Category Archives: Research

Contradictions, consequences and the human toll of food safety culture

I recently published an article (abstract below), with my colleagues Christy Getz and Jennifer Sowerwine, on the problems with a growing trend for governing pathogens in our food supply: food safety culture. I’ll take a moment to explain what that is.

The primary problem in food safety governance is that our food travels a long way from the field to our plates, changing hands (and jurisdictions) multiple times on its journey. This makes it hard for consumers to know precisely what has happened to their food along the way, and in particular whether something bad happened that makes the food dangerous to eat. So, quite reasonably, people want assurance that their food is safe. But how to get this assurance?

In theory, the food industry should have plenty of incentives to provide safe food. Operators who cut corners and sell food that makes people sick should, again in theory, face negative repercussions: bad PR, loss of market share, lawsuits, and even criminal prosecution in extreme cases. However, given the complexity of the food chain, the sheer amount of different foods that people eat every day (which are often mixed together), and the lag time between eating contaminated food and actually getting sick from it, it turns out that in many cases a sick consumer cannot determine who is at fault. Even when they do, the damage has often already been done.

For these reasons, this reactive approach to governing food safety does not really provide sufficient reassurance that our food supply is safe. So in the US, we also have preventive strategies that try to avert food safety problems before they arise. Government agencies have rules and standards for farmers, packers, shippers, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants and all the other people who grow our food and get it to us. Examples of preventive standards include good agricultural practices (GAPs) for farmers and good manufacturing practices (GMPs) for food handlers and processors. But the food distribution system is huge, and the government’s surveillance capacity is limited (constant monitoring is very expensive). Just like with reactive sanctions, preventive rules provide only partial reassurance. Sometimes, that’s not good enough. One simply needs to look at the persistent occurrence of outbreaks of E. coliSalmonella, norovirus, or other foodborne pathogens to see the limits of this system.

So the “captains” of the food industry — the largest retail and foodservice chains — came up with another method, which Walmart’s vice-president for food safety coined “food safety culture”. As we explain in our article (which is unfortunately behind a paywall), this strategy encourages each individual worker throughout the food supply chain to take continuous and personal responsibility for the safety of the food that passes through their hands. Every worker, manager, and owner is supposed to be ever-vigilant and should continuously seek to improve the safety of food. Food safety culture is a way of delegating the oversight work that would otherwise need to be done by government or a private third-party onto workers themselves, and on the surface would seem to promise a more efficient and comprehensive approach to ensuring that food is safe.

However, our research showed that the primary motivation behind the spread of this strategy is as much about protecting the reputation of powerful brands and shielding them from liability as it is about the public health mission to prevent foodborne illness. Food safety culture is, in many important ways, about preserving the “illusion of safety” amidst a continual cycle of outbreak-related crises and government- or industry-led reforms. Unfortunately, the question of whose safety? gets obscured in the shuffle.  And this can carry a very real human toll in the form of increased anxiety and stress for line workers across the food system who must shoulder the burden of protecting (primarily wealthy) consumers from the spiraling problems of industrially mass-produced food. At the same time, narrow scrutiny on foodborne pathogens — which are one symptom of our industrial food system — distracts from understanding root causes of “food-system-borne disease”.

So while clearly we as a society should work to minimize foodborne illness, we must also balance our efforts to do so against the many other threats to our health and well-being posed by the ways in which we grow, process, and distribute our food. The only way to do this is to critically and rigorously examine each and every form of governance, no matter how seemingly benign and no matter whether government-led or industry-driven, to suss out all the consequences, intended or not.

Article Abstract

In an intensifying climate of scrutiny over food safety, the food industry is turning to “food safety culture” as a one-size-fits-all solution to protect both consumers and companies. This strategy focuses on changing employee behavior from farm to fork to fit a universal model of bureaucratic control; the goal is system-wide cultural transformation in the name of combatting foodborne illness. Through grounded fieldwork centered on the case of a regional wholesale produce market in California, we examine the consequences of this bureaucratization of food safety power on the everyday routines and lived experiences of people working to grow, pack, and deliver fresh produce. We find that despite rhetoric promising a rational and universal answer to food safety, fear and frustration over pervasive uncertainty and legal threats can produce cynicism, distrust, and fragmentation among agrifood actors. Furthermore, under the cover of its public health mission to prevent foodborne illness, food safety culture exerts a new moral economy that sorts companies and employees into categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ according to an abstracted calculation of ‘riskiness’ along a scale from safe to dangerous. We raise the concern that ‘safety’ is usurping other deeply held values and excluding cultural forms and experiential knowledges associated with long-standing food-ways. The long-term danger, we conclude, is that this uniform and myopic response to real risks of foodborne illness will not lead to a holistically healthy or sustainable agrifood system, but rather perpetuate a spiraling cycle of crisis and reform that carries a very real human toll.

(If you would like a copy of this article, please contact me.)

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Machines and Workers: The deceptive framing of automation

I was recently quoted in an article in MUNCHIES on the incoming US Secretary of Labor, Andrew Puzder. Puzder has (notoriously) argued that government regulations (to protect the welfare and rights of workers) drive the cost of labor up, which forces employers to automate their businesses by replacing human workers with machines. He has quipped of machines, “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

In the article, I responded by pointing out how “Puzder is implying that deregulation will slow or halt automation by keeping labor cheap. Notably, the only two options Puzder presents for workers are (1) low-paying, uncertain, and exploitative employment or (2) no employment.”

This damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t analysis of mechanization, automation, and robotization has plagued workers facing technological developments since the industrial revolution. And it is still a major problem today. Especially with the increasing prevalence of Big Data and advances in artificial intelligence, we’re looking at a future in which not just manual jobs—such as picking heads of lettuce or riveting widgets—but also desk jobs like legal work will be in danger of replacement by computerized machines. President Obama even went so far as to warn of the dangers of automation in his farewell address: “The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas,” he said. “It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.” The question is, of course, what can we do about it? Are we doomed to be stuck in Puzder’s  de-humanizing catch-22 scenario?

It just so happens that this is a problem I’ve recently been researching. Together with Prof. Alastair Iles and several undergraduate student researchers, I’ve been examining cases of machine labor replacing, or threatening to replace, human labor in agriculture. In particular, we’re looking at the rise of mechanical harvesters for vegetable, fruit and nut crops during the post-War years. While we anticipate the research to continue for several more years, a few important points on automation are already clear. I’ll outline them in the rest of this blog post.

1. Machine labor is not the same as human labor

Historically, machines have outperformed humans when it comes to performing the same exact task over and over again. This is an area in which people do not excel. As I alluded to in my comment on Puzder, trying to compete with machines dehumanizes human workers. Americans have a national fable about a heroic individual, John Henry, out-working a steam-powered drilling machine. However, the feat costs John Henry his life, whereas the machine presumably went on to a long “career” driving steel for the railroad magnates.

The problem highlighted in the fable is the industrial standardization of production. Machines only “work” in a standardized, scripted environment; humans, by contrast, are flexible and adaptive workers, capable of performing many complex tasks depending on the situation. One deception of the catch-22 is that people and machines must inevitably compete with one another in a zero-sum game, even though the actual labor is very different.

2. Machines change the nature of production and the nature of what is produced

It’s not just that machines are “naturally” better suited to perform many tasks than are people, but rather that machines actually shape the nature of work, the working environment, and the product itself to better suit their standard requirements.

To take an example from our research, when California lettuce farmers in the 1960s were considering switching to mechanical harvesters, they ran into a problem: their fields and their plants were too variable and heterogeneous for the machines. Whereas human workers could differentiate between healthy, mature heads of lettuce and damaged or immature plants, a machine could not. Human harvesters likewise could handle humps and dips or other quirks of the field and furrows, but a machine needed perfectly level, uniform, and even rows to cut the heads.

In an effort to accommodate the envisioned mechanical harvesters, farmers, breeders, farm advisors, and agronomists set out to craft a new form of farming, what they called “precision agriculture.” The idea would be to create a perfectly level field of perfectly uniform rows populated by perfectly uniform crops that would all mature at precisely the same time. There would be no weeds, no irregularities, nothing to disrupt the machine’s ability to do exactly the same task over and over again. The field was made to suit the machine.

3. Mechanization is not automatic

New technologies are always embedded in an existing matrix of other technologies, behaviors, and organizational structures—what might better be referred to as a technological system. For a technological development to be truly transformative, to propagate and redefine a given production process, the rest of the system has to transform as well.

In the case of lettuce, the mechanical harvester was accompanied by a host of other technological, behavioral, and organizational changes. Breeders had to develop new seeds that farmers could use to shift toward a “plant-to-stand”—one seed, one plant—approach that would remove the entire production stage of thinning, that is, removing the unhealthy plants from the stand; a highly selective and irregular task not conducive to machine labor. At the same time, chemical herbicides were ushered in to eliminate the need for weeding, a form of chemically automating another form of selective labor. Lastly, farmers had to adapt to a once-over harvest. Whereas harvest crews comprising human laborers with hand knives could sweep a field multiple times over the course of several days to harvest lettuce that matured at different rates, a machine can only really harvest a field once, cutting most everything in its path in one pass.

The point is that mechanization is never “automatic”—ironically, it takes a lot of work to accommodate land, resources, businesses, and even consumers to the strict requirements of machine labor. Automation is a process that must be designed, guided, and even coerced into being. Importantly, this means that people determine how mechanization happens, and we have the power to do it differently.

4. A job is not an end in itself

In an era of rapid advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and other technologies that can perform human tasks, the fixation on “jobs” as the only metric of well-being is problematic. A lot of those jobs will no longer require a human to perform them, as McKinsey & Company’s new report on automation argues. The question we should be asking ourselves as a society is, do Americans really need to be doing tedious, repetitive tasks that can be left to a robot?

As long as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—plus housing, food, healthcare, and so forth—is tied to whether a person has a “job” or not, the answer has to be “yes”. And as more and more machines come online that can perform human tasks, the more and more human workers will have to compete against the robot, hypothetical or real, that threatens to take their job. This can only drive the value of labor down, meaning that Americans will continually be asked to work more for less. That’s not a sustainable trend, and will only exacerbate our already high levels of socioeconomic inequality.

The United States is desperately in need of new public policies that can deal with this fundamental trend of working more for less. Basically, we need ways to ensure that the productivity gains generated by new technologies improve the lives of all Americans, not just the small percentage who happen to own a business and can afford the capital investment of the latest robots. Trying to preserve jobs as the sole route for people to improve their lives without changing the underlying pattern I’ve described above is a downward spiral that will harm many and benefit a few.

5. The problem with automation is one of distribution of wealth

Which leads to my penultimate point in this post. The problem is not that new technologies replace menial or repetitive jobs. It’s that they supplant peoples’ livelihoods, a concept which we should think of as a way of life rather than merely an occupation. That technologies can destroy people’s ways of life has been understood for centuries—it’s what spurred the Luddite movement during the early 19th century in England and also underpinned Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism some fifty years later. In many ways, communism was based on the idea that technological development is a good thing if the productivity gains are shared equally among everyone. While the practical implementation of that idea turned out to be oversimplified, the basic point—that new technologies raise questions about the distribution of wealth as much as they do about productivity gains—still applies today.

As farm worker movements in the 1960s and 1970s attested, the debate cannot focus on the simple ratio of input/output efficiency or even on jobs saved versus jobs lost. Those farm workers protested against mechanized harvesting and processing technologies in agriculture because they realized that all of the productivity gains would go to the farm owners, the patent holders, and the manufacturing companies. None would go to the people who had done the sweaty, back-breaking work in the fields that underpinned the entire agricultural industry and put the owners in the position to consider mechanization in the first place.

This is one of the reasons why people are starting to talk about a universal basic income, an idea which Robert Reich (himself a former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton) nicely outlined in a short video last fall. Basically, the idea is that if machines can do all the work to meet peoples’ needs, then people will not have jobs, and therefore will not have the money to buy the basic goods those machines produce. The universal basic income circumvents the problem by separating purchasing power from jobs, which has the effect of more equally distributing the productivity gains of automation such that people will actually be able to enjoy their lives.

6. Democratizing technology

I see the universal basic income as a solution to a symptom, the maldistribution of wealth. What we should be thinking about, if we want to address root-causes, is the maldistribution of power.

I had the opportunity to visit Immokalee, Florida a couple of years ago. Immokalee grows a large share of the nation’s fresh tomatoes, a delicate crop that is generally harvested by hand because machines tend to destroy or damage the fruit. Immokalee is also the location of some of the most recent cases of modern-day slavery—workers held in captivity and forced to work the fields. But it’s also home to an empowered workers movement, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has fought for, and won, improvements in pay and working conditions for tomato harvesters.

On the visit, one Coalition spokesperson demonstrated how field workers harvest tomatoes. They walk through the fields filling up large buckets, which weigh around thirty pounds when full. It was a big deal for the Coalition when they bargained a penny-per-pound increase in the piece-rate compensation for pickers. As the spokesperson explained, the Coalition also achieved success in setting a new bucket-filling standard, under which workers would no longer be forced to fill their buckets over the rim, a practice that used to be required, but for which workers were not paid extra (see p. 32 of the 2015 Annual Report for a picture).

As the presentation continued, I was struck by the impressive intensity of the struggle around field workers’ rights, but also by the fact that the bucket itself was never questioned. Ergonomically, the buckets are terrible. They are plain plastic, with no handles or straps to ease lifting them onto the shoulder or help keep the bucket stable and distribute its weight once loaded. Why, I wondered at the time, does all the negotiating around the tomato picking seem to take these back-breaking buckets for granted? Is there no way to design a better tool for collecting the tomatoes and hauling them out of the field?

Of course there is, but that’s not how we tend to think of technological development. Which is why I argue that it’s not just about where the money goes after the fact, but about who has a say in how technologies are developed before the fact. The direction of technological development is open and changeable: technological development can be democratized. Spreading out the power to drive technological development will be the route to designing machines first to improve the conditions of labor and ways of life, and only second to increase productivity.

Our ongoing research into the history agricultural mechanization is motivated by a desire to understand how and why power over technological development was consolidated in the first place, in order that we might understand how to spread that power out moving forward.

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Dissertation Complete

Yesterday I finalized my dissertation, titled Ordering People and Nature through Food Safety Governance. It has been quite a long journey, and despite recent societal turbulence it is deeply satisfying to wrap up this chapter in my career.

Here is the abstract:

We are constantly reminded that eating fresh fruits and vegetables is healthy for us. But in the face of repeated outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to fresh produce, whether these foods are safe for us has become an entirely different, and difficult to answer, question. In the name of food safety, both government and industry leaders are adopting far-reaching policies intended to prevent human pathogens from contaminating crops at the farm level, but these policies meet friction on the ground. Through a case study of the California leafy greens industry, this dissertation examines the web of market, legal, technological, and cultural forces that shape how food safety policy is crafted and put into practice in fields.

Controlling dangerous pathogens and protecting public health are not the only goals served by expanding food safety regulation—food safety also serves to discipline and order people and nature for other purposes. Private firms use the mechanisms of food safety governance to shift blame and liability for foodborne pathogens to other sectors or competitors and to secure a higher market share for themselves. Food safety experts, capitalizing on the lack of available science upon which to base standards, carve out for themselves a monopoly in setting and interpreting food safety standards. And government agents wield their expanded policing powers primarily to make examples of a few bad actors in order to shore up public confidence in the food system and the government’s ability to protect its citizens, but fail to address underlying structural causes.

Zealous fixation with driving risk of microbial contamination toward an always out-of-reach “zero” draws attention away from the systemic risks inherent in the food system status quo and stifles alternative pathways for growing and distributing food, raising thorny complications for diversifying—ecologically, economically, or culturally—our country’s food provisioning system. The narrow scope of existing food safety policy must be broadened and developed holistically with other societal goals if the future of US agriculture is to be sustainable and resilient in the long term.

I will not post the full dissertation here, but am happy to share a PDF copy for anyone who is interested. Just send me an email.

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Guest blog post for National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

I wrote a guest blog post along with several colleagues for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition summarizing the findings of our recently published research article, Inconsistent food safety pressures complicate environmental conservation for California produce growers. The paper is freely available to the general public.

We discuss how the complex patchwork of rules, standards, audits, and other requirements to “enhance” food safety in produce agriculture puts inconsistent and problematic pressure on farmers. These intense pressures can make farmers feel that they must adopt environmentally damaging practices to be extra safe. We are particularly concerned that, because of a food safety concern, many farmers are trying to prevent wildlife from entering farm fields by setting poison bait, removing habitat, and installing extensive fences.

Recent research, however, shows that these practices do not make food safer, and may even increase the risk that pathogens will contaminate crops in the field. Conservation and safety, in other words, can be practiced together on farms.

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Tensions Between Safety and Sustainability in the Field

No Animals, Food Safety Violation II

I wrote a short blog post on friction between food safety and environment (particularly animals) for my department’s website last week. It’s based on a recent trip I took to conduct fieldwork in Imperial Valley, California and Yuma, Arizona — two of the most important produce growing regions in the country. I met with vegetable growers and food safety auditors in both states, and even got to tag along on a night harvest of baby spinach.

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This sort of fieldwork is both exhilarating and exhausting. I get the chance to meet people whose occupations most of us hardly know exist, let alone have any sense of what that work entails, and to visit places which likewise don’t make it onto the radar. At the same time, making the most of fieldwork means being “on” all the time, ready to absorb and sift information with all sensory channels open and receiving. At the end of each day, I have to be able to tell a story, to weave the events and observations and impressions into a coherent narrative in my field notes. These notes are critical records for me later — sometimes years later — when I have to synthesize and write up my final report for publication. So I thought it might be interesting to provide a short example of my field notes look like. Here’s a sample, verbatim with no edits, of what I wrote about my trip to the night harvest.

I spoke with the food safety manager, whom I met about 5:30 in the evening, and two foremen whose crews were harvesting that night. The crews begin about 5 in the evening (when it starts to cool off), and work for 8-10 hours, sometimes a bit less like this night, when the manager thought they would wrap up by about midnight. These crews are maybe 10-13 workers (even fewer if the greens are packed in large bins rather than the relatively small totes, due to the labor of packing). Crews for harvesting whole product, such as head lettuce or romaine hearts, can be much larger, on the order of 20-50 workers (since these have to be harvested by hand).

We met at the staging area, where the foremen (mayordomos) and tractor/harvester drivers park and meet (the crews show up directly at the field, later). The foremen and drivers are skilled workers, usually with many years of experience both on the line and running a crew, and are employed year round by the harvester (who is based out of Salinas, and also does growing). Several of the cars had boxes of spring mix in the front seats—already washed, the kind that goes out to retail or foodservice. I asked the manager about it, and he said that the buyers regularly send the crews a palette of product, as sort of a thank you to the workers (for reference, a crew might harvest about 30 palettes in one night). I later had a conversation with one of the foremen about spinach, and a gleam came into his eyes as he started recounting all of the delicious meals his wife cooks with the spinach. When we finished the visit at that field and were saying goodbye, he gave me a 2-lb. box of organic spring mix to take home with me.

Before I could go into the field, I had to observe the requirements of the visitor SOP. I washed my hands vigorously with soap and water (supposed to be 20 seconds, or the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday), donned a hairnet and a reflective vest, and removed my watch (to my pocket). The harvest crew was moving away from us, and we walked across the already harvested beds (which no longer mattered since they were finished for the season). Sometimes they do prep beds for a second pass harvest, especially in times of high demand, but it was unclear how that changes the treatment of the harvested beds.

For the baby greens – e.g. spring mix or spinach – the product is mowed up with a large harvesting machine, which draws the cut leaves onto a conveyor belt. The leaves are carried up to the back of the machine, where several workers stand on a special platform. They are arranged as on a factory line, which begins on the trailer being pulled along by a tractor parallel to the harvesting machine. A couple of workers on the trailer prepare empty bins and place them on the start of the conveyor belt. The bins pass along to the 2-3 workers (apparently generally women) who gather the leaves as they flow over the lip of the conveyor belt and pack them loosely in the totes. The packed totes are then conveyed back to the trailer where 3-4 workers cover, stack and secure them.

The harvesting machine has an anti-rodent sound machine affixed to the front, near the blade and the headlights. The machine emits a sort of throbbing high-pitched chirp that is supposed to make any rodents who are nearby run away. The manager says he tested it out in a friend’s house who had a mouse problem, and it seemed effective there. There are also two workers who walk between the beds ahead of the machine, to look for any signs of animal activity or other problem (like a bit of trash) that would require the harvesters to skip a section. That said, according to the manager, it is very rare to see animals in the field during the actual growing season—in his telling, all the people who are around the fields all the time during the growing season keep them off. It is much more common to see animals in the off-season, when the fields are left alone for a while.

As a final note, I will say that the two pounds of spinach were a real boon to me in a time of need. After the harvest, I faced an hour drive back to Yuma, arriving near midnight. There was no food and nothing open, let alone with vegetarian options, so I ate lots and lots of salad.

Salad greens

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A Visit to Javier’s Farm

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.

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Javier’s latest farm site stretches to the trees in the background. About 8 out of 20 acres are currently being cultivated.

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.

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With a little TLC, these hydrangeas will be a valuable asset to the farm.

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).

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Rows of cabbage and kale, already flourishing after just a few months.

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.

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A bag of strawberry shoots post nutrient bath. A bed of bolting broccoli can be seen in the background. While still edible, the yellow flowers springing forth from the heads make it unacceptable at most markets–these plants will be plowed under to return fertility to the soil.

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.

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Ruben, in the foreground, inspects a raised bed to see if it’s ready for planting. A crew works with Javier in the background to plant the new shoots.

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.

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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.

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Carnitas cooking over an open fire.

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.

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Free-ranging chickens. We harvested some eggs from the coop in the background–mine was still warm when I pulled it out.

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November strawberries.

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.

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Biological control in a bottle.

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.

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