The Common Good
May 2012

Work of Many Hands

by Ivone Guillen | May 2012

When you pick an apple in the store, think of those who held it first. A day in the life of a farm worker.

Food-related coverage in this issue was supported by ELCA World Hunger (www.elca.org/hunger)
 

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“Lord, you are good to all and compassionate toward all you’ve made ... You are faithful in all your words, and gracious in all your deeds. The eyes of all look to you in hope, and you give them their food in due season” (Psalm 145:9, 13, 15).

I often reflect on this message from Psalm 145 and how each of us will interpret it differently according to the experiences we’ve had in life. This is true even for the things in life that connect and affect us all.

Take, for example, God’s gift of food. We are interconnected by this thing that was created to nourish our bodies and minds, allowing us to function in our daily lives and permitting us to live a full and healthy life. Yet how often do we think about where the food we eat comes from?

When I’m at the store, I often wonder whose hands cultivated and cared for the plants that produced the piles of neatly stacked fruit and vegetables. Was it a Lupe, a Daniel, or a Jesus? How long did they have to work under the blazing hot sun in order to get the produce to the store? What are their stories and where do they come from?

I think about these things because I grew up with people who worked long, hard hours to produce the best quality of fruit for the market. Since I was very young, my immediate family has been immersed in agricultural work. My mother was a farm worker who picked fruit and vegetables. Once we children were old enough, we joined my mom and the rest of the labor force, which was mainly comprised of immigrant farm laborers. In the 19 years I’ve been around this work, rarely have I seen a non-immigrant hand in the orchards, and if I did, it surely wasn’t to help pick the fruit in bags that weigh up to 45 pounds.

Alongside other workers I learned what happens before fruit ends up at the grocery store. The process begins at the orchards, where the young trees are planted, nurtured, and cultivated by skilled immigrant laborers. The work is labor- intensive and exhausting and requires a certain degree of endurance. I remember that on most days, I just wanted to get home after a long day and sleep off the weariness. Although farm work is physically backbreaking, it nonetheless is a skilled profession.

“ISRAEL” IS A man who started out as a farm worker and with hard work, dedication, and the support of his employer was promoted to crew manager at a large apple orchard. He now oversees a group ranging from 30 to 90 people, depending on the season. Israel knows quite well the skill and knowledge required at each phase of the process to have a successful harvest. He described for me the pruning and thinning processes.

 “Every year the tree has branches that overshadow too much and don’t allow the apple to develop, and you need to remove them,” said Israel. “You grab the scissors, get onto the ladder, and you begin pruning branch by branch until you finish the tree. You need to leave new wood; you need to take branches that will hinder the tree so that the tree will grow to a good size and color.”

Then comes thinning season. “[Farm workers] have to stand in front of the tree and see if the apples are too bunched up,” Israel explained. “Start from the bottom of the branch, where there are bunches; they need to separate them to produce a large apple—if it’s bunched up it won’t be able to grow or get a good color. It’s giving space from apple to apple, taking away [extra fruit] from the middle.”

The last stage of the process is the harvest. It takes a physically fit person to be able to carry, repeatedly, heavy bags down an 8-to 20-foot ladder and to the field bins for eight hours a day. Individuals also have to be able to position a ladder quickly enough to keep up with their crew, which can include up to 90 people, depending on the size of the farm. The ladder has to be carefully placed, avoiding any damaged or weak branches that could cause slippage or breakage and cause the person to fall. You also don’t want to ruin any branches, or the tree will not be useful for the next harvest.

If the weather conditions are good, with no excessive snow, rain, or temperatures, a farm worker is able to pick anywhere from six to 12 bins a day—without bruising the apples. A full bin of apples weighs between 800 and 875 pounds, depending on the variety.

The goal is always to fill as many bins as possible—with quality fruit. Picking improperly can lead to bruised or unripe fruit that’s not good for sale. With apples, pickers must differentiate between the color in the different apple varieties to determine the maturity level, and they must also avoid physically defective fruit.

Full bins of apples are taken to a warehouse, where they go through another strenuous and extensive process to be packed and shipped to your neighborhood store.

FARM WORK IS an industry that requires constant adaptation to improve productivity and efficiency. Israel, who’s been a farm worker for 18 years, affirmed this: “Things constantly change, innovation occurs. We continue to learn daily.”

Each worker has a story to tell about their families and dreams and aspirations—and many wish that more people were willing to sit down and hear those stories. Immigrant workers are often scapegoated and discriminated against because of where they came from. Yet it is because of those immigrants doing the backbreaking work for low pay that we are able to purchase affordable produce.

Many immigrants have come here as a result of need, and their journeys have been emotionally scarring and perilous. These are people who have felt compelled to leave familiar environments, language, customs, and traditions to overcome a life of hunger and poverty. They then face an unfamiliar country and an often unwelcoming environment. Most leave family behind—siblings, parents, spouses, and even children.

Some of the most heartbreaking stories I heard as I’ve talked with immigrant farm workers were from people who left elderly parents back in their home countries—parents who, because of travel restrictions, often pass away without seeing their children again. The disillusionment and sense of failure in people’s faces as they tell these stories is heart-wrenching. One man told me he hasn’t seen his aging mother in 13 years. She often urges him to visit, saying, “Son, come and see me; you’re going to come and see me when I’m in my coffin.”

This kind of deep human pain gets lost in the relentlessly negative rhetoric often used to define immigrants. Such rhetoric is rarely based on first-person encounters, but rather is fed by fear, prejudice, and distorted media messages.

So the next time you are at the grocery store picking up a fruit or vegetable, be mindful that it was most likely touched by an immigrant farm worker’s hands, the hands of a person who is also part of God’s creation, created in the image of God. And remember that “the Lord is good to all; God has compassion on all God has made.”

Ivone Guillen is the immigration fellow at Sojourners.

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