By seven thirty in the morning, it’s already 80 degrees in a potato field in Lamont, in the southern San Joaquin Valley. By mid-afternoon, it will reach 107. The workers moving up and down the rows aren’t 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.
Farm workers know how to handle heat. They work in these intense conditions every day. “Clothing is like insulation,” says Erica Bautista. “It 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 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 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 their 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’s dust everywhere in the air in the southern San Joaquin Valley, which has some of California’s worst air quality. Soon, you can’t 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’s 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– 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 they 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 farm workers, it has also meant more work.
Since the grower can’t use herbicides, weed removal is accomplished by hand. That means workers are hired to remove them, instead of using chemical sprays.
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 farm workers. “I started on January 27th,” explains Marcelina Hernandez, “and I’ll work until November first.”
Hernandez and her husband Juan are the oldest workers in the crew. They’re no longer willing to do what others do to get nine months of work a year: hit the road to northern California, Oregon and Washington. Organic farming gives them enough work so that they can live in Lamont year round. If they save their money, they’ll be able to make it through the three months of winter when growers aren’t hiring.
At lunch break the couple converses quietly in Mixteco, an indigenous language that was spoken in their hometown of Tlaxiaco, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Everyone else in the crew comes from Mexico as well, and a few others also speak Mixteco. Indigenous migrants now make up most of the people coming across the border into California fields, and they already constitute about 30 percent of the farm labor workforce here.
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 — maybe more. Farm workers are exposed to much greater pesticide levels than what’s contained in food. Many here in this crew worked in sprayed fields earlier in their work lives, and pesticide residue is omnipresent in small-farm worker towns like Lamont.
Aurora Gonzalez is the mayordoma, or forelady, for the crew in this field. An older garrulous woman, she jokes with some workers but appears to watch others intently. Hernandez considers her a good mayordoma, because Gonzalez does small things to make the work easier. She tells them to stop several times an hour to drink water, “but not much at a time, because drinking too much will make you sick in the heat,” she warns.
As the crew moves through the field, Gonzalez moves the trailer carrying the water thermos and bathrooms so that it’s close to the rows where they’re working, and she won’t complain if they stop to use them. “I worked for another forelady who would yell at us if we stopped, and the trailer was always a long walk away,” Hernandez says.
As the workers walk up and down the rows, they pull the weeds and fill the bags until they’re almost as big as they are. A full bag can weigh 40 pounds or more, so Gonzalez will let them go down to the end of the row and empty it before it gets completely full and heavy. “That other forelady would always yell at us to make us work faster and had us fill the bags up before we could empty them,” Hernandez remembers. “At the end of the day my back would really hurt from carrying and pulling them. Now it’s not so bad.”
Started by Danny Duncan in 1983, Cal Organic Farms was sold in 2001 to Grimmway Farms, one of the largest organic growers in the country with about 6,000 employees. The company uses Esparza Enterprises as its labor contractor. Both Gonzalez and the other mayordoma run crews for Esparza.
Labor contractors hire and pay workers, making their profit from the difference between what the grower pays to pull the weeds in a potato field, for instance, and the actual wages the contractor pays the workers who do it. Abuse is inherent in this work system, since the more workers are pushed and the lower their wages, the larger the profit margin. In this field, workers are getting $9 an hour, just over minimum wage.
Thirty and 40 years ago, 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 some organic growers and contractors have engaged in practices that were prohibited 40 years ago.
In 1975, the UFW and California Rural Legal Assistance won an historic regulation, #3456, banning the short-handled hoe, the first such prohibition in our nation’s agriculture. Prior, workers using the short hoe could be made to move quickly down the rows, bent over double and chopping at weeds. They paid a high price later, however. Workers developed permanent back injuries after years of this labor. Later Cal-OSHA also banned knives and other short-handled instruments for weeding.
Organic growers won an exception, however. As they could not use chemicals to control weeds, they were allowed to have workers weed by hand, even if they had to bend over to do it, so long as they were given an extra five minutes break time every four hours. Handing out short-handled tools is still forbidden, however, and Esparza was fined twice in the last year for violating section #3456.
Esparza also got in trouble over sexual harassment. In 2006 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against Grimmway and Esparza after a worker, Ana-Berta Rubio, said she’d been constantly pressured to have sex with a supervisor, who also groped and exposed himself to her. After complaining, she was fired. According to EEOC attorney William Tamayo, three others had similar experiences. Jeffrey Green, Grimmway’s general counsel, denied the charges. A year later the company settled the suit by paying Rubio $175,000 and taking other measures.
UFW founder Dolores Huerta, who today heads a foundation in nearby Bakersfield, says women rarely complain about either labor law violations or sexual harassment for fear of being fired. “What she’s worried about is not only losing her job; she’s worried about her husband, her brother or her boyfriend or somebody in the family [could be fired],” Huerta told National Public Radio.
At the local high school in nearby Arvin, Jackson Serros, director of the migrant program, says teachers warn their students, “If you don’t go to college, you’re going to Grimmway University.” But Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community to Community, a farm worker advocacy group in Washington State, says workers don’t think their jobs have to be demeaning. “The world should treat them as professionals, not just cheap labor,” she urges.
Guillen and other advocates say the organic food industry should hold itself to high standards for labor practices, as part of sustainable and healthy methods for producing food. She is a leader of the Domestic Fair Trade Association, which has formulated a set of principles to guide organic producers. “Fair Trade is synonymous with fair wages, fair prices and fair practices,” it declares, which should be “environmentally, economically and socially just, sustainable and humane.”
By now, the organic potatoes from the Lamont field have been harvested and are sitting in bins at stores, and in potato drawers 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’s like to labor out in the heat and dust, or what it takes to get food onto the dinner table.
Those broccoli florettes sautéed 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 Marcelina and Juan Hernandez, Aurora Gonzalez, Erica Bautista and others like them.