Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Contemplating fruit crops & labor markets in Washington State's Yakima Valley

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

So much happens each day, it is hard to keep up with writing. I need to come up with a daily pattern for my days, so that the sabbatical “works.” I really need a sabbatical routine that includes time for study, reflection and rest. A rather contrary need is also to let go. To let go of my own anxieties and needs to perform, and to know that this will be a time where I do what I can – and may not be able to do all that I want.

Moving in
First there are the on-going, needed basics. Finding a barber. Figuring out the grocery stores, including the discount “club” card, and restocking on groceries, as we don’t have everything that is on our shelves at home. Schedule at the pool. Adjusting to the higher prices and working out a budget. Finding the right pots, pans, dishes and utensils, and adjusting to other aspects of a new place to live. Our arrival has been significantly cushioned by those who have welcomed us here – folks at La Casa Hogar who have helped to make so many arrangements, Bill and Betty who have graciously let us walk into their house – with no more instructions than the code for the alarm system!

What is this transition like for those who come without the language? Who live in fear because of their immigration status? Who come without resources? Doña Maria, 9 months pregnant and left in California with $2 in her pocket… It reminded me of my mom’s own feelings early on when she came to visit and felt trapped in our apartment… I haven’t even been able to find work picking yet. I have followed up on contacts that I know and certainly have approached it differently because my subsistence doesn’t depend on it. Still, after three days here, I am not all that clear about how the labor market works. I have become more aware of the complexities and unreliability of available work.

The best fruit growing land in the world

I spoke with Mr. Ingham the other night, a local small cherry grower who I was told may have some work available. He is about to do two additional days of picking starting today (Wednesday). He depends primarily on a single family that has worked for him for quite some time (the oldest of the siblings in the family began working for him just over 10 years ago in 1998). He was kind enough to spend quite a bit of time on the phone with me talking about the process. He talked about the fact that this section of the country (the “inside” part of the West Coast of the U.S.) is the best place in the world to raise certain fruit crops – particularly, of course, apples, cherries and grapes. The dry air prevents disease, the stable temperatures and plenty of sun aid the growth, water is readily available, etc. The northern part of the region—Oregon and Washington—is particularly appropriate for “deciduous” trees that must “rest” for part of the year in order to be able to produce each season. When I suggested that some apple crops are moving south to places like Mexico, he balked at the idea, saying that areas to the south cannot produce the same quantity and quality of fruit because of the lack of a seasonal change. “Even in parts of southern California, they have to chemically “slap” the trees to sleep for part of the year, because it stays too warm. The advantage for them on cherries is that they will have an earlier crop, so it doesn’t matter as much that the fruit is not the same quality.” He went on to say that in the Midwest—places like Michigan—they face a different problem with too much rain, resulting in a number of diseases on the trees.

Until I went to Holden Village for the first time about six years ago, I really didn’t realize how large the Hispanic population was in this area. The fact that this region is so well suited to growing fruit has everything to do with it. As highlighted in a presentation at a congressional hearing a few months back, which was looking at the possibility and need for immigration reform, Congresswoman Feinstein (I believe) pointed out that the U.S. is loosing much of its fruit and vegetable production because they require such high manual labor. Unlike crops that have become common in much of the country – like corn and soy beans – the planting and harvesting of fruits and vegetables cannot be so fully mechanized. They require lots of manual labor. As farmers struggle to find or afford the necessary labor, they either turn to more mechanized crops—and try to compete in an ever increasingly competitive market, needing to become larger and larger—or they simply turn to other professions.

A complex labor market
I am really interested in understanding more about how people make the decision to migrate, but also about the “demand” side. How does the labor market in an area like this one here in Yakima work? Some elements were revealed in my conversation with one of the growers here in this area. When I asked him about the need for migrant labor, he made a distinction between the “locals” and the “migrants.” He defined migrants as those—an increasingly shrinking pool—who actually migrate with the season and are here in the valley only temporarily. He talked about them as the H2H group, referring to the immigration visa designation for temporary farm workers. That number of visas is minute compared to the need, of course, so in that group I am assuming are many who are here without any documentation, but who still move with the crops. His sense is that as one moves away from the larger towns and cities, the need for that kind of labor is greater. His own farm is right in town here in Yakima, so he feels he has plenty of “local” labor. By local he means people who have settled into the area. Interestingly, he makes no distinctions about their immigration status, and is either unaware or it doesn’t really matter to him. He seems to prefer working with the same people year after year, and through various stages of the process. In fact, he expressed frustration—even anger—at the fact that some of these “locals” can get ideas and play growers one against the other for wages. “They have no loyalty,” he said with disgust in his voice when I interpreted this as a normal process as people became more aware of options and tried to exercise some bargaining power.

Then there is the fickleness of the crops. As I have been trying to find work here this week, a variety of factors limit opportunities. When I called last week, for example, I was told the “packing” warehouses, who purchase the crop in bulk and package it for distribution, were not taking product.  “The pipeline filled up,” said one of the growers. It has been a plentiful crop in some of the cherry varieties (Right now it is cherries that are being harvested.). The trouble is that many of the cherries are smaller. Cherries are traditionally measured by how many of them fill a row in a standard carton that they are sold on—the most desirable seems to be “9 row cherries.” That means the cherries are large enough that nine of them fill a row. The current crop produced a lot of cherries, but they tended to be smaller. In the case of the person I was talking to, he has ended up with a lot of 11 and 11 ½ row cherries, which are not as easy to sell and the market seems to be full right now. “It depends on what the market will bear,” said the grower, who like farmers in all other crops around the country are everything from engineers to mechanics to economists in order to get their product to market in an increasingly complicated economy. Of course, they don’t have much wiggle room in participating in this technologically advanced economy, when the fruit still grows on very “traditional,” nature bound trees! Cherries in particular have a very small window. When they are ready, they are ready and must be harvested. If you wait too long, they over ripen and don’t last well when packed. “People will remember a bad cherry,” he said indicating the high expectations consumers have and the little understanding for the vagaries of producing that perfect cherry.

In season and out of season
In the middle of all this are migrant workers, who must quickly learn about these things and figure out a way to make a living in a very unreliable labor market. During the cherry season, the one family that works for the grower I spoke with can make upwards of $20 to $25 an hour because they are experienced pickers. They will work starting at 5:00 a.m. (the cooler part of the day) and must pick for as long as possible. If the day is cool, that could mean going quite late and having a 12-hour day. If it is hot, however, they must stop before the fruit holds so much heat that it will be damaged when packed. So a more “traditional” day runs from 5:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. What happens in the off-season? I know in places like Florida, some farm workers – like restaurant workers – go on unemployment for part of the year. You don’t have that kind of “benefit” when you are undocumented and have no labor protections. What happens when the crop you were scheduled to pick ends up not being picked because – like it happened just two days ago with another small local grower – the company who was going to buy it decided the crop was “too damaged” and won’t buy it? So the crop must sit on the trees and wait to mature further to see if it can be sold in the wine market, which evidently needs more mature, sweeter fruit and is likely not as picky about what it looks like…

So you have a region that is geographically perfect for growing fruit, but then demands large labor during parts of the year and not during other times. How has the increase in immigration enforcement shaped this market? In my mind, I have the “ideal” of migrant workers that came in generations past, “only when needed’ and then either followed crops further north into Canada or went “home” to Mexico during the off-season. It is my understanding that that long-standing pattern has been disrupted by the border enforcement efforts. I have much yet to read about this, as well as doing some anecdotal research with folks who have lived in this area either as growers or workers for long periods of time.

I think I still hold on to the naïve hope that people who depend heavily on immigrant labor would hold a particularly open view on immigration reform. I am not sure that is the case. While personal contact and stories do make a difference in people’s attitudes, there is a way in which we are quite capable of viewing those we know as “exceptions.” So the people who work “for me” I designate as locals, and see the labor coming to work for others – especially those who continue to migrate – as more suspect… In that view, those to whom I have granted the privilege of acceptance had better behave. I will be quite angry if they get ideas and decide not to be loyal….

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