap in California, largely owing to illegal immigration, that they are increasingly being used not just to pick fruits and vegetables but to pack them as well, right in the fields. Automated packinghouses employing union workers are rapidly going out of business. Instead of the mechanization of California agriculture, a prominent labor expert recently observed, we are witnessing its "Mexicanization."


The San Andreas labor camp is a small slum set amid rolling hills and strawberry fields not far from Watsonville. For most of the year this bleak collection of gray wooden barracks has about 350 residents, mainly strawberry workers and their families, but at the peak of the harvest hundreds more cram into its forty apartments. Last summer there was a major outbreak of tuberculosis at the camp, fueled by crowded living quarters and poor building design. The bedrooms occupy a central corridor of the barracks; none has a window. A superior-court judge recently held the landlord responsible for maintaining "a public nuisance" and for violating local fire, health, safety, building, and zoning codes. Nevertheless, the tenants continue to pay $500 a month for their two-bedroom apartments and feel lucky to have a roof over their heads. As I walked around the camp, there were children everywhere, running and playing in the dirt courtyards, oblivious of the squalor.

It was mid-April, and heavy rains the previous month had flooded hundreds of acres, scattering bright-blue plastic barrels from the nearby Smuckers plant across local strawberry fields and embedding them in the mud. Many fields that had not been flooded had still been damaged by the rains. The sky was overcast, more bad weather was coming, and a year's income for these workers would be determined in the next few months. Half a dozen strawberry pickers, leaning against parked cars, told me that at this point in the season they usually worked in the fields eight or ten hours a day. Only one of them was employed at the moment. Each morning the others visited the strawberry farm on a nearby hillside, inquired about work, and were turned away. The foreman, who had hired them for years, said to try again next week.

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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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