One of the most gorgeous farm regions in the US lies in California’s Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. Drive along state highways 1, 129, or 156, and scenes of beaches, sand dunes, and the Coastal Ranges contrast with meticulously arranged rows of crops. The chances are high that farmers raise your favorite foods here: strawberries, blackberries, Brussels sprouts, artichokes, and salad greens are all abundant. Drive early in the morning, and dense fog and mist reveal specks of sprouting lettuces and bright red berries; in the early evening you will be treated to a gorgeous sunset bathing Monterey Bay in yellow and orange hues.
Now contrast those scenes with the reality of farming. Along those roads you will see pick-up trucks parked in the dirt, portable outhouses hitched behind them. Racks with backpacks and duffle bags dangling from them may block your view. Peer around them, and you will see migrant farm workers picking those crops, hunched over, delicately picking and snipping the fruits and vegetables that will go from warehouse to grocery store to your table.
Farms just outside of towns like Watsonville and Castroville can give you a taste of this backbreaking work, if you’d like. Bring your own buckets, and you can pick all the strawberries and olallieberries that you’d like for a few bucks a pound. After an hour of hard work, you can head back into your air-conditioned car and then home. But working in these fields all day is hardly fun, and with the national debate over immigration taking an even more divisive tone, the United Farm Workers (UFW) has issued a challenge: sign up on a web site and replace a farm worker.
The UFW has started a campaign, “Take Our Jobs,” aimed at those who complain that undocumented workers are taking Americans’ jobs. Visit the site, and you have an opportunity to enter your name, email, and zip code. Be aware of the disclaimer, however:
Job may include using hand tools such as knives, hoes, shovels, etc. Duties may include tilling the soil, transplanting, weeding, thinning, picking, cutting, sorting & packing of harvested produce. May set up & operate irrigation equip. Work is performed outside in all weather conditions (Summertime 90+ degree weather) & is physically demanding requiring workers to bend, stoop, lift & carry up to 50 lbs on a regular basis.
You are then asked if you are willing to work 6 days a week, 8-10 hours a day, with the caveat that if you live outside the Pacific Coast states and Hawaii, you may not receive overtime.
Arturo Rodriguez, President of the UFW, said the union created the web site as a response to those who direct their anger at livestock and farm laborers. Americans often look at these workers as scapegoats—but most farm laborers’ wages max out at $12,000 a year, and this workforce, 50% of which is undocumented, supplies the food that ends up in our supermarkets, cafeterias, and restaurants. The campaign’s aim is to reframe the immigration debate away from a deportation-only solution, and to raise awareness of the harsh truth of how our food is sourced.
I signed up on the site out of curiosity, and will follow up with the response I receive.
And after seeing all those farm workers along CA-129 working on a hot Monday holiday afternoon, I have a slightly different perspective about the hour a day I spend in my vegetable garden, kvetching about the occasional mess that a squirrel makes.