Strawberry Fields Forever


Strawberries

I got this lovely bunch of strawberries from my CSA farm subscription. I knew they were picked by Brenda, the farmer, or her family. Not by laborers living in shacks or sleeping in their pickup trucks. Also, they are vine-ripened, not tasteless watery berries picked green for shipping and ripened with ethylene oxide. Each berry tasted DIFFERENT. Some were very sweet. Some were spicy. A wine connoisseur could analyze the hint of cinnamon and other notes. No need to chop these up and add sugar. They were made to be eaten one by one, savoring each one.

I am from the generation that picked strawberries. I grew up in the Dutch farming community around Verboort, Oregon. Our neighbors grew strawberries, pole beans, and cucumbers. In those days of the 60’s and 70’s, there was no lower age limit for agricultural work. My mom started taking us out to pick strawberries when I was 6. For the first couple of years I would earn just a few dollars a day. But by age 10, my sister and I were some of the top producers. I would earn more in a day of strawberry picking than my dad was making at his union factory job. We saved our money in our own bank savings accounts. We would use it to buy clothes and Christmas presents.

When I hear “child labor” I have difficulty in translating that into something negative. Yes, we worked out in the sun and sometimes the rain. But our bosses were our neighbors and most of their workforce were the children of their neighbors and cousins, almost all of them under age 16. Crew bosses in the field were usually the mothers of some of my schoolmates. Nobody was being forced to work, although they would “fire” some kids who threw berries and were disruptive. If you felt tired or hot or wet, you could go sit in the bus, or the crew bosses would arrange to take you home.

The alternative workforce was one the farmers hated to resort to. First, they would pick up day laborers in Portland. We called them “the winos.” This was an accurate, if impolite, label. The farmers did not mix the workforces. The locals would work one berry field while the day laborers were put in another field or as far from the locals as possible. The final resort was a work crew of “Mexicans,” seasonal migrant laborers from Mexico. When the age limit for working in the fields was established, many of the farmers turned to other crops. The difficulties of recruiting a crew and housing the migrant laborers was something they didn’t want to take on. Those who did would often end up on the evening news being cited for health violations or labor law violations.

Migrant labor conditions always looked to me like indentured servitude — a far cry from the mostly-happy kids who earned extra money picking strawberries. The nanny state destroyed a system that was working well for everyone and replaced it with a system prone to abuse and human suffering. Ours was a true “community supported agriculture” system. Family farms passed down the generations, with local people harvesting the crops.

One of the values of being a locavore is that those who harvest the crops are treated humanely. As a child laborer, I was treated humanely and amply rewarded for my labor. My take-home pay was paid by my production, not hourly. I was highly productive and it penciled out to more per hour than a union factory job at that time.

For a book that describes how strawberries are harvested today, I recommend: Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market by Eric Schlosser. Knowing firsthand about harvesting strawberries, I choose not to eat strawberries I haven’t picked myself or bought from a small local farm. While most (if not all) other labor-intensive crops are also harvested by seasonal laborers, this is where I make my stand. I protest the destruction of wholesome community traditions in favor of a far more abusive system involving coyotes, company stores, inadequate housing, and work not suited for anybody over 5-foot tall.

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