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California’s Farmworkers

California’s Farmworkers

by William H. Benson

January 24, 2019

     Michael Greenberg, reporter for the New York Review, examined California in two recent articles, the first in December on agriculture, and the second in January on housing’s high cost.

     In the first, he paints a stunning picture of agriculture in California’s San Joaquin Valley, a stretch of land “234 miles long and 130 miles wide,” with Stockton to the north and Bakersfield to the south.

     Greenberg writes, “Measured by yearly production, the San Joaquin Valley is one of the highest-value stretches of farmland in the country, and is dominated by large growers who preside over a labor force of migrant workers. A few hundred families own the land. Some own 20,000 or 40,000 acres.”

     The owners grow “raisins, table grapes, pistachios, almonds, tomatoes, fruits, garlic, cabbage, the clementines we buy in netted bags at the supermarket, as well as pomegranates.” All together those “few hundred families” receive annual gross revenues of about “$47 billion, more than double that of Iowa, the next-biggest agricultural state.” 

     One of the people whom Greenberg interviewed, Mark Arax, was blunt when he said that the valley “is like a Central American country. It’s the poorest part of California. There’s almost no middle class. To find its equivalent in the United States, you’d have to go to Appalachia or the borders of Texas.”

     Greenberg was surprised to learn that the farm laborers “speak none or very little Spanish, much less English,” even though “at least 80% of them are undocumented Mexicans.” Instead, they are “Mixteco and Trique Indians, from the states of Oaxaca, Sinaloa, and Gerrero, the poorest regions in Mexico.”

     One day in June, Greenberg visited a tomato field that the Gargiulo family owned, and estimated that “250 were working that day, almost half of them women, some of them visibly pregnant.” Each day the laborers work for five hours, “from 5 to 10 a.m., when the temperature rises to 113 degrees.”

     To protect themselves against exposure to pesticides, the workers wear “several layers of clothes: caps, hoodies, scarves, sweatshirts over sweatshirts, two pairs of pants, heavy socks and boots; only eyes and cheeks and fingers were exposed,” while the merciless sun beats down on them.

     The workers receive “73 cents for every five-gallon bucket they could fill.” Forced to stoop over to pick the tomatoes, “the Oaxacans went at it with dizzying speed. The younger workers filled two buckets at a time. In five hours, a skilled picker could earn between $75 and $85.”

     Once tomato season ends in October, “the laborers will move to the east side of the Valley to pick citrus fruits. With luck, a diligent field hand can find work for eight or nine months a year, and earn $20,000 to $23,000, before taxes.”

     Greenberg researched the amount of taxes that the workers received and discovered that, “In 2010, undocumented workers paid about $12 billion in Social Security taxes, money that accrued to the retirement benefits of American citizens—benefits those farmworkers will likely never receive.”

     Some Indians from Mexico have worked the fields “for at least a decade, have established families here, but live in terror of la migra, the Spanish word for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Instant deportation or imprisonment would wrench them from their children.”

     Greenberg said, “Thousands exist in a cordon of terror.” Determined to stay and work, they evade ICE by watching for unmarked cars, and by avoiding all legal troubles, such as traffic violations.

     The farmworkers refuse to “allow their children to follow them into the fields, because of the heat, the physical toil, the pesticides, the low wages, and the feudal power of the growers.”

      Thus, fieldwork in central California, Greenberg explained, “is a one-generation job, and that means that a constant supply of impoverished Mexican immigrants willing to do the work is required, but those immigrants are not coming now.”

     “In 2000, when the border was far more porous than it is now, 1.6 million Mexicans were apprehended trying to cross into the US. In 2016, the number was 192,969. This reduction is due to  improved conditions in Mexico, plus the cost and fear of venturing across the border.”

     Immigrants do not steal farm labor jobs from American citizens. A farm labor contractor said that he “has never had a white, American born person take an entry-level job.” Another said that one day he hired “twelve citizens or legal residents, and not one of them lasted longer than a day.”

      Each week millions of Americans buy a bag of table grapes, another of tomatoes, or a netted bag of clementine oranges, but few understand the arduous and dangerous physical effort that a farm laborer exerted to pick that fruit from its stem. Yet, ICE wants to deport that laborer back to Mexico.