Strawberry Hands, Bent Backs, Uncertain Futures

strawberriesThis is the 7th post in a series on the business of sustainable agriculture by the folks at Bon Appétit Management, a company that provides café and catering services to corporations, colleges and universities. To read past posts, click here.

By Vera Chang, West Coast Fellow for Bon Appétit Management

On the website homepage of one of the largest fruit and vegetable producers and marketers in the world, a blond woman wearing a pink shirt appears, smoothie in one hand and bowl in the other. As the page loads, strawberries fall from the sky, landing effortlessly into her bowl. As the viewer, I wonder where I am to assume these strawberries came from. The strawberry-shaped hot air balloon overhead? Green rolling hills in the background?

Strawberry Fields Forever: I’ve recently started a position investigating sustainability and labor conditions on West Coast farms that supply a major food service operation, Bon Appétit Management Company. Sitting at my computer this December preparing farm visit itineraries, I flash back a few short months ago to strawberry fields along the California Central Coast. This foggy, chilly autumn painted a partial picture of the lives of farmworkers and affected forever how I will view people and their role in the food supply chain. I close my eyes and recall the images that are seared into my mind: Strawberry fields roll as far as my eyes can see.

Farmworkers (trabajadores del campo) dot the landscape. Handkerchiefs cover necks and faces to protect them from the sun and sometimes chemical sprays, leaving only eyes exposed. Their hands are stained strawberry red from picking. Workers move together as a loose unit, carrying cardboard flats while hurriedly picking berries and placing them in baskets. Their knees are bent, their backs are hunched over, and their eyes watch the ground, three seconds ahead of their hands. They work through furrows with quick, bursting motions – pick, pick, pick, place strawberries in basket, push cart forward, pick, pick, pick, pick, pick, place strawberries in basket, push metal cart forward, pick, pick, place strawberries in basket, close plastic lid of basket, pick, pick, pick, pick, pick, put strawberries in next basket, push cart forward. They move faster than I could have imagined. Practically running through rows, one worker fills twelve strawberry baskets in four minutes and twelve seconds.

I can attest to the demands of picking. Though I have some experience working on farms, I am unprepared for the demands of commercial harvesting. It requires technique that I lack. My attempts to swiftly remove strawberries from their host plants accidentally rip their calyxes. I smush strawberry after strawberry between my thumb, fore, and middle finger. I find moving for an extended period of time while bending over between rows of plants challenging and painful. I squat and waddle through the rows, and erratically push my metal cart ahead of my body inches at a time. Learning about what leads people to farm work and how they got here is heartbreaking. One woman, Marta (a pseudonym) asks where I am from, how I traveled to California, how many hours my flight was, how much my ticket cost, and how I purchased it.

When I asked Marta these same questions, she told me she is from a town near Oaxaca, México and came to California by plane, plus three days straight walking, and finally by car. She is here picking berries, she said, because there is no other way to feed her family, but she wants to return home soon. I can only imagine living with long hours of hard labor day after day, the physical wear and tear of repetitive physical work, and the constant mental strain of seasonal job insecurity.

A newbie to commercial picking, I am aware that I increased the farm’s liability, had poor quality control, and was an inefficient source of labor. I appreciated this farm’s transparent practices and willingness to allow me work for a day, a request most large-scale farms would not honor. My short time working alongside farmworkers offered a window – not a complete picture – of where strawberries come from and about those who pick them. The full picture will be hard to uncover.


vera changVera Chang: I am excited to be the West Coast Fellow for Bon Appétit Management Company and part of a company that seeks to know the truth, works to find real solutions to injustices, and makes farmworkers’ realities visible to the American public. As I sit here and type, I go back to the website’s  picturesque farmland and strawberry shaped hot air balloon. In the real world, there are people working quickly in the fields. I know there is not a moment to lose.

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