Why Picking Your Berries for $8,000 a Year Hurts a Lot

| August 9, 2013 | 0 Comments
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Marcelina, a Triqui Mexican, picks strawberries at a farm in Washington State. Photo: Courtesy of Seth M. Holmes

Marcelina, a Triqui Mexican, picks strawberries at a farm in Washington State. Photo: Courtesy of Seth M. Holmes

Post by Eliza Barclay, The Salt at NPR Food (8/9/2013)

As the supply chain that delivers our food to us gets longer and more complicated, many consumers want to understand – and control – where their food comes from.

But even if we meet farmers at the farmers market, urban consumers are still largely divorced from the people who grow, pick and package our food. And we may even willfully ignore their suffering, argues Seth Holmes, a medical anthropologist and professor of health and social behavior at the University of California, Berkeley, in his provocative new book, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies.

For two summers between 2003 and 2005, Holmes lived on a farm in the Skagit Valley of Washington state. The farm produces strawberries, apples, raspberries and blueberries to sell to berry companies like Driscoll and dairy companies like Häagen-Dazs. He traveled there with a group of Triqui Indians, across the border from their hometown of San Miguel in Oaxaca, Mexico. As Holmes soon learned, the Triquis make up the very bottom rung of the agricultural labor ladder and earn between $5,000-$8,000 a year.

Holmes stayed in the camp with the other laborers, in a shack with a tin roof and no insulation. Over the winter, he traveled with the Triquis to Madera, Calif., to prune grapevines in a vineyard. In 2005, Holmes went back to medical school, but he has continued to visit the same workers nearly every year since.

On the berry farm, Holmes picked fruit once or twice a week; the Triqui workers picked seven days a week, rain or shine, without a day off. And that took a heavy toll on their bodies: back and knee pain, slipped disks, type 2 diabetes, premature births. As one Triqui worker he calls Abelino told him, “You pick with your hands bent over kneeling, your back hurts; you get knee pains and [hip] pains … You suffer a lot.”

We talked to Holmes about his time with the Triquis; here’s part of our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

What was the most surprising or shocking aspect of the food system that you uncovered in your research?

“Before I did the research, I had a sense of the hierarchy of people involved in the food labor chain. But over the course of the first five months, it became clear that the hierarchy is much more detailed and subtle. There are indigenous Mexicans [like the Triqui] who occupy the rung with the most demanding physical labor – they’re the ones who are bent over picking. The mestizos operate the machines – that’s not quite as demanding. Then the U.S.-born Latinos are in charge of some things, and use English and Spanish. The white Americans have the most control.

“What was troubling was that people on every rung of hierarchy are legitimizing and justifying it. Farmworkers are doing that, too.”

Do you think that hierarchy is representative of farms in other states in the U.S.?

“I think it is. The indigenous people from Mexico and Central America have the least powerful position. The system is different in California, because farms tend to hire a contractor to get big fields picked or pruned. The contractor goes out and finds laborers, and in my field research, I found that system to be worse in the sense that farmworkers are not paid directly by the farm. There’s no paper trail. When we were in California, every time we pruned, we were paid less than minimum wage. With that system, labor laws are less likely to be enforced. But in Washington state, the farmworkers were hired directly by farmers, who were more likely to pay minimum wage.”

Do you think that the American public cares about the labor required to produce our food?

“We talk so little about the people who do the work that gives us the fresh fruit and vegetables that we want. Farmworkers are pretty hidden, and there’s a concept from John Paul Sarte, the French philosopher, called bad faith, meaning self-deception. My simplified version of that is that we consciously hide from ourselves the difficult realities of the workers. We somewhat know them, but we don’t think about them much. In that way it seems like ‘communal bad faith.’ ”

Why do you think the people in the food movement calling for changes in the industrial food system don’t talk much about the labor issues?

“On some level, a lot of the food movement is concerned with, “How does this food affect me and my body? Are there hormones in it? Antibiotics? Pesticides?” But the workers who are harvesting the food and spraying the pesticides — their bodies are human, too. Ideally, we would think about them and what’s going into that work. If there are ways that we, as consumers, can lend a voice towards farmworkers having health care that will protect the bodies that are working so hard to give us the healthy food we can eat, I think that’s really important.”

So you think the health care available to farmworkers is deficient?

“In Washington State and California, the people I met were pretty lucky to have independently run, grant-funded non-profit clinics to go to. But it’s unclear what will happen with the Affordable Care Act. The law is wonderful in lots of ways, and will increase access for a lot of people, but there are no provisions for immigrants. Meanwhile, immigration reform is stalled, and it looks like part of the reason is that several representatives won’t vote for reform unless newly legalized immigrants will not be eligible for full health care. But the people who are getting sick to help us get a healthy diet deserve health care.”

It’s clear from the book that you don’t really blame the farm owners for the poor living and working conditions of berry pickers. As you write, “The corporatization of U.S. agriculture and the growth of international free markets squeeze growers such that they cannot easily imagine increasing the pay of the pickers or improving the labor camps without bankrupting the farm … many of the most powerful inputs into the suffering of farmworkers are structural, not willed by individuals.”

“Sometimes it is fair for us to blame farm owners. But sometimes it isn’t. We also have to look at the North American Free Trade Agreement, and other free trade agreements. In general, the problems in agriculture are long-standing.”

What do you think is the most important thing for consumers to know about the people behind their food?

“Farmworkers help us be healthy by harvesting fruits and vegetables, and they’re helping the health of our economy by paying sales taxes and Social Security. But we are not prone to value their health or bodies or well-being. That seems disrespectful and unfair.”

Copyright 2013 NPR.

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Food and Health-related stories from NPR including NPR Radio; NPR's food blog, "The Salt"; NPR's Health News blog, "Shots"; NPR's Breaking News blog "The Two-Way"; NPR's economy explainer "Planet Money"; food-related technology news from NPR's "All Tech Considered"; and food series "Kitchen Window."