by David Bacon
By 7:30 in the morning it is already 80 degrees in a potato field in Lamont, in the southern San Joaquin Valley. By mid-afternoon here it will reach 107. The workers moving up and down the rows are not dressed in shorts and tank tops, though. They wear multiple layers of clothing, including long sleeves and, in the case of women, bandannas that cover their faces, leaving only their eyes visible.
Farmworkers know how to handle heat. They work in these intense conditions every day. ‘’Clothing is like insulation,’’ says Evelina Arellano. ‘’It actually protects you. And if I didn’t wear my bandanna, by the end of the day it would be hard to breathe because of the dust.’’ [The names of the workers in the field have been changed-Ed.]
The rows are as long as two football fields, each a deep furrow next to a mound bearing the potato plants. Between the potatoes grow weeds, some spreading out next to the dirt and others growing as tall as the workers themselves. On this day in mid-June the farm labor crew is pulling the weeds.
Men and women walk from weed to weed, bending down low, pulling each out by the roots. You can hear the breath expelled by each effort to tear a big one from the ground.
Everyone carries a bag on his or her back, and stuffs the weeds into it. As workers move down the rows, the bags expand and get heavy. The weeds are scratchy, even with gloves, and as the morning wears on, the sun gets hotter. There is a lot of dust everywhere in the air in the southern San Joaquin Valley, which has some of California’s worst air quality.
Soon you are unable see to the far edge of the field next to this one.
If this were a potato field like most in the valley, the dust would contain pesticide and herbicide residue. Here the dust may be unpleasant, but it is not toxic, because the field is growing organic potatoes for one of California’s largest producers of organic vegetables, Cal Organic Farms.
Potato plants take from three to four months to grow to maturity, and this field contains anywhere from 17,000 to 22,000 plants. Probably back in late February or early March, it was seeded with potatoes or pieces of potatoes that contain the eye, from which the new sprout grows. Cal Organic Farms says it can get two crops a year in the San Joaquin Valley.
This field is almost ready to be harvested, and weeds can interfere with the operation of the mechanical harvester. Weeds also compete for water, not a minor factor given California’s drought, and can provide an environment for pests that can damage the tubers.
So a healthy attractive organic potato-ready for au gratin, potato salad, or your grandmother’s adobo – is much more a product of workers’ labor than the non-organic kind. Organic produce not only has created somewhat healthier conditions for these farmworkers, it has also meant more work. Since the grower cannot use herbicides, weed removal is accomplished by hand. That means workers are hired to remove them, instead of spraying the field with chemicals.
Cal Organic Farms grows a variety of vegetables, and other operations also require human labor instead of chemical inputs. As a result, the work season for a Cal Organic crew lasts longer than for many other farmworkers.
‘’I started on January 27th,’’ explains Josefina Reyes, ‘’and I’ll work until November 1st.’’
Hernandez and her husband, Alfredo, are the oldest workers in the crew. They are no longer able or willing to do what others do to get nine months of work a year: hit the road to northern California or even Oregon and Washington. Organic farming gives them enough work so that they can live in Lamont year-round. If they save their money, they will be able to make it through the three months of winter when growers are not hiring.
At lunch break the couple talk to each other quietly in Mixteco, an indigenous language that was spoken in their hometown of Tlaxiaco, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, long before Columbus arrived in the Americas.
For lunch small groups of friends sit together at the side of the field, and some build small fires to heat their tacos. One popular taco filling is chorizo, the spicy Mexican sausage, mixed with papas, or potatoes. Organic potatoes are expensive in the market, but these workers are surrounded by fields of them. Many like the idea of eating food with no pesticides as much as anyone. Farmworkers are exposed to much greater pesticide levels than what is contained in food. Many here in this crew worked in sprayed fields earlier in their work lives, and pesticide residue is omnipresent in small farmworker towns like Lamont.
From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Lamont and the southern San Joaquin Valley were strongholds of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), the union founded by Cesar Chavez, Larry Itliong, and Dolores Huerta. At the height of the UFW’s strength, the base wage for farm labor in this area was two to three times the minimum wage. Translated into today’s terms, this would be $16-24 per hour. One method the union used to get wages up was to ban labor contractors, and instead to operate union hiring halls. In the 1980s the union lost most of its contracts here, the hiring halls disappeared, growers went back to using contractors, and wages fell. Worker abuse increased as well.
Low wages and abuse are as prevalent in organic agriculture as they are in the non-organic sector. Case records at the California Occupational Safety and Health Agency (Cal OSHA) show that organic growers and contractors have engaged in practices that were prohibited forty years ago.
The organic potatoes from the Lamont field by now have been harvested, and are sitting in the bins at stores, and in the potato drawer in kitchens across the country. The weeding crew has moved on to some other field, getting the next vegetable ready for its journey to the plate. Despite their hard work, however, it often seems as though these workers live in a different dimension. We may eat the food they produce, but most people do not know what it is like to labor out in the heat and dust, or what it takes to get food onto the dinner table.
Those broccoli florettes sauteed in cheese and wine, the green onions chopped onto that fish steamed with soy sauce and sesame oil, the carrots in that chilled potato salad-they all came from somewhere. That somewhere is likely a field like the one in Lamont. And the hands that pulled the weeds, so those vegetables would flourish, belong to Josefina and Alfredo Reyes, Natalia Arevalo, Evelina Arellano and others like them.
They are connected to us. We all eat the product of their labor.