When I drive out to Cal State Channel Islands, the last 10 minutes of the drive passes through farmland, most of it planted with strawberries. Here and there along the straight lines of raised strawberry beds, groups of men and women stoop to pick the berries and place them carefully in boxes. Every so often, one of them stands up with a completed box, and walks quickly, or sometimes runs, over to the truck where the berry boxes rise in stacks.
Strawberries are one of the most labor intensive crops around. Unlike many fruits, they ripen unevenly, so you have to look at each berry to see if its ready to pick. The teams of laborers work from one end of a field to the other over the course of a few days, then they go back to the beginning and start over.
California is in the middle of the worst recession in my lifetime. The official state unemployment rate is over 10%, and I read today a prediction that it won't drop back below 10% until late in 2011. As I drive I often think of how incredibly fortunate I am to have work to go to that I like and that doesn't require me bend at the waist for hours at a time, starting in the chill of early morning and finishing with the sun hot overhead, day after day.
I'm told that nearly all the workers are Spanish-speaking, from Mexico and Guatemala and El Salvador and Honduras.... I am sure some are American citizens and many have Green Cards, while others are "undocumented" or "illegal" or "unwelcome". This is not a political essay and I don't know what the right answer is; all I can say is that the people in these fields work hard everyday to support their families and to put strawberries on our tables, and I am in awe of the work they do.