It’s been quite a while since I’ve managed to get a post up. I got caught up with a conference presentation and a large grant proposal, which sapped my mental energy for writing. Also, I had to dwell mostly largely in the world of theory and abstract concepts, which left me with little interest in writing more about these topics for the blog. So I thought I might tack a different course for a bit, and share a bit about the field work that I do for my research. This is the grounded stuff that keeps me motivated and excited about grad school and academia when I start to get burned out. In this post, I share an account of my visit to Javier’s farm this past weekend. I hope that it will give you a flavor for how work in agriculture starts to connect to the overarching theme of people and nature. I’ll be developing this connection further in future posts.
“Aquí nos vemos,” said the email from Javier. We’ll see you here. He and his workers would begin the day at six, preparing to plant 2.5 acres of hillside near Watsonville with strawberries for the next season’s harvest. Driving down from Berkeley, I would arrive at around 10am to visit his farm and learn a little bit about his style of small-scale organic agriculture.
I met Javier at a focus group to hear from small-scale immigrant farmers about their experiences with food safety regulations (my topic of research). All of the farmers were affiliated with the Agriculture and Land-based Training Association (ALBA)—an organization which helps small farmers, and especially farm-workers, get started operating their own organic farms. Javier is a graduate of ALBA’s farmer training program, now operating independently. Originally from Michoacán, a state in central Mexico, Javier came to the U.S. when he was 21. He spent 17 years in the L.A. area, working first as a janitor, then a bartender, and eventually a manager at several golf courses. Several years ago, he had enough of what he calls “the corporate life” and enough of working for other people, and moved North with his family to get back to his farming roots. His father was an adept farmer, he tells me, skilled in irrigation. They grew maize, beans, squash, and other vegetables, including cucumbers. These they pickled and sold to an American importer whom Javier’s father knew through irrigation work.
Today Javier has around 20 acres of land split across two sites. The site at which the strawberries are being planted is owned by a Silicon Valley software engineer, who now invests in agricultural land in California’s central coast. Javier met him through a real estate agent, and convinced him to buy this particular parcel specifically to lease out for his farm. This is good land, and Javier pays a bit more for it than the area average. It’s worth it, he says, because of the existing irrigation infrastructure and a valuable plot of mature hydrangea bushes, whose flowers will fetch a fair price.
This is not a conventional mono-culture farm, growing acre after acre of one or two core commodity crops to be sold to distant markets. Rather, Javier envisions a diversified farming system, producing many complementary crops. Next to the strawberry field are interspersed beds of kale (several varieties), red and green cabbage, broccoli, rainbow chard, English and French lavender, marigolds (grown specifically for Día de los Muertos), parsley and various herbs and other flowers. At the ends of the rows and all around the field are pockets of native vegetation, planned to attract natural predators to help control pests. In addition, the farm also seeks to work with rather than suppress ecological processes and biodiversity. Since Javier doesn’t use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, he and his workers keep the crops healthy with biological controls, healthy soil, and crop rotation. Also, a lot of hard work.
One of the reasons I asked to visit Javier’s farm was to better understand the work — both manual labor and management — that goes into a diversified farm. In just a few months on this land, Javier (working seven days a week from sunup often until late at night) and the people who work for him have made tremendous progress in bringing the land’s potential to fruition (literally).
On this day, they are going to set up the first strawberry plot on the site. Strawberries are one of the most valuable crops grown in California, and will be key to the farm’s economic viability. To start 2.5 acres of strawberries, Javier and about 20 workers have to plant 70,000 shoots in long rows (see below). Each hole in the black plastic, which is used to keep down weeds and to help the soil stay at the best temperature and moisture, will soon house a new strawberry plant, at this point just a bundle of roots with a tiny bit of stem. Javier purchases the shoots from a nursery up near the Sacramento Delta. They arrive bundled tightly in plastic bags. Most will be of the common Albion variety, but the first few rows will be a less common variety that fruits earlier in the spring. Javier doesn’t much care for the taste of these, but they produce a pretty fruit and will most importantly be ready for the first days of strawberry season, when demand is very high.
I helped Ruben, one of Javier’s full-time employees, unpack this bag and soak it in an organic nutrient bath (the brown water at the bottom of the wheelbarrow) before he carted it up to the fields for planting. Before the shoots can go in the ground, though, the beds have to be prepared. This involves grading the ground into the raised beds, offset precisely forty-eight inches, which you can see in the photo. Each bed has irrigation tape laid across its entire length, and is then covered in the plastic. When I first arrived, I tripped and accidentally ripped a hole in the plastic on one of the rows—I was told I have to be more careful, as the plastic has to last for two years, the length of the rotation cycle.
While strawberries are perennial and can fruit for up to ten years, in the central coast they are afflicted by a fungal disease, verticillium wilt. Conventional farmers use drip fumigation to control the wilt, but organic farmers rely on rotation, which limits the productive life of an organic strawberry plant to two years. After that, the strawberries will be replaced with broccoli, which produces a natural anti-fungal agent in its roots, for several years before being returned to strawberry production.
Before the planting, a worker has to use a special device to punch the holes (all 70,000 of them) in the plastic for the strawberries. I spent some time at the unglamorous task of removing the leftover disc of plastic from each hole.
After several rows and just about half an hour, my back was already sore from bending over the beds. The workers will have to do this for ten or more hours during the planting. After the holes are ready for the shoots, they’ll work in teams of three: one person with a crate of new strawberry shoots placing one at each hole, and two following with special planting tools that push the roots deep into the sandy soil. (I didn’t take a picture of the tools, but they look like this example, though less fancy). Placing the shoots at the holes, while a simpler task than planting, is nonetheless difficult. I worked in this role, and by the end of just one row my back and arms were getting sore from carrying the crate of shoots. I also tried my hand at planting a few strawberries: I had to be careful to reach the proper depth, protect the fragile roots and not leave any exposed to the air, and avoid piercing the irrigation tape by accident. It took me about ten times longer to get a plant in the ground than the experienced workers.
Javier pays his workers well, though. Today they’ll make $10 per hour, at least a dollar more than the standard going rate in the area. The atmosphere is jovial as the work progresses. Jokes are shared in rapid-fire Spanish which I can’t follow, but seem to produce plenty of chuckles. Everyone has a special nickname, I’m told, given to them by the others. Javier, for example, is called caballo (horse), and when he comments on the music one of the workers is playing on a small portable device strapped to his belt, the worker jokes that he should moonlight as DJ Caballo.
Around noon, we stop for a long lunch break. After four hours over an open fire, a large batch of carnitas are ready to be eaten with tortillas, avocado and salsa. I do not eat meat, and so filled my grilled tortilla with a handful of peppers from a large bowl. Not realizing that these were extremely spicy rocoto peppers—one of the oldest varieties of pepper that is popular in Peru and Bolivia, and notable for its black seeds—I finished my makeshift wrap in a few bites. Moments later, I realized my mistake, and my antics hopping around fanning my burning mouth provided some lunchtime comic relief. At the end of the day, Javier later gave me my very own rocoto plant, though I will not be keen to try another of those peppers anytime soon.
More people showed up to work during lunch, and by the time the break wrapped up about 15 or so workers headed to the field to finish the planting. Meanwhile, Javier took me and several colleagues to see his other plot of land, which is better established. Here, in addition to blackberries and raspberries, he has a strawberry field already in production. Even this late in November, one of his harvesters had just collected several boxes of berries (still delicious, I can attest). There is even a field of free-ranging chickens; his landlord cares for them and collects the eggs, while Javier markets them.
Even in an established site like this, however, there is much work to be done. Constant vigilance is needed to prevent pests, such as the voracious two-spotted mite (Tetranychus urticae), which sucks the juices out of the leaves and withers the plant. To control the mite, organic farmers apply a predatory spider mite, Phytoseiulus persimilis. Javier purchases these predators in bulk from Syngenta, which sells bottles like this one. A bottle costs Javier about $12, and he estimates he spent around $4,000 on pest control this year for this field. Even so, a swath of brown, stunted plants cuts diagonally across the field, an area in which Javier says the mites were too fast for him. He’ll have to remove all of those plants, apply more Phytoseiulus persimilis, and replant new shoots for the spring season.
However, all of the work that goes into production is only half the story. A great deal of the work on Javier’s farm has little to do with actual production, and everything to do with finding good markets for the produce and getting it there. Some buyers, such as Whole Foods, require too much paperwork to make it worthwhile. It might cost hundreds of dollars and many hours of time to get the proper inspections, insurance documents, and forms in place just to sell a handful of crates to a strict buyer. Large corporate buyers tend to demand the most of these sorts of assurances from the farmers who supply them, and so Javier sells mostly to more local venues. He sells to six local groceries in the Central Coast and Bay Area, at least one of which will buy just about anything he grows at a good price.
He also sells to a number of weekly farmers markets. One of these markets is held in the Fruitvale neighborhood in south Oakland. You might recognize the name from the recent movie, Fruitvale Station. Javier says this particular market is an opportunity to provide his farm’s organic produce to urban Latinos and other people of color at a more accessible location and price than at a mainstream grocery. The people shopping at the Fruitvale farmer’s market often practice different culinary cultures from those represented in mainstream groceries, and so he produces some crops specifically for them, such as cilantro (coriander) grown tall with the roots still attached.
Javier’s farm shows that organic farming can be rooted in Mexican as well as mainstream American culture. He attributes much of his success to an understanding of both Mexican (agri)culture and to American (agri)culture, as well as to a mix of practical experience and formal book learning. One of Javier’s goals is to use his unique experiences and position to reach out to Latino communities, especially in urban areas, to both improve access to and educate about organic fruits and vegetables. He has the idea of giving a series of radio broadcasts in Spanish that present small-scale, diversified, and organic farming not just as a healthful and environmentally friendly source of food but also a culturally appropriate and affirmative foodway for people of color. Many ALBA farmers spent years working on conventional farms, and tell of allergies to pesticides and other harmful health effects from exposure to agricultural chemicals. The style of farming supported by ALBA and practiced by agricultores like Javier and the people working on his farm promises a better source of agricultural livelihood as well as better food.
I write this description of Javier and my visit to his farm in a political economic and regulatory context that is often hostile toward small-scale organic farmers. Market pressures reward farms that scale up and concentrate on a few crops. While organic produce sells for a premium in markets, the general pressure is to produce food ever more cheaply. Ecologically friendly farming practices or a respect for the working conditions of people laboring in the fields, not to mention a commitment to making good, healthy food available and affordable in underserved communities, are not rewarded. On top of the market pressures, regulations for safety and quality tend to reward large-scale, industrial, and English-speaking farms. For example, new rules proposed by FDA, as mandated by the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act, largely expect all farms—regardless of scale, commitment to agroecological practices, organic status, and so on—to comply with a more or less universal set of standards that were designed mostly with large-scale industrial farming practices in mind. So, in part, I’ve written up what I saw during my visit and what I heard in my conversations with Javier and his workers to respond to his request that I pass along a message to the buyers, the regulators, and the general public: “[Tell them that] they must look at what is happening, how it is that we are doing things, and then ask themselves if what they are requiring [demanding] really makes sense.”
I’d like to extend my thanks to Javier, all of the workers I met on my visit, and the fine folks at ALBA who helped put us in touch. There’s no substitute for first-hand experience, and that wouldn’t have been possible without all of their help. Also, you can visit Javier’s website for yourself.