Strawberry Fields

Bow Ties

Strawberry Fields

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."

Kate Mahoney

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.

While I was in California, I attempted to interview David Kirk, the founder of the company that bears his name. None of my phone calls was returned. Mr. Gwosdof seemed a competent spokesman for Kirk Produce. He drafted their contracts, and for many years now he has defended them in court and otherwise represented their interests. The California Second District Court of Appeals has thoroughly rejected the arguments that Mr. Gwosdof makes here, ruling that Kirk Produce's sharecroppers are not "independent growers" but employees of the company--as are their migrants. On October 26 of last year the California Supreme Court upheld that decision, refusing to consider Kirk Produce's appeal.

David Riggs is correct in noting that California's strawberry industry has been at the forefront of technological innovation. Research, however, has principally been aimed at increasing the yield of strawberry plants. California's strawberry fields are now the most productive in the world. But high yields create the need for huge numbers of migrants at harvest. Until machines are invented that can pick strawberries without damaging the fruit or the plants, human hands will have to suffice. Very little research has been directed at making such work easier. Ronald Burk and Bob Espinola, the owners of Gold Coast Farms, in Santa Maria, provide weight-lifting belts to their strawberry pickers--a low-tech means of reducing the severe back pain caused by the job. Other growers might follow their example.

I did not assert, nor do I believe, that "all farmers are abusive and all workers are abused." On the contrary, I listed more than half a dozen companies (including the largest in the strawberry industry) that treat their workers well. Nowhere in his letter does Mr. Riggs mention the existence of sharecropping, a practice that now accounts for perhaps 40 percent of California's strawberry crop. Some sharecropping arrangements resemble employee profit-sharing plans; many others are tantamount to debt peonage. If the California Strawberry Commission truly wants to help growers who play by the rules, it should take a strong stand against the growers and commission merchants who benefit from exploiting their sharecroppers.

As for the free market, it should be noted that the state and federal governments have spent vast sums of money constructing the elaborate infrastructure that provides water to California's farmers. The irrigation system of the Central Valley is fed with water from more than 100 dams built with taxpayer's money, the legacy of a public-works project that has spanned most of this century. Without these enormous subsidies California agriculture would not have bloomed. For a small fraction of that cost the farm workers now sleeping outdoors beneath plastic tarps could be provided with housing. I do not hold California growers responsible for the appalling living and working conditions endured by so many of their workers. The blame rests with a society that profits enormously from the labor of these migrants but remains unwilling to provide them with basic services, guarantee their legal rights, or even protect them from attacks by racists and demagogues. The current effort in Congress to eliminate California Rural Legal Assistance and similar organizations is just one more shameful episode in the history of this nation's farm workers.

Bow Ties

A few comments on John Spooner's article "Bow Ties" (November Atlantic).

I once met a fellow at Berghoff's Restaurant who was wearing a mink bow tie. He was a wrinkled, liver-spotted old raisin of a man with a buxom young wife, and damn if he didn't look crème de la cool in his brown glen-plaid suit, tan silk shirt, and little fur tie, even if he did wear the thickest glasses I have ever in my life seen. He said that his brother-in-law (his first wife's brother--he was a widower) ran a mink ranch and gave him the ties, so this was not the sort of thing in general circulation. He said his favorite tie was of red sable: yum!

If a man wearing a four-in-hand tie takes off his suit coat and rolls up his sleeves to do some hefting, he looks mighty foolish with his tie dangling flaccidly in front of him. A man wearing a bow tie with sleeves rolled up looks ready to work.

There used to be a custom tie shop on the second floor of a very old building on Michigan Avenue. In the late seventies, when nobody wore bow ties, I went there looking for a white bow tie. I wanted silk rep, not the white piqué that is worn with full dress. The fellow who ran the place said he had just the thing. He took me through a room of fabric cutters and seamstresses, into a musty storage room stacked to the ceiling with sturdy card-board boxes. There he dug back through three layers of boxes to find a box labeled "Full-Dress/Rep." He opened the box and hesitated. I thought he would cry. Then he showed me--all the ties were yellowed with superannuation.

A fellow who lives down the street from me wears prissy little silk-print butterfly bow ties tied in a loose soft knot. He says that women always stop to straighten bow ties, and he likes the attention. I hope it helps.

In the days when he was still a leftist, Lyndon LaRouche wore snappy striped bow ties. After turning state capitalist, he took to wearing more "mainstream" ties that look suspiciously like polyester.

In days past repairmen and mechanics wore bow ties because they didn't get caught in the machinery. Nowadays repairmen wear odious clip-on four-in-hand ties, and mechanics go open-necked.

Henry Ford's chief goon, Harry Bennett, wore bow ties because you couldn't grab them in a fight.

I am a mechanic who still gets into tavern brawls now and again. I wear solid-colored, silk-rep, diamond- or blunt-edged bow ties knotted as tight and small as possible: real bad-ass ties.

R. M. Schultz

Everyone, it seems, does have an opinion about bow ties. A doctor called me to say that he is left-handed and for some reason has to lie down on the floor whenever he ties a bow. Another man, in the clothing business, called to tell me that whenever he goes to a party wearing a four-in-hand, he carries a folded bow in his pocket--"in case the crowd seems to need the bow-tie look."

I'm glad that people seem to be as passionate about bow ties as they are about the budget battle. Unlike R. M. Schultz, I have never seen anyone wearing a bow tie in a brawl. But I was dining in a restaurant a few weeks ago when a woman came up to my table, reached out, and pulled one end of my bow tie, undoing it. "I've always wanted to do that," she said. "Your article gave me the courage." She marched away. I wonder what she meant by that? I thought. But at least I didn't have to lie down on the floor to retie it. Years ago I practiced until I could tie a bow in the dark.

The Atlantic Monthly; February,1996; Letters; Volume 277, No. 2; pages 10-13.