, Salem, MA


November 2, 2013

Watson: Immigrant farm workers help the economy

Last month I spent a week in California and toured some of the large agricultural areas in the state’s northern central region along the Pacific coast.

I visited the sprawling croplands from Watsonville down to the Santa Maria area. On those dry plains, with the mountains forming a continuous backdrop, crops of strawberries, blackberries, artichokes, lettuce, celery, grapes, and others extended for miles and miles. To an urban easterner like me, the sheer scale of the agriculture makes an impression.

To stand at the edge of a massive field and take in all that goes into the soil preparation, irrigation layout, planting procedures, weeding protocols, and finally, harvesting, is to gain an appreciation for the enormous quantities of labor and risk that attend crop production.

The central farming valleys that I visited had not received significant rainfall in nearly two years, and when speaking with locals, it was never long into the conversation before they would – unprompted – offer up that fact.

But the irrigation systems that get laid under most of the crops are extensive and effective. Miles of feeder pipes and miles of rows of slow-drip plastic sheets distribute water. The surface sheets are picked up and put down anew with each crop, but special tractors crawling slowly through the fields do this work.

What’s really impressive though, are the farmworkers themselves. Across the central valley, it takes thousands of laborers to hand-pick many of the crops, and the work is physically demanding, repetitive, and often severely hot. The quantity of fruits and vegetables that get manually picked and boxed in a day is mind-boggling.

All of the field workers I observed were Latino. Working conditions in the fields, and the housing that workers live in, are far better than those in Florida, where I have also visited the large, Latino farmworker community. Not a lot of non-Latinos pick crops in either Florida or California. The pay is too low.

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