Saturday, January 5, 2013

About Today - 1/5/2013

I thought I'd steal the title of this entry from my favorite song by The National, as it was a day I deem worthy of such an honor. 
Entrance to Swanton Berry Farm

We spent the day exploring all aspects of the Swanton Berry Farm, which is the oldest certified organic strawberry farm in California. It is quite a progressive operation—the farm also was the first in the state to employ unionized workers, and it continues to uphold and advance such social justice principles today. The day began at the farm store, a beautifully quaint “honors system” locale, much historical character pervading the atmosphere—Spanish union posters adorned the walls, and battered guest books stood testament to the place’s title as a destination, by bicycle and otherwise. Here we met “Bear” Boaen, the articulate farm manager who gave us an engaging and detailed overview and history of the farm’s operations, 1983 to present. I tried to take scrupulous notes, some of which I will share with you…
The farm store

            The saga began in 1983. The 120 square mile region around Half Moon Bay produced strawberries through a cooperative system. These berries were conventionally produced, but this was only one of the problems—the two major deficiencies of the system were that its structure impeded decision making processes, and the labor system was deplorable. Workers earned wages based on the “piece making” system: the faster they picked, the more they earned. This “incentivizing” system was so hard on workers’ bodies that they could only work for four years, creating a cyclic brain drain. No overtime, benefits, regulated work weeks—unfortunately, many of these injustices still pervade the system today.
            Strawberries are the ideal host for the abominable soil pathogens, and thus it was long believed that they would be impossible to grow without the use of heavy chemicals. After World War II, the U.S. government had developed chemicals that the war’s conclusion rendered obsolete—but not for long. These chemicals and others developed by Monsanto entered agriculture. Methyl bromide killed everything in the soil, and was “gassed” into the black plastic strawberry rows. Methyl bromide was outlawed in 2005 by the Montreal Protocol not because of its danger to human health, but because it depleted the stratospheric ozone; the USDA had, however, approved methyl iodide, which was responsible for 75-100 hospitalizations of women and children in the Watsonville area where it was sprayed, simply because it did not deplete the ozone. These chemicals attacked the neuro-systems of organisms, killing everything in the ground.
            Jim Cochran revolutionized production strategies and the end crop product on this very farm in the late-1980’s. First, he began to pay his workers hourly wages, which inevitably lowered gross “productivity,” yet boosted quality immensely. The emergence of organic production coincided with this shift. The area had been used for broccoli production until 1989, but the reservoir that supplied water for the crops underwent a change in water rights, immediately freezing all broccoli production—yet the infrastructure was still in place. In came strawberry production, and crop rotation. Remarkably, planting broccoli in strawberry fields mitigated the pathogens that loved to prey on strawberries. The crop rotates every two years, whereas chemical production required fumigation every 9 months.
            In the 1990s, the United Farm Workers union was becoming more active, and the unthinkable happened: the owner of the Swanton Berry Farm called the workers and asked to sign a contract, rather than the other way around. Suddenly, the farm workers were given benefits, paid time-off, and personal vacation time for family emergencies; the working time had increased from 4 years to 30. Swanton Berry Farm created further incentives for employees when in 2003-4 it gave long-standing employees partial ownership of the farm. The Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP) works sort of like Social Security—hopefully, more successfully than predictions of the federal program—and there are currently around 85 employee-owners. If the program continues as planned, employees will eventually hold total ownership.
            Boaen then got into the knitty-gritty of strawberry production. A disconnect makes it so that consumers of conventional strawberries do not realize that the oversized fruit before them was chemically sprayed by workers in Hazmat suits, and the red color is really just an infused gas that makes the tasteless, previously white unit an illusion of sorts. The chandler—as opposed to typical seascape, albion variants—that Swanton Berry Farm grows has a full-bodied flavor due to a third more sugar and the farm’s optimal ripening periods, but yields are much lower. As is endemic to our current system, the profit margin for this type of production is exceedingly low.
Boaen and the field manager
            A quick drive along the craggy coastal cliffs, and we were soon on the fields amongst the migrant farm workers. I must admit, I felt a bit funny about this set-up: here we were, students from an elite institution looking for a hands-on experience, while the back-breaking work that we performed is something that they do every day out of necessity. However, it was a valuable experience for me: beyond gaining an appreciation for the hard and unglamorous work, the day reinforced that I want to help people, I want to learn Spanish, and I want to connect with these groups in our society. Moreover, it was wonderful to speak with them—I had not used my Spanish since 12th grade, but I was able to have broken conversations with quite a few of them; at the conclusion of the day, we learned that they reflected positively on our presence, and even asked if we were coming back on Monday! I took that as the highest compliment.
Us weeding...

            It was rather surprising that they asked about our return because we were terrible at our tasks. Weeding the long rows of first-year strawberry plants was our initial task, and we were so much slower than these seasoned veterans of the field. They were exceedingly sensitive to our inexperience, giving us helpful tips like using well-shaped rocks as a quasi-shovel to uproot the weeds. They wove confidently and quickly through the rows as we skirted slowly through the black plastic. Then, it was on to pruning the second-year plants. Strawberry plants are unique because they do not regenerate, and thus require “starters,” and each one is good for two years, two harvests. By pruning flowers and budding berries off the plants, we were encouraging them to be dormant and save their second crop for weather that would enable full ripening. Once again, we were far slower, their hands whizzing across the plants as mine fumbled amongst the greenery. I must say, my hands lingered over the rare perfectly ripened berry—Bear said that we could eat any berries that had made it to red and juicy, and of course, I felt it my duty to follow his instructions. It drizzled all afternoon, and my back hurt immensely, yet the whole experience was wonderful and almost otherworldly. I thank my professor, Swanton Berry Farm, and the migrant workers giving us this opportunity.
...and the workers weeding. 
            The day concluded with a de-briefing with Boaen back at the farm store. Sipping on Mexican hot chocolate mixed with coffee and munching on kiwis, also grown on the ranch, Boaen shared more knowledge with us. Kiwis, by the way, are a “super fruit:” one packs more potassium than a banana, more vitamin C than two oranges, more fiber than half a loaf of whole grain bread (if you eat the skin), and it requires little growing maintenance and can be stored, off the vine, for up to six months. A consumer and producer’s dream! Paradoxically, the most depressing and encouraging part of the day came when I asked Boaen, “What is the future of agriculture?” and invited him to answer as he saw fit. As expected, he cited the need for fundamental change. There is not enough grain in the world for every person in China to have one glass of beer per day (it is not the lack of beverage that is troubling, but rather the magnitude of need) and he told us an anecdote about a couple that produces coveted dry-farmed tomatoes yet they both work second jobs to sustain the work they truly love. The agricultural minimum wage in blue Massachusetts is $1.70 per hour, supplemented with piece earnings, and the recent Farm Bill reverted us back to 1949 legislation. Yet Boaen was hopeful, his information riveting—the whole drive back, the experience and knowledge gained during the day swirled through my mind. I must retain this feeling, this passion for action.

*Working pictures courtesy of Professor Hank Art. 

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