The Farm Fields of 17

July 6, 2012

I was 17, and at 220 pounds quite formidable (if I do say so myself). My Spring was so full of prom’s, track and field contests, and of course, spring football that I had no time to look for a Summer job. A job I would have to have however, so my summer hopes of popping jelly beans, watching Saved By the Bell reruns, and laying out by the pool wouldn’t be happening.

By the time, I hard hoofed it down to all the usual haunts for high school summer employment, my more ambitious (and less preoccupied) brethren got the beat on me. The video tape store, the local hardware, even the hamburger joint that my family longingly referred as Texas Burger (which is odd for Californians to do); each and every job opening was filled. At the desperate point, I put out word far and wide that I needed a job and wasn’t above any work.

It was at that time I was first introduced to the career track that well to do people say white people won’t do. That summer was my first as a seasonal farm worker in the fields of America’s industrial food basket, the Central Valley of California.

As a quick tutorial, farming is still pretty big in the Central Valley of California. They used to say that 75% of the vegetables you see at the grocery store (that is, the vegetables other than corn or soy) were grown in Central California. That’s probably a dated statistic. I wouldn’t be surprised if much of that production has now been outsourced to China, India, or South America. Globalization effects everyone. But at that time, the massive California real estate bubble had not yet swelled to its eventual deafening roar. Many medium sized farmers still held their family farmland and would for at least another decade before they would cash it out for a lucrative retirement. That was the golden age of the golden state farm worker. Sigh…

That is the world I entered that Summer. First up, Almond’s. Bakersfield’s Almond Orchards can be incredibly beautiful when they first set their blooms but they are just about the worst things on earth for my allergies… Next up, digging holes.

Yes, that’s right. I probably only spent a few weeks among the almonds. Honestly I couldn’t tell you for sure that they were almond orchards. As a 17 year old I knew them as “trees” when I was articulate; “things” when I wasn’t. Trees that make me sneeze at that. I did not know nor did I really care what they were producing. For the amount of pesticides I put on the ground around said trees you really couldn’t blame me for not looking longingly at the food type in front of me.

From the orchards, I went into a several hundred acre track of farm fields whose exact contents never were known to me either. From pesticide sprayer, I became hole digger and waterline mover. Honestly I remember more about the type of peanut butter I ate in my lunch than the nature of the things that were grown around me. A co-worker and I were plopped off at a different site each day where our job was to make sure the infrastructure was set up for a scalding hot waterpipe to flood the bottom of a series of beds. Yes, they were flooding beds in the middle of one of California worst droughts in history in an area that gets on average 10 inches of a rain a year! My co-laborer was the better digger and most certainly had the better attitude than I. Truth be told, I was lazy and this summer helped me to see my lack with brutal clarity.

At around $10 an hour, eight hours a day, I made a tidy sum as July approached and the work wound down for me. I was paid in cash under the table like every one out there. And having a little wad of twenties in my pocket did feel good. But I still had another month till football’s double days. What was I to do?

My mom had a co-worker with a personal tie into the tomato farms outside of town and so I became a hand in the harvest of tomatoes. Don’t let my “hand” language throw you off. The vast number of immigrant laborers I was surrounded by were the true-blue “hands”. The men and women with the rags on the back of their neck and long sleeved shirts in the brutal heat walked the fields with salt and pepper shakers tucked into their belts. Apparently they had grown an palette for rock hard green tomatoes with a film still on them from the last spray. In those days you wouldn’t see me touching chunky spaghetti sauce much less those bally things. But they made a regular early lunch of it.

I can’t tell you the admiration I have for these men and women. Of course at the time, I was in full high school mode and felt like the dork at the uncool table. I was neither a spanish speaker or able to socio-economically able to relate in any way. It didn’t help, of course, that I also did not share their part in the hellish summertime heat. My job was to drive a tractor about the size of one of those eateries on South 1st Street. Pulled behind me were two semi-truck long trailers that I was responsible for equitably spacing out tomato’s that were shot out of yet another tractor that more nearly approximated a moving house. On this moving house stood abut five workers that picked vines of the tomatoes as they went by on a conveyer belt. Walking behind the conveyor belt house was the bulk of the field hands with bags in tow, gleaning the fields for the overlooked green objects. My chief enemy was Democrats as I turned Rush Limbaugh up on the radio in my air conditioned cab. The men and women walking beside me had no idea what schemes were making them mindless drones of the welfare state nor how much health care they cost the state each year). Yes, its true, that was me. A high school card carrying subscriber of the Limbaugh Letter and over-all lump.

Many things have changed since that summer and many have not. I learned that I could not dig a decent hole without at least three breaks. I learned that two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are necessary and that Frito’s make a good replacement for a dessert if the cabinets at home were scarcely stocked. I learned that “this is why you go to college” from just about everyone who spoke English well enough to know such facts. And that is what I did, I went to college and escaped the world of “jobs American’s won’t take.” I even went to graduate school only to find myself lured by some unknown but very powerful force back into the fields of agricultural production. I can name all the vegetables I grow now (I even nostalgically grow cotton just for kicks) and I never let someone work in our gardens without learning something about the plants they’re attending to. We become what we work, and the quality of the fruit becomes the spirit of the man in both low and high wage jobs. There is dignity and indignity to be found all along the income spectrum. The summer of my 17th year I learned about a world I have since grown to love but I was not given the keys to it. Agriculture is a hole you fall into and I wasn’t good at digging a deep one just yet. Some say I still dig a crappy hole, but now I love it and so I stay.

For more info on the holes I’m digging these days, check out the Genesis Gardens webpage