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

Opponents of guest-worker programs have long based their objections to them on principle. More than a decade ago Sidney Weintraub and Stanley R. Ross, then at the University of Texas, asserted that "guest worker" is simply a modern euphemism for an indentured laborer. A guest-worker program legally embraces the concept of second-class citizenship, creating a group of people in this country who have limited rights. Aside from the philosophical objections that can be raised, many argue that such programs simply don't work. "There's nothing more permanent," one economist has said, "than temporary workers." Guest-worker programs were discontinued in Europe because large numbers of Algerian, Moroccan, and Turkish workers chose to settle instead of returning home.

Leo Chavez, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Irvine, thinks that Governor Wilson's anti-illegal-immigration campaign and his plan for a new guest-worker program share an underlying rationale. The author of Shadowed Lives (1993), a study of the role illegal immigrants now play in the San Diego economy, Chavez finds it ironic that young Mexican men are to be actively recruited for work in California while Mexican women and children are to be expelled. "It's quite simple,"he says. "The state wants their production, but not their reproduction."

Mexican farm workers have long dominated the agricultural labor force in California and the Southwest, but only recently have they begun to migrate throughout the United States. Mexican farm workers, many of them illegal immigrants, are now picking raspberries in Oregon, detasseling corn in Iowa, harvesting tobacco in Virginia, and tending plants in New Jersey nurseries. Moreover, the same method long used to employ illegal immigrants in California agriculture--the reliance on intermediaries, such as labor contractors--is being used to employ them in construction work, janitorial service, and the garment industry. The majority of illegal immigrants in California now work in nonfarm occupations and come from regions throughout Mexico, including Mexico City. Michael Kearney anticipates that the indigenous people of Chiapas will soon join Mixtecs in the migratory stream. Farm-union organizers strongly oppose a new guest-worker program, while others ask why the government should serve as a labor contractor for agricultural interests, when nonfarm industries are just as eager to hire low-wage workers. A guest-worker program is unnecessary, opponents say, when so many farm workers already in the United States are struggling to find work.

Philip L. Martin, who served for four years as a member of the Commission on Agricultural Labor, a group mandated by IRCA, believes that the most effective way to improve the lives of farm workers is simply to enforce the existing labor and immigration laws. Lax federal enforcement has amounted to a tremendous subsidy for fruit and vegetable growers, one that has distorted the economics of those industries. "Cheap labor benefits agriculture in the short run,"Martin argues. "But it also helps to blind farmers to the technological changes they will have to make in order to compete with foreign producers, who have access to even cheaper labor." As long as the United States tolerates the employment of illegal immigrants in agriculture, Martin believes, the farm-labor market will continue the endless cycle in which farm workers quit for better jobs and illegals arrive to replace them. "We have essentially privatized the immigration policy of this country," Martin says, "and left it in the hands of California's growers."

Joaquin Avila, a former president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, thinks the distinction between legal and illegal farm workers is less important at this point than the level of wages being paid. The labor-market interdependence of the United States and Mexico, a relationship that evolved over decades, cannot be severed overnight. Until economic development in Mexico has diminished the underlying need for migration, he says, the emphasis within the United States should be on making sure that all workers, regardless of their nationality, are paid a decent wage and protected from exploitation. Doubling the minimum wage would help farm workers enormously, says Marc Linder, a professor of law at the University of Iowa who has long represented migrants. Over the past eight years the minimum wage has declined in value by 33 percent. Doubling it would end a great deal of misery while adding little to the retail cost of most fruits and vegetables.

Despite the many policy options regarding farm workers, the most likely scenario is that nothing will be done--or that things will get much worse. The new Republican leadership in Congress has vowed to cut off all federal funding for legal-services organizations like CRLA by 1997 and wants to restrict the types of cases they can handle. The House majority leader, Dick Armey, hopes to eliminate the minimum wage. The plight of migrant workers has been deplored by presidential commissions and congressional subcommittees for nearly a century, and yet little has fundamentally changed. Growers still exercise a great deal of political influence, while farm workers possess virtually none. Except for a flurry of attention every few decades, the American people have greeted the whole subject with indifference. The nation's fresh produce is less expensive as a result--but not much. Maintaining the current level of poverty among migrant farm workers saves the average American family about $40.00 a year.


One morning in San Diego County, I met a strawberry grower named Doug. We sat and talked in a trailer on the edge of his field. Doug's father and grandfather were both sent to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. Upon their release the grandfather bought a used truck. At first he worked for other farmers; then he leased some land. Doug's grandfather spoke no English, and so Doug's father, still a teenager, assumed an important role in the business. The two grew vegetables with success and eventually shifted to strawberries, shipping and processing the fruit as well. On the land where their original farm once stood, there are now condominiums, a park, and a school. Doug grows strawberries a few miles inland. His fields are surrounded by chain-link fences topped with barbed wire. An enormous real-estate development, with hundreds of Spanish-style condo units, is creeping up the hills toward his farm. Many of the farmers nearby have already sold their land. Doug has spent most of his life in strawberry fields, learning every aspect of the business firsthand, but now he isn't sure he wants his children to do the same.

"Farming's not a glamorous business," Doug said. "Farmers don't have a high status in this community. In fact, we're resented by most people." With all the hassles today from the state and from his neighbors, he sometimes asks himself, "Hey, why do this?" He worries about water costs, about theft, about the strawberries from New Zealand he saw in the market the other day. This year's rain wiped out a quarter of his early-season berries, just when the market price was at its peak. Doug cannot understand the hostility toward growers in California. After all, agriculture preserves open land. He thinks Americans don't appreciate how lucky they are to have cheap food. He doesn't understand why anyone would impede strawberry production by limiting his access to migrants. "My workers are helping themselves," he said. "I respect these people. They work damn hard. And my jobs are open to anyone who wants to apply." Every so often, he said, college kids visit the farm, convinced that picking strawberries would be a nice way to earn some extra money. Doug laughed. "They don't last an hour out here."

We stepped from the trailer into bright sunshine. Workers moved down the furrows under close supervision. Doug takes great pride in being a third-generation grower. He is smart, well-educated, and meticulous, and it showed in his field. But I wondered if Doug and his workers would still be there in a few years.

Doug picked a berry and handed it to me, a large Chandler that was brilliantly red. I took a bite. The strawberry was warm and sweet and fragrant, with a slightly bitter aftertaste from the soil.

That evening Iinadvertently met some of Doug's workers. Ricardo Soto, a young lawyer at CRLA, had brought me to the edge of an avocado orchard to visit a hidden encampment of migrant workers. Perhaps half the migrants in San Diego County--at least 14,000 people--are now living outdoors. The shortage of low-income housing became acute in the early 1980s, and large shantytowns began to appear, some containing hundreds of crude shacks. As suburbs encroached on agricultural land in northern San Diego County, wealthy commuters and strawberry pickers became neighbors. At one large shantytown Ivisited, women were doing their laundry in a stream not far from a walled compound with tennis courts, a pool, and a sign promising COUNTRY CLUB LIVING.

The suburbanites do not like living beside Mexican farm workers. Instead of providing low-income housing, local authorities have declared states of emergency, passed laws to forbid curbside hiring, and bulldozed many of the large encampments. San Diego growers appalled by the living conditions of their migrants have tried to build farm-worker housing near the fields--only to encounter fierce resistance from neighboring homeowners. Although the shantytowns lower nearby property values, permanent farm-worker housing might reduce property values by an even greater amount. "When people find out you want to build housing for your migrants," one grower told me, "they just go ballistic."

The new encampments are smaller and built to avoid detection. At the end of a driveway, near a chain-link fence, Imet a young Mixtec who lived in such an encampment. His name was Francisco, and he was eighteen years old. He looked deeply exhausted. He had just picked strawberries for twelve hours at Doug's farm. Iasked what he thought of Doug as a boss. "Not bad,"he said politely.

The previous year Francisco had picked strawberries from April until July. He had saved $800 during that period and had wired all of it to his mother and father, in the village of San Sebastiàn Tecomaxtlahuaca. This was Francisco's second season in the fields, but he had not seen much of San Diego County. He was too afraid of getting caught. His days were spent at the farm, his nights at the encampment. He picked strawberries six days a week, sometimes seven, for ten or twelve hours a day. "When there's work," Francisco said, "you have to work." Each morning he woke up around four-thirty and walked for half an hour to reach Doug's field.

At dusk thirteen tired men in dirty clothes approached us. They were all from Francisco's village. They worked together at Doug's farm and stayed at the same encampment. They knew one another's families back home and looked after one another here. The oldest was forty-three and the youngest looked about fifteen. All the men were illegals. All were sick with coughs, but none dared see a doctor. As the sun dropped behind the hills, clouds of mosquitos descended, and yet the migrants seemed too tired to notice. They lay on their backs, on their sides, resting on the hard ground as though it were a sofa.

Francisco offered to show me their encampment. We squeezed through a hole in the chain-link fence and through gaps in rusting barbed wire, and climbed a winding path enclosed by tall bushes. It felt like a medieval maze. As we neared the camp, I noticed beer cans and food wrappers littering the ground. We came upon the first shack--short and low, more like a tent, just silver trash bags draped over a wooden frame. A little farther up the path stood three more shacks in a small clearing. They were built of plywood and camouflaged. Branches and leaves had been piled on their roofs. The landowner did not know the migrants lived here, and the encampment would be difficult to find. These migrants were hiding out, like criminals or Viet Cong. Garbage was everywhere. Francisco pointed to his shack, which was about five feet high, five feet wide, and seven feet long. He shared it with two other men. He had a good blanket. But when it rained at night, the roof leaked, and the men would go to work soaking wet the next day and dry off in the sun. Francisco had never lived this way before coming to San Diego. At home he always slept in a bed.

Beyond the sheds bushes crowded the path again, and then it reached another clearing, where two battered lawn chairs had been placed at the edge of the hill. There was a wonderful view of strawberry fields, new houses, and the lights of the freeway in the distance.

Driving back to my motel that night, I thought about the people of Orange County, one of the richest counties in the nation--big on family values, now bankrupt from financial speculation, unwilling to raise taxes to pay for their own children's education, unwilling to pay off their debts, whining about the injustice of it, and blaming all their problems on illegal immigrants. And I thought about Francisco, their bogeyman, their scapegoat, working ten hours a day at one of the hardest jobs imaginable, honest work, and sleeping on the ground every night for months so that he could save money and send it home to his parents.

We have been told for more than a decade to bow down before "the market." We have placed our faith in the laws of supply and demand. What has been forgotten, or ignored, is that the market rewards only efficiency. Every other human value gets in its way. The market will drive wages down like water, until they reach the lowest possible level. Today that level is being set not in Washington or New York or Sacramento but in the fields of Baja California and the mountain villages of Oaxaca. That level is about five dollars a day. No deity that men have ever worshiped is more ruthless and more hollow than the free market unchecked; there is no reason why shantytowns should not appear on the outskirts of every American city. All those who now consider themselves devotees of the market should take a good look at what is happening in California. Left to its own devices, the free market always seeks a work force that is hungry, desperate, and cheap--a work force that is anything but free.

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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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