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Wednesday, June 18, 2008 10:00 am

Strawberry fields forever

Large growers rely on poor migrants to bring in the crop

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PHOTO BY BOB FILA/MCT
Untitled Document At last week’s Old Capitol Farmers’ Market, one question was on everyone’s lips: “Isn’t this weather great?” Everyone was just happy that it wasn’t raining. I smiled but had to reply, “Truthfully, it was nicer where I was last week.”
I’d been in sunny, glorious California. My daughter Ashley and I had flown out for a friend’s wedding in Pismo Beach, halfway between San Francisco and LA. Once we escaped LA’s sprawl, driving up the scenic coast, I remembered how much I liked California’s Central Coast. During the ’90s, my husband and I were frequently in the San Francisco area for his dental meetings; we’d often driven south for a couple of days afterward. Now Ashley and I were heading north along that same route. The flowers were lushly beautiful and the scenery spectacularly gorgeous. The temperature was in the seventies; it was breezy, without a cloud in sight. Flocks of pelicans cruised alongside us against a background of sun-sparkled Pacific waves. Even the car-rental gods had been generous: We were driving a brand-new (odometer reading: 30 miles) black Mustang convertible, top down. All that was missing was the Beach Boys on the radio.
As we approached Santa Maria, endless green fields appeared on our right. We smelled something delicious: strawberries! Sure enough, flashes of red peeped from beneath the green carpet. Minutes later, we saw a far less attractive strawberry field. Not an inch of earth was visible; the entire field was swathed in plastic, from which tiny plants emerged. It was then that I thought of the book; remembering it cast a shadow on our idyllic journey. Reefer Madness is by Eric Schlosser, who also authored Fast Food Nation. In Reefer Madness, Schlosser examines three of the largest American black-market businesses: marijuana (hence the title), pornography, and the commercial strawberry industry. Why does Schlosser lump strawberries with marijuana and pornography? When he wrote the book, in 2003, most commercial strawberry fields were sealed in plastic and then injected with methyl bromide. The plastic was removed, irrigation hoses installed, and new plastic laid down, after which plants were inserted through it. Methyl bromide chemically sterilizes soil. Not only is it highly toxic, but its ozone-destroying properties are 20 times worse than those of Freon. The Montreal Protocol, designed to phase out ozone-depleting substances, called for the use of methyl bromide to be eliminated by 2000. Most of the protocol’s signatories complied — some even earlier — but the U.S. dragged its feet; it was 2005 before methyl bromide was banned here. Attempts to introduce organic alternatives to fields that had been treated with methyl bromide largely failed because the chemical had worked so well: The soil was dead. These days the chemical Telone has replaced methyl bromide, and the planting protocol is virtually the same. It’s just as toxic (The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program reports “clear evidence” that it’s carcinogenic), but Telone doesn’t deplete the ozone. Scary as that is, it doesn’t qualify commercial strawberry growing as a black-market industry. What does, according to Schlosser, is the industry’s reliance on illegal immigrants for cheap labor.
Commercial strawberry farms are hardly the only agricultural operations to use illegals. Even though farming has become mechanized, as Schlosser says, “Nearly every fruit and vegetable found in the diet of health-conscious, often high-minded consumers is still picked by hand: every head of lettuce, every bunch of grapes, every avocado, peach, and plum. As the demand for these foods has risen, so has the number of workers necessary to harvest them. It’s impossible to gauge the size of the migrant workforce because so much of it is composed of illegal immigrants.” However, illegals are estimated to make up as much as 60 percent of migrant labor.
Schlosser chose to focus on commercial strawberry production because it’s huge. Since the 1970s demand for fresh strawberries has doubled. U.S. farmers make more money from strawberries than any other fruit except apples. In 2003, sales of California strawberries, which account for 80 percent of the U.S. market, were around $840 million. The other reason, according to Schlosser: “Strawberry pickers are not only the poorest migrants, but also the ones most likely to be illegal immigrants.”
Strawberry farming can be highly profitable, but it’s also highly risky. The market can fluctuate wildly. Strawberries are delicate, especially susceptible to pests and even more so to weather. They’re fragile and highly perishable and must be precisely picked and arranged in boxes to avoid bruising; it can take weeks to learn to pick strawberries correctly. In fact, migrants have long called strawberries la fruita del diablo — the devil’s fruit, because picking them is the most difficult, lowest paid, and consequently least desirable farm work. Cultivating strawberries is also labor intensive — 25 times as intensive as broccoli, which is why strawberry fields in the Central Coast now employ more workers than all other produce fields combined.
Mexican migrant workers have always been a part of California’s agricultural scene. Until 1929, there was no restriction of movement between Mexico and California. At the time it was estimated that 70 to 80 percent of migrant farm workers were Mexican. Even after illegal immigration became a misdemeanor, it remained an accepted part of California agriculture. That’s why, according to Schlosser, the Immigration and Naturalization Service used to wait until immediately after harvest to round up and deport illegal immigrants. “By relying on poor migrants from Mexico, growers established a wage structure that discouraged Americans from seeking farm work,” says Schlosser. “The wages . . . were too low to sustain [an American family], but were up to 10 times as high as 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 [Mexican] rural communities that might otherwise have collapsed.”
Working and living conditions for most migrant workers are heart-rending. Many live in cardboard shanties, in the open, and even in caves. Still, Schlosser points the finger at the system rather than at any specific group — not even growers. It’s a situation without any easy solutions.
“This system did not arise because growers are innately mean and heartless,” Schlosser says. “Harvests are unpredictable from beginning to end.” Growers are also under intense pressure to keep prices low; if they don’t, they risk being undercut by imports from countries with even lower wages (and environmental standards). Because labor is their biggest expense (50 to 70 percent), growers rely on the thriving black labor market — if they don’t, some face losing their farms.
Schlosser also cites growers, such as Driscoll Associates and Coastal Berry, that “play by the rules and treat their workers well. Indeed, strawberry pickers aspire to jobs at [such] farms . . . where the fields are immaculate and the wages are the highest in the industry.”
Back at the Springfield’s farmers’ market, I joined the long queue waiting for the first local strawberries. I didn’t mind the wait, because I knew I’d be eating them without worry or guilt about how they were grown or the lives of those who’d picked them.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.
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