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

Harvest work in the strawberry fields, like most seasonal farm work in California, is considered "at will." There is no contract, no seniority, no obligation beyond the day-to-day. A grower hires and fires workers as necessary, without need for explanation. It makes no difference whether the migrant has been an employee for six days or six years. The terms of employment are laid down on a daily basis. If a grower wants slow and careful work, wages are paid by the hour. If a grower wants berries quickly removed from the field, the wages are piece-rate, providing an incentive to move fast. A migrant often does not know how long the workday will last or what the wage rate will be until he or she arrives at the field that morning. There might be two weeks of ten-hour days followed by a week of no work at all, depending on the weather and the market.

This system did not arise because growers are innately mean and heartless. Harvests are unpredictable from beginning to end. Many growers try to guarantee their workers a certain amount of income each week. Among other things, it makes good business sense to have reliable and capable workers returning each year. And yet there is no denying where the power lies.

The strawberry has long been known to migrants as "la fruta del diablo"--the fruit of the devil. Picking strawberries is some of the lowest-paid, most difficult, and therefore least desirable farm work in California. Strawberries are fragile and bruise easily. They must be picked with great care, especially those that will be sold fresh at the market. Workers must select only berries of the proper size, firmness, shape, and color. They must arrange the berries neatly in baskets to catch the shopper's eye. Learning how to pack strawberries correctly can take weeks. The worker is often responsible not only for gathering and packing the fruit but also for tending the plants. The drip-irrigation system has to be checked continually. Shoots and runners have to be removed. Rotting berries have to be tossed away, or they will spoil the rest. When a piece-rate wage is being paid, workers must perform these tasks and pick berries as fast as they can. There is a strong undercurrent of anxiety in a field being harvested at a piece rate. Workers move down the furrows pushing small wheelbarrows; they pause, bend over, brush away leaves to their left and right, pick berries, place them in boxes, check the plants, and move on, all in one fluid motion. Once their boxes are filled, they rush to have them tallied at the end of the field, rush back, and begin the process again.

Strawberry plants are four or five inches tall and grow from beds eight to twelve inches high. One must bend at the waist to pick the fruit, which explains why the job is so difficult. Bending over that way for an hour can cause a stiff back; doing so for ten to twelve hours a day, weeks at a time, can cause excruciating pain and lifelong disabilities. Most strawberry pickers suffer back pain. As would be expected, the older one gets, the more one's back hurts. Farm workers, like athletes, also decline in speed as they get older. The fastest strawberry pickers tend to be in their late teens and early twenties. Most migrants quit picking strawberries in their mid-thirties, although some highly skilled women do work longer. Age discrimination is commonplace in the fields--it is purely a question of efficiency.

The hourly wages paid to strawberry pickers vary considerably, depending on the grower, the type of berry being picked, the time of year, and, often, the skill of the worker. Wages are higher in Watsonville and Salinas than in southern California, because of the greater distance from Mexico. Growers producing top-quality berries for the fresh market may pay as much as $7.00 or $8.00 an hour. At the height of the season, when berries are plentiful and many growers pay a piece rate of $1.25 a box, the fastest workers can earn more than $100 a day. But wages at that level last for only a month or so, and even during that period most workers can't attain them. When a crew of thirty picks at a piece rate, three or four will earn $10.00 an hour, five or six will earn at or below the minimum wage, $4.25 an hour, and the rest will earn something in between.

The availability of work, not the pay scale, is of greatest concern to migrants. Despite the hardships that accompany the job, there is an oversupply of people hoping to pick strawberries. The fear of unemployment haunts all farm workers in California. Each harvest brings a new struggle to line up enough jobs for a decent income. The average migrant spends half the year working and a quarter of the year looking for work.

Another constant worry is finding a place to sleep. Santa Cruz and Monterey counties have some of the highest housing costs in the country. Long popular with tourists and wealthy retirees, the area has also begun to attract commuters from Silicon Valley. The residents of Watsonville and Salinas are determined to preserve the local farm economy, despite enormous pressure from developers. Agricultural land that currently sells for $20,000 an acre could be sold for many times that amount if it were rezoned: there are strawberry fields overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The determination to preserve agricultural land has not, however, extended to providing shelter for agricultural workers. Since 1980 the acreage around Watsonville and Salinas devoted to strawberries has more than doubled, and the tonnage of strawberries produced there has tripled. But the huge influx of migrant workers to pick these strawberries is forced to compete for a supply of low-income housing that has been inadequate for decades.

The few remaining labor camps for single men are grim places. Campo El Toro, a group of whitewashed buildings surrounded by chain-link fences and barbed wire, desolate except for a rosebush in front of the manager's office, looks like a holding pen or an old minimum-security prison. The Englund labor camp is reputed to be one of the best of its kind. Inside the barracks the walls are freshly painted and the concrete floor is clean. A typical room is roughly twelve feet by ten feet, unheated, and occupied by four men. Sheets of plywood separate the steel cots. For $80.00 a week, a price that most migrants cannot afford, one gets a bed and two meals a day. I have seen nicer horse barns.

Migrant workers try to avoid the labor camps for reasons other than cost: the risks of having possessions stolen during the day and of sleeping beside strangers at night. Whenever possible, migrants stay in residential neighborhoods. They pool their resources, relying on relatives and friends. In Watsonville three or four families will share a small house, seven or eight people to a room. Migrants routinely pay $100 to $200 a month to sleep in a garage with anywhere from four to ten other people. A recent survey of garages in Soledad found 1,500 inhabitants--a number roughly equal to a quarter of the town's official population. At the peak of the harvest the housing shortage becomes acute. Migrants at the San Andreas labor camp sometimes pay to sleep there in parked cars. The newest migrant workers, who lack family in the area and haven't yet learned the ropes, often sleep outdoors, in the wooded sections of Prunedale, trespassing, moving to a different hiding place each night. A few years ago, on hillsides above the Salinas Valley, hundreds of strawberry pickers were found living in caves.

LOCKED INTO DEPENDENCE

The immigration history of Guadalupe, California, can be read in the names and faces adorning headstones in its small cemetery. The Swiss and Italian and Portuguese surnames belong to families that settled in the Santa Maria Valley around the turn of the century, growing beans and sugar beets, running cattle, and raising dairy herds. The Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino names belong to the first wave of farm workers, some of whom managed to acquire land of their own. Spanish surnames greatly outnumber the rest, marking the recent graves along with plastic flowers and images of saints. There is a sepulchral custom in Guadalupe, practiced for generations: most of the headstones bear sepia-tinted photographs of the deceased. Walking through the graveyard, one sees at a glance the slightly different ethnic traits and the subtle variations in skin color--long the basis of economic status and rivalry. Now all these faces stare in the same direction from the same place, arranged like crops in long, straight rows.

For most of this century the Santa Maria Valley had a diverse farm economy. Although migrants were a large seasonal presence, the area lacked the huge industrial farms that dominated the landscape elsewhere in California. The acreage around Guadalupe was devoted primarily to field crops and irrigated pasture. The cattle ranches and dairy farms were owned and managed by local families. Fruits and vegetables, though an important source of revenue, occupied a small portion of the agricultural land.

Then, from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, the Santa Maria Valley was transformed. As field crops and dairy products became less profitable, farmers either switched to high-value specialty crops or quit farming. Much of the land in the valley was bought by outside corporations, such as Mobil and the Bank of America. Irrigated pastures became strawberry fields (dotted with oil wells) on leased land. The number of migrant workers soared. In 1960 Guadalupe's population was 18 percent Latino; today it is more than 83 percent Latino. The middle classes fled to the nearby city of Santa Maria, leaving behind a rural underclass. Half the families in Guadalupe now live below the poverty line.

Juan-Vicente Palerm has spent the past twelve years studying the social and economic changes in the Santa Maria Valley. The director of the University of California's Institute for Mexico and the United States, Palerm is an anthropologist by training; his early fieldwork traced the lives of Spanish guest workers in northern Europe--migrants imported by treaty to labor in factories and fields. He is an imposing figure, with the graying beard of a patriarch, and has a remarkable grasp not only of labor-market dynamics but also of how every crop in the valley is planted, tended, marketed, and sold. I spent a day with Palerm and one of his graduate students, Manolo Gonzalez (who picked strawberries for a year as part of his research), driving the side streets of Guadalupe, touring the fields, and discussing how the growers of California and the peasants of rural Mexico created an agricultural system that has locked them into mutual dependence.

By relying on poor migrants from Mexico, California growers established a wage structure that discouraged American citizens from seeking farm work. The wages offered at harvest were too low to sustain a family in the United States, but they were up to ten times as high as any wages Mexican peasants could earn in their native villages. A system evolved in which the cheap labor of Mexican migrants subsidized California agriculture, while remittances from that farm work preserved rural communities in Mexico that might otherwise have collapsed. For decades the men of Mexican villages have traveled north to the fields of California, leaving behind women, children, and the elderly to look after their small farms. Migrant work in California has long absorbed Mexican surplus labor, while Mexico has in effect paid for the education, health care, and retirement of California's farm workers.

Whenever migrants decided to settle in California, however, they disrupted the smooth workings of this system, by imposing higher costs on the state--especially if they married and raised children. That is why the Immigration and Naturalization Service has traditionally rounded up and deported illegal immigrants in California immediately after the harvest. Nevertheless, millions of Mexican farm workers have settled in the United States over the years, many of them becoming American citizens. Although agricultural employment has long been a means of entering U.S. society, low wages and poor working conditions have made it an occupation that most immigrants and their children hope to escape. Farm labor is more physically demanding and less financially rewarding than almost any other kind of work. A migrant who finds a job in a factory increases his or her income fourfold. As a result, the whole system now depends on a steady supply of illegal immigrants to keep farm wages low and to replace migrants who have either retired to Mexico or found better jobs in California.

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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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