News From the Farm | Week of July 1, 2013

The rainy days of last week have been replaced with one of the widest temperature swings in memory. The 42°difference between 70° and 112° has been mind numbing without the gradual swing that allows a body to acclimate. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are forecast to be 116° at the farm. This high has extended throughout California and into the deserts of Arizona where farm fields were closer to 120°.

This past week 7 people were reported to have died from heat related causes trying to cross the Arizona dessert for a job here in the north. The statistics have that number at between 150 and 250 each year. When asked about conditions back home in Sinaloa where many of our workers have families and small farms, they report drought that has dried up irrigation systems, lakes and rivers. There is no rain, no crops, and desperation.

Many of our workers are originally from Mexico – primarily Sinaloa and Oaxaca. Many have worked here for 10 years or more and some have worked at our farm for 25 years. The evolution of Full Belly is directly linked to the commitment of these amazing, hardworking men and women. They pick each tomato, bunch of basil, apricot, green bean, or melon by hand, filling orders for the farm, packing each bunch with care and attention to quality. They are willing to work when temperatures soar. 

We are facing the dilemma of deciding when the field is too dangerous for people to work there. We make sure that there is shade and water close to every field. Everyone receives training in heat stress – how to recognize its symptoms and what to do if they see it in their fellow workers. We are starting earlier, at 5:30, to get crops and workers out of the field as early as possible. Yet as the temperature moves to 110°, we face hard decisions, potentially to stop picking, cancel orders and watch crop go by in the field. It is a tough choice after so much has been invested in these beautiful crops, and it is difficult to watch them cook in the field.

We are considering a start before dawn in order to get crop in during the coolest part of the day. We want to avoid the possibility of anyone getting sickened from the heat. Most folks wouldn’t even understand the reality of farm work, day in and day out and the thin timeline of harvest when something is perfectly ripe. If anyone got sick a regulator would probably ask “why were they even out there in that heat?’ Our place in the market is based on having a good crew, using human skill to finish high quality products. The other option is the course undertaken by many farmers – to eliminate all but the most essential labor, to mechanize, and to switch to crops that require fewer human hands in the production process. We feel proud of creating year round jobs for 60 people where the work has dignity, community, financial fairness, purpose and is respectfully acknowledged.

Those who labor in the field should be honored for their contribution during this time when temperatures are soaring and there is crop that is ripening. Our experience over time is that we can get by at these high temperatures. Like most farmers, we take our crop to market and are subject to the market price. Often times the thrust of those markets is to acquire the box of produce at or below last year’s price. The expectation is to do more for less, year after year. To raise food prices and allow a living wage for farm workers is part of the long-term solution so that an 8-hour day can provide a livelihood – rather than the 10-hour days that most farm workers need to work in order to get by.

We are in the midst of a debate about immigration, with posturing about ‘border security’ and that ‘lawlessness that should not be rewarded.’ We are willing to invest $40 billion in a fence to draw the line for the start of a conversation with conservative legislators. Yet the words and arguments diminish the reality of the sacrifice and contribution that millions have made to seek a better life and contribute when they may have few options. South of the border, drought turns people’s attention to the north and to the hope of a job where heat and sacrifice are endured to send dollars home for ones wife and children.  Maybe we could use the $40 billion for water systems, roads and agricultural assistance in the south. We should engage our humanity to empower the lives south of the border so that people can stay home educating children and creating plenty. 

We should thank those who braved the journey to be here picking the crops that grace our tables. We should welcome them for embodying the spirit of the adventurers who made this Country for generations a land of initiative, reward for hard work, and opportunity. Make a path to citizenship that is clear and fair. Write your congressperson to support fair immigration reform. Here, we will start earlier and finish before the peak heat of a hot week.

— Paul Muller