Today I took a drive to Ponchatoula, Louisiana where I visited a strawberry farm. I interviewed a farmer about the economics behind a family farm. Particularly, I was trying to better understand how large corporate farms in California and the sales of California berries here impact his business as sole proprietor of a small farm in Louisiana. I left with more clarity, but also more questions.
Seeing the nine Mexican migrant workers picking berries and filling flats struck me. The farmer said he houses the workers, and I refrained from asking what he pays, if he insures their health, if they are legal, and if not, how he gets around the immigration laws to hire them. I didn’t ask these questions because I am writing for a publication that wants me to raise the issue of local food chains in a “friendly” manner. They haven’t said so, but the intent of this publication is to make people feel good about our rural to rural-ish landscapes and lifestyles. I get it; I know my audience.
As I left the interview, I thought, Someday, maybe I’ll conduct oral histories with migrant workers. Someday, maybe I’ll tell the story of agriculture in a different way. It will be about backbreaking work and traveling long distances; it will be a love story, and it will be about the nourishment of souls.
On the drive back into Baton Rouge, I listened to a cheesy soft-rock station. I turned the volume up when "Crazy for You" by Madonna played. The image of bright red strawberries and brown skinned migrant workers was vibrating in my mind’s eye like white spots blinking behind closed eyes after you’ve stared at summer sun and then shut your lids.
Listening, I remembered that it is almost Valentine’s Day. One beat later, I remembered that today would have been my parents’ 45th wedding anniversary. Not that I’d forgotten, but I permitted this knowledge to slide from the background to the forefront of my consciousness.
My dad is flying to India today. The woman he married has not been able to obtain a visa to travel to the US, so he is going there to stay until May, when he hopes to return with her. Last night I was talking to my sister on the phone, and she said she’d wished him a happy anniversary earlier in the day, or maybe over the weekend while she was visiting him. I thought, He has a new anniversary now.
She said she’d asked him if he intentionally planned to travel to India on this date. He said, “No, it just worked out that way.” I could not help but think, Huh. Well, he’s got rotten timing. Travel dates don’t just “happen.” You choose them. Dad chooses rotten timing.
Then, my interior dialog went rampant. This is what you get - American man makes hasty decision to marry Indian woman, and lives with the consequences, the way it has to shake his life, the way he has to travel across the world for months-on-end to a place he can hardly stand to be for a single month to ward off a corrupt immigration system for his new bride.
And this is where I am with it all. Stalled along the roadside, my engine still overheated, still silently blowing smoke all over the place.
The farmer had narrated to me what this day has been and will be. The pickers began harvesting strawberries at 6:00 a.m. They filled eighty flats by 10:30 a.m. They stopped to take a break. When they return to the crops, they’ll clean the plants – remove dead brown leaves. There are rows and rows and rows of plants – over twenty acres of strawberries. As the last act of the day, they’ll cover the crops to protect them from today’s expected rain and the temperature that is to plummet from today’s 70 degrees to 40 degrees tonight.
Ponchatoula is the strawberry capital of Louisiana; yet there are only five strawberry farms there now. Ten years ago, when the man I spoke with began farming, there were about ten berry farms. Twenty or thirty years ago, he told me, there were at least a thousand people farming berries in Ponchatoula.
These remaining five strawberry farms do not survive without the migrant workers. The farmer told me, “Without them, there would be none of this. There’s no such thing as local labor. It’s a myth. No one else wants these jobs.” Just as he explained to me that, even though he is not an organic farmer (organic farming, in our year-long growing season of heat, humidity and heavy rain, would cause the berries to rot from mites and fungus), everything he does meets federal regulations.
“Produce you purchase in grocery stores that was grown in Chili, Mexico, who knows what standards there are or what laws govern regulations? They could be watering crops with sewer water. You purchase imported items from these countries, and you don’t know what you’re eating.” I considered this. Then I thought about the migrant workers – I wondered if lax regulations regarding pesticides, fertilizers and fungicides is in line with lax regulations regarding workers. Are labor standards more lax than our own in the US (as the farmer was implying to be the case regarding the use of chemicals)? We certainly hear a great deal about factory workers in other countries. Is it the same with agricultural workers?
These people all over the country and all over the world, from dawn into the heat of the afternoon, handpick each and every berry, apple, cherry, and orange – hand cut each banana bunch, artichoke, broccoli head, lettuce head, asparagus stem we devour, digest, nourish ourselves with. Are they better off in the US, all these human beings who have literally touched our food? Are our regulations a step up? This would be the hope. I didn't get a glimpse of the housing the farmer provides his migrant workers. It was nowhere in sight. I strained my neck to see.
The farmer’s other implication in the statement, “no one else wants these jobs,” did not escape me. By “no one,” he meant, poor black people. Of this, I could not help but ponder the legacy of slavery and whether there exists a cycle of inherited, warranted resentment among southern African Americans over having been virtually kidnapped and imported to the US - as slaves, as property - to work the white plantation owners’ fields. I wondered, Would I want to pick berries if my great-grandfather had been a slave and if my grandfather had been an indentured servant? Would working fields today be too insulting for me, even in the most dire straits?
Considering this importation of human beings, I had a revelation - Hasn't there always been a globalization? Cultural, social, environmental, economic globalization- ethical or not?
I made it back to Baton Rouge before the storm began. Back to the comfort of home. By now, the migrant workers have cleaned and covered the strawberry crops. There are reports of golf-ball sized hail and a tornado in Tangipahoa Parish – the county in which Ponchatoula resides.
My dad boarded his plane a little more than an hour ago – same time as the rain started falling. He has a two-hour layover in Chicago where it is 20 degrees and where snow showers are expected as part of the winter storm in the north. He told me last night that he hoped the weather in Chicago would not delay his flight to India, that nothing would cause a stall. He is anxious for his life to begin again at home.
SONG: Crazy for You, Madonna