For potato farmers, “organic” means hard labor

By seven thirty in the morning it is already 80 degrees in a potato field in Lamont, in the southern San Joaquin Valley. By mid-afternoon here it will reach 107. The workers moving up and down the rows are not 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.
Farmworkers know how to handle heat. They work in these intense conditions every day. ”Clothing is like insulation,” says Evelina Arellano. ”It actually 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 the 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 his or her 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 is a lot of dust everywhere in the air in the southern San Joaquin Valley, which has some of California’s worst air quality. Soon you are unable 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 is 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 to 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 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 farmworkers, it has also meant more work. Since the grower cannot use herbicides, weed removal is accomplished by hand. That means workers are hired to remove them, instead of spraying the field with chemicals.
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 farmworkers. ”I started on January 27th,” explains Josefina Reyes, ”and I’ll work until November 1st.”

Hernandez and her husband, Alfredo, are the oldest workers in the crew. They are no longer able or willing to do what others do to get nine months of work a year: hit the road to northern California or even Oregon and Washington. Organic farming gives them enough work so that they can live in Lamont year-round. If they save their money, they will be able to make it through the three months of winter when growers are not hiring.
At lunch break the couple talk to each other quietly in Mixteco, an indigenous language that was spoken in their hometown of Tlaxiaco, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, long before Columbus arrived in the Americas. 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 already constitute about thirty 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. Farmworkers are exposed to much greater pesticide levels than what is contained in food. Many here in this crew worked in sprayed fields earlier in their work lives, and pesticide residue is omnipresent in small farmworker towns like Lamont.
Natalia Arevalo 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. Reyes considers her a good mayordoma, because Arevalo 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, Arevalo moves the trailer carrying the water thermos and bathrooms so that it is close to the rows where they are working, and she does not complain if they stop to use them. ”I worked for another forelady who would yell at us if we stopped, and who never moved the trailer so it was always a long walk away,” Reyes says.

As the workers walk up and down the rows, they pull the weeds and fill the bags until the bags are almost as big as they are. A full bag can weigh forty 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,” Reyes 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 six thousand employees. The company uses Esparza Enterprises as its labor contractor. Both Arevalo 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 mar- gin. In this field workers are getting nine dollars an hour, just over minimum wage.
From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, 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 organic growers and contractors have engaged in practices that were prohibited forty years ago.
In 1975 the UFW and California Rural Legal Assistance won an historic regulation, #3456, banning the short-handled hoe. This was the first such prohibition in the nation’s agriculture. Before it was adopted, workers using the short- handled hoe could be made to move quickly down the rows, bent over double and chopping at the weeds. They paid a high price later, however. Because they worked bent over for hours at a time, 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 then won an exception, however. Arguing that 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 of 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 had 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 that her husband will lose his job, or her brother or her boyfriend or somebody in the family,” Huerta told NPR.

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 Community2Community, a farmworker advocacy group in Washington State, says workers do not 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 especially 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.”
The organic potatoes from the Lamont field by now have been harvested, and are sitting in the bins at stores, and in the potato drawer 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 is like to labor out in the heat and dust, or what it takes to get food onto the dinner table.
Those broccoli florettes sauteed 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 Josefina and Alfredo Reyes, Natalia Arevalo, Evelina Arellano and others like them.
They are connected to us. We all eat the product of their labor.

Note: The names of the workers in the field have been changed.

Photo: Ernestina Perez waits at the edge of the field for the crew’s mayordoma, or foreman, Natalia Arevalo, to tell her which row she will be weeding. Perez, a student at California State University, Bakersfield, is doing field work to get money for school.   |   David Bacon


David Bacon
David Bacon

David Bacon is a California writer and documentary photographer. A former union organizer, today he documents labor, the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights.