Thank you for Eric Schlosser's wonderful and poignant article "In the Strawberry Fields" (November Atlantic). His descriptions of the backbreaking work and miserable living conditions of migrant laborers should make us all ask ourselves what we are willing to pay for the free market. Schlosser writes eloquently about the harsh paradox of the wealth of Orange County and the poverty of illegal workers. He asks us to re-examine our worship of the almighty free market and the laws of supply and demand. Thank you for reminding us that "the market rewards only efficiency" and that "the free market always seeks a work force that is hungry, desperate, and cheap--a work force that is anything but free."
I spoke at length with Eric Schlosser during the preparation of "In the Strawberry Fields," and have a few comments. The article is interesting but inaccurate, and reflects Schlosser's use of data given to him by the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.
The cases cited in the article are now three years old and are based on events that never occurred or on conditions that no longer exist.
Schlosser failed to disclose that I had made arrangements for him to speak with successful strawberry growers who have used Kirk Produce as their commission merchant for many years. He told me that he failed to follow through on these important interviews. He was to have met with these growers by himself and to have asked any questions he desired, either in person or on the telephone.
I made arrangements for the president of Kirk Produce to speak with Schlosser at a mutually convenient time. Schlosser never called to confirm a time for this important interview.
A commission merchant is paid on a per-tray-sold basis and does not share in the profits obtained by the grower. This is a set amount, not a percentage of sale. Schlosser might call this practice "sharecropping," but such a description is surely not apt. When was farming not a "roll of the dice," dependent on weather, market conditions, and many other factors?
From the market price growers must deduct the costs of sale to determine profit. These costs include labor, packaging, fertilizer, fumigation, plants, ground preparation, irrigation, fuel, utilities, strawberry-commission levy, possible transportation, insurance (both liability and workers' compensation), and many other costs both hidden and obvious. Bank or other loans and advances must also be deducted, and the remainder goes to the grower, who stands to make or lose money depending on the market. The commission merchant does not control market prices but always attempts to sell his principal's commodity for the highest price attainable--to carry out his fiduciary duties and to maintain the grower base. Consumers, including Schlosser, have historically demanded lower and lower prices for fruits and vegetables. They may not buy strawberries if they think the price is excessive.
Schlosser fails to mention the sworn Warranties of Labor Law Compliance that, I believe, were included in the contracts mentioned in the article. Each grower gives Kirk Produce its sworn assurances upon personal knowledge that all labor laws and regulations have been fully complied with relative to the produce delivered to Kirk Produce.
My impression is that Schlosser seeks to highlight only serious social and labor-law abuses by a very few growers in a labor-intensive, high-risk, highly regulated business participated in by hundreds of thousands of people in an assembly line from the farm to the table of the consumer.
Peter M. Gwosdof
"In the Strawberry Fields" is distorted reporting and a vilification of an industry that is generally progressive and responsible. Your reporter was given substantial information--which he chose not to use--that could have led to a balanced report of a complex and challenging issue. Instead Eric Schlosser conveyed the stereotype that all farmers are abusive and all workers are abused. To say that the industry is founded on the availability of cheap, illegal labor is grossly unfair to the majority--responsible farmers who obey the laws, treat their workers with fairness and respect, and provide good working conditions.
The strawberry industry has been a longtime advocate of strict enforcement of labor laws in California. We publish bilingual handbooks containing the fundamental worker-safety and wage requirements to simplify huge and complicated legal codes. We conduct statewide bilingual seminars to educate farmers about California's stringent and ever-changing labor standards. And we conduct bilingual seminars for field supervisors on good management practices and fair treatment of employees. In addition, we have actively encouraged more-aggressive enforcement of the laws through meetings with state regulatory and elected officials, including the state labor commissioner.
The California strawberry industry is far from being a regressive industry unwilling to adopt new technologies, as the article implies. On the contrary. The strawberry industry is among the top agricultural industries in providing research grants to the University of California. From that research have come strawberry varieties now used throughout the world, water-conserving drip-irrigation systems (adopted by strawberry farmers in the 1970s), and the fundamental principles of today's widely touted integrated-pest-management strategies, first researched by the California strawberry industry in 1962.
Many farmers have survived and prospered by treating their workers well and producing a high-quality product that sometimes yields a higher price. These farmers value and respect the work ethic and highly value their employees. But farmers who complete the arduous and expensive task of complying with California's complex labor codes are at a serious disadvantage compared with those who do not. In fact, the only correct conclusion in the article was buried near the end, where Schlosser wrote, "Philip L. Martin . . . believes that the most effective way to improve the lives of farm workers is simply to enforce the existing labor and immigration laws."
On a level playing field the California strawberry industry can and does compete, with responsible farmers leading the way. In the long term good labor practices are more productive and profitable. Strict enforcement of existing laws ultimately creates the conditions necessary for such practices to prevail in the short term.
We do face competition from Mexico and Central America, where labor is cheaper and workers are abused, and those workers do find the fields of California infinitely more desirable. And, yes, that creates an inexorable flow of workers across the border. But that is not a fault of free markets, and it shows instead the inherent desirability of free markets and prosperity.
David R. Riggs
The sharecropping section in my article was based on interviews with sharecroppers (including a number employed by Kirk Produce), officials at the California Labor Commission and the U.S. Department of Labor, prominent strawberry growers, faculty members at the University of California, lawyers affiliated with California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), and dozens of migrant workers. I did not interview the five sharecroppers whom Peter Gwosdof selected for me. Nor did I interview the three sharecroppers who are currently suing Kirk Produce, with the assistance of CRLA, alleging a variety of improper business practices. Instead I traveled through the countryside around Watsonville, Salinas, and Santa Maria, visiting sharecropped fields at random. Every sharecropper I met told me the same basic story, one that contradicts Mr. Gwosdof's account of how this system works.