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May 18, 2006

Strawberry Fields

Occasionally I can block out the middle of the day for a workout, and I’ll go for a run or bike ride through the fertile fields of the Salinas Valley.

The campos (fields) are generally laid out in a large grid pattern, with major thoroughfares paved, and the others left as simple dirt roads. It’s an easy area to run or ride, because there are a lot of opportunities to cut a workout short, or tack on an additional square as needed.

Given the Valley’s distinction as the “salad bowl of the world”, most of the major agricultural companies are based here. If your next bag of lettuce is from Fresh Express, Dole, or Ocean Mist (among others), or if your current box of strawberries is from Salinas or Watsonville, chances are I’ve rode or run right past your meal in its early stages of production (don’t worry – I make sure I’m in the middle of the road when I blow snot rockets out).

The aromas of the fields vary with the seasons. Sometimes I’ll avoid particular grids simply because of the smells I anticipate there. There are certain crops – cauliflower, for example – that have a powerfully unpleasant smell when baking in the sun all day. And needless to say, when it’s time for fertilizing any of the fields, I make a beeline upwind.

This time of year, the overwhelming smell is the sweet fragrance of strawberries. I like to ride my bike through the campos and smell the berries with every breath I inhale.

The visual effect is also pretty cool. The tops of the bushes are covered with leaves, and as my bike glides between two adjacent fields, it’s like I’m sailing through a lush green ocean, with a strawberry-scented sea breeze in my face.

In the campos, I also witness the labor that harvests the strawberries I’m so fond of.

Typically there are teams of migrants who pick the berries by hand, walking bent over from the waist for miles at a time, collecting the berries in boxes that are stacked on a nearby tractor, for other workers to bundle and strap together.

Those crops that aren't hand-picked utilize an enormous harvesting machine that drives among the rows. A large group of workers walks behind or alongside the giant machines to gather the produce that the machine doesn’t catch. Still more workers ride on the machines to sort out the endless stream of roots, stems, rocks, and leaves that rains upon them from a conveyor system below.

If my bike is like a sailboat on the green sea, these machines and workers are the leviathans of the ocean, slowly trolling the landscape and scattering vast amounts of dirt and leaves in their wake. Many times I’ll roll by them almost unnoticed, as the entire crew remains focused on the task at hand.

Since I’m frequently in the fields during the middle of the day, I ride past some workers on their lunch breaks. They usually sit in the dirt roads on the fringes of the fields, leaning against their cars to utilize whatever shade they can find in the midday heat. Their clothes and bodies are filthy, and they sit quietly to save their energy to get through the remainder of the day.

I know their bodies probably ache from the strain of yet another day of hard labor. I know they make far too little money for the pains they inflict upon themselves. By comparison, the fatigue of a strenuous bike ride or run is trivial.

I know that most of them will go home and share a house with as many as 30 other workers, living in conditions that we normally associate with third-world poverty. I know that most of them left wives and children behind many months or years ago to work in these conditions. I know that they sleep restlessly, worried about their health or their security or their ability to provide for their families. I know that the next morning, they’ll wake up and do the same routine all over again.

In those moments, there’s definitely a guilty feeling in my stomach when I ride past them on an expensive bicycle, dressed in colorfully clean workout clothes, peering at them from behind darkened glasses, taking a midday break from a job that pays me more money than in a month than they may see in a year.

I sometimes wonder what they think when they see me. I’m sure it’s some mixture of resentment and envy and disregard, but you would never tell by their expressions. When I pass in front of them and our eyes meet, I’ll lift my hand and say a quick hello, and occasionally I’ll get a head nod or a quick greeting in reply. Then we go on with our respective tasks.

But when I get off my bike and notice the layer of dust on it blown from the soil, I think of how much dust must be in their lungs. When I see the tan lines from my bike shorts, I think of how harmful spending day after day in the sun can be. When I feel the soreness in my legs, I think of the damage they endure just to make it to the next day.

And when I smell the beautiful fragrance of strawberry fields, I think that for many people, perhaps that smell is not particularly sweet.


backofpack 5/18/06, 11:25 AM  

It's funny, I'm sitting here at my computer, drinking a cup of tea, and before you even got to it, I started feeling guilty.

I've been in those fields, but only for a summer and usually for the morning only. Even as a kid, my back would hurt and I'd be filthy and sweaty and baked. Then I'd ride my bike home to our large, old farmhouse. I'd get cool water from the well, my Mom would have lunch ready for me, I'd get a shower and go on with the business of being a kid. After all, I was just working for spending money, not for survival.

It's something I think about every summer - the fields around here are also filled with migrant workers. No kids, except the migrant kids. I know how hard they are working and how easy my life really is. I wonder if they think we are silly when we go running or riding by - all that energy output for no discernable purpose.

olga 5/19/06, 6:45 AM  

I worked those fields as a tenn for summer, along with other berries and apples and cherries. It was hard but fun work, and I got to eat all I wanted (and then spend every waken moment in a bathroom). Great memories of 3 school summers, with teen love and making quite some money too:)

Robb 5/19/06, 7:22 AM  

Powerful images, pungent odours! Thanks for taking us along on your ride today. Good thoughts.

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