//My Job Depends on TÚ

My Job Depends on TÚ

By I. smiley G. Calderón | smileygcalderon@gmail.com

The mere mention of Ag Day here in the Central Valley often invites warm thoughts of friends and family – because agriculture is such a big part of where we live.  This year’s National Ag day falls on Tuesday, March 24th, during the March 22nd-28th National Ag Week organized by the Agriculture Council of America (ACA).  The state of California is celebrating a week earlier with its own “California Agriculture Day” on Wednesday, March 18th, just before the first day of spring on March 19th.

It’s a perfect time to not only appreciate and celebrate our partnership with Mother Nature but to also recognize our reliance and interconnectivity with one another. Let’s face it, whether we want to accept it or not, big business Ag wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the small-town folk fueling its industry. All of the advanced farming technology and machinery in the world wouldn’t amount to a thing if it weren’t for the good, hardworking people behind it – the human capital.

When we think of farmers and what it means to be a farmer, images of humble, hardworking guys in denim overalls or jeans with dirty, worn hands come to mind. To the everyday American, a farmer is an individual who personally works and cultivates the land. Someone who gets his hands dirty for a living and who earns his modest salary outside with sweat and grit. It’s not an easy living – but it’s an honest one, they say.

But is that really what a farmer is here in today’s Central Valley? 

In the valley, a “farmer” usually means a groomed, well-dressed business owner with local power, influence, money, and someone who is predominantly white. They’re also not typically the guys planting and picking outside under the burning sun for countless hours a day.

But, if not them – then who? Who are our real food heroes getting their hands dirty for us in the fields and bringing food to our tables? 

Well, if I called them farmers, you wouldn’t believe me.

Instead, they’re called “farmworkers.” A lesser status. A farmworker, also called a fieldworker, is just a guy who picks a plant or plants a seed. (In Spanish, they’re called Campesinos) But, the significance here is they›re the ones actually doing the work – at the very nexus of production – where hands meet soil. These are the ones who are literally “farming” – here in the Central Valley (and probably everywhere else in the U.S.), “farmer” is synonymous with “business owner.”

But, for this year’s Ag week, I want to focus on the ones who are farming – the ones toiling the long grueling hours in inclement weather to plant and harvest the food that we buy. They are poor. They are Brown. They are Latino. Many are undocumented, uneducated, uninsured – but grateful, hopeful, hardworking, and thankful.

To get a taste of things firsthand, I went out to the fields to work for a day. My neighbors are farmworkers, and I figured that, if they could do it, it must not be too hard. Plus, I like oranges. But I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. 

It was one of the roughest days of my life.

There was a gentleman named Leopoldo Santos. But no one ever called him that. You would think that his nickname would be “Leo.” But, you’d be wrong. Everyone calls this guy “Polo.” He’s a veteran Campesino. And he’s fast at picking oranges. There’s a correct way to do it, by the way. You can’t just pull the oranges from the tree. You have to cut it with a special snipping tool, careful not to accidentally open up the peel – or else they quickly go bad and are not sold. And while you’re grabbing the branches with one hand and trying to hold and cut the orange with the snips in the other hand, you need to make sure you’re balancing yourself on the ladder, so you don’t fall. And once you free an orange from its woody umbilical cord, you immediately throw it in the thick body satchel that you’re wearing. After carrying what feels like a ton of oranges on your person while vigorously picking for more, you’re exhausted. But you can’t stop now. You need to dump your bag of oranges into the huge cardboard bin so that the forklifts can run through and move them out of the orchard – you know so that you can start all over.  

Some workers get paid “por contracto” – or by contract, that is, who get paid for how much they pick. And other workers get paid by the hour, take protected breaks and a short lunch during the workday. Typically, you make more money when you work by contract. This is why Polo and others have adapted themselves to become superhuman orange-picking machines – a sight to behold, for sure. They put me to shame. I spent the whole day picking oranges in the heat without any breaks and barely filled up only one container. And, when I finally did, I felt so embarrassedly proud of myself. It was pathetic. I think Polo filled like 5 containers himself – I was too exhausted to keep count. All I know is that I came home with only $20, and he had over $100. 

I was so tired.

While in the orchard, I was amazed at just how fast and strong the women were. They’d pick like 10 oranges for my every one – all the while smirking at me. What really impressed me, though, was how they wore and carried their full satchels – some of these women did not seem much heavier than a bag full of oranges themselves. Their strength amazed me.

Yet, they often get the short end of the stick. I’ll tell you why.

Out in the fields, there are no “normal” restrooms – only porta-potties, the mobile bathrooms that construction workers and festival-goers typically use. In the field, these “restrooms” are, more often than not, disgusting and dirty, in need of emptying and cleaning. They are so bad sometimes that guys won’t even go inside to use them. Instead, they’d rather just find a hidden spot between trees and pee outside than suffocating in the toxic fumes of a filthy and hot plastic box.

But the ladies can’t do that. They are discreet and modest – if they need to use the restroom, they have to use the porta-potties, no matter the condition. Can you imagine having to sit inside a smelly, dirty porta-potty at your job in order to use the restroom in privacy – every day?  

I didn’t think so.  

So, in appreciation of Ag Week, wouldn’t it be great if our farmers could make sure that their porta-potties were cleaned and emptied regularly? Wouldn’t it be great if the harvesters, the handlers of our food and agriculture had a clean place to use the restroom?

Polo was an interesting guy, and we got to talking while on a break. I guess he’s been working in agriculture his whole life – his entire life – even back in Mexico. He told me he came up here for the opportunity to get paid. Where he’s from, Hermosillo, Sonora, the agriculture sector is so poor that Campesinos work the whole day and make barely enough to buy dinner. Sometimes, when things are bad, workers don’t even get paid at all. It’s no way to live, Polo tells me. One of our other friends, Roberto, chimes in (in Spanish, of course): “There’s no balance – no balance.”

If I were educated and could do anything else to pay the bills, I would.

So, the idea of getting paid for a long, honest day of hard labor – even if in the scorching heat or freezing morning – always on your feet constantly picking and pulling, bending over and lifting up – engulfed in pesticides – this idea was great. And, it’s turned out well for him and many other honest, hardworking immigrants.

But, he said, the life is hard.

I asked him, “Don’t you love it, though – isn’t agriculture your passion?” (I asked him this because he was telling me how he knew every phase and detail of planting and harvesting – and everything in between – from his Ag days in Mexico and his many years up here in Fresno).

He looked at me firmly and said, “Of course I love it – it’s my work – but…do you think I’m doing this because I love it? If I were educated and could do anything else to pay the bills, I would!”

“It’s a hard life, man!” he told me.

Polo starts to tell me how his typical day goes. The first thing he tells me is that you need to know where you’re going. Apparently, every day/week, or whenever a new farm has a field that needs work, it gets contracted to a guy called the Contratista. In essence, this contract guy is the one who gets the deal from the farmer (businessman), and who has Supervisors below him. Further down the ladder are the Mayordomos (managers), and below them, a whole lot of eager Campesinos ready to work. Eager Campesinos like Polo, who finally gets word by text from someone higher in his farmworker hierarchy about where the next job is. They talk briefly by phone to confirm the pick-up time – 4:30 am.

That means he has to be up by 3:30 am to get ready, eat breakfast, and make lunch, Polo tells me. There’s a bunch of people to pick up – he’s not the only one. And then the long ride to the farm site. They finally all arrive at “the office” at around 7 am, when they start their grueling day. But, Polo tells me that the air quality can be terrible and that, in the past, he has even walked off of job sites when he sensed that pesticide levels were too high to be working. The tough manual work of lifting and bending and stretching – it takes a significant toll on your body over the years – especially when you have to compete with the younger kids. 

His biggest complaint though: the restrooms. He and his friends simply wish the porta-potties were kept up and cleaned – wouldn’t you too? 

It goes without saying. (Out in the fields, there are no close restaurants or stores to use a proper restroom) Once farmworkers leave their homes in the early morning to go work in the fields for the day, they won’t be able to use a clean restroom until they return home – many hours later.

Our farmworkers deserve better. And I told Polo that. “You guys deserve better,” I said to him. “YOU deserve better.”

“Tú deserb bettr,” he attempted in a thick Spanish accent.  

“Yes. TÚ mereces mejor,” I affirmed.

As our Ag industry gets ready to recognize and celebrate its special day and week this month, I’d like us to recognize how vital farmworkers – my forever farmers – truly are.  They are so very crucial to this vibrant and important Central Valley business sector.  As many of us will recognize and appreciate our dependence on this industry for our sustenance and livelihoods, let us also appreciate our mutual reliance upon one another and our special partnership with the workers – with you – tú – the farmworker.

If “My Job Depends on AG,” then “My Job Depends on TÚ.”