This morning as I watered what is left of my garden tomatoes, I was reminded of my first job in agriculture back in the 70’s as a “flagger.” Pesticide was applied on acres of crops from watermelon to rice with a prop-engine plane loaded with chemicals. Flaggers stood at each end of the field to be treated, each holding a large pole with a flag attached to the end. I forget what it paid. My sister-in-law was working as a flagger at the time and recruited me. I was up at dawn and home in early afternoon, sunburned with a thin layer of dirt and chemical dried on my clothes and whatever skin had been exposed. I may have been eighteen, naïve about agriculture, but I knew enough that getting a daily dose of airborne chemicals was crazy. I quit after a week or so.
After working in retail a couple of years, I was offered an opportunity to do seasonal work as a “weigh master”. I worked at secondary warehouses throughout Colusa County where semis with one or two trailers attached would travel from fields in the area and rolled across the scales into and out of a rice, bean or wheat warehouses where I worked. Each weigh station where I worked was located on a grower’s property and considered secondary to the main warehouses in nearby towns. Each weigh station was a one or two-room structure that was used primarily during harvest time and once again when shipping out of the warehouse occurred. Weighing the raw rice from the field determined how much each farmer’s harvest brought in. When I worked for a wheat warehouse, I had to sample each truck to determine the protein content, which in turn determined where in the warehouse the wheat would be stored. I also weighed containers going from the warehouse to the port in Oakland with different varieties of beans that had been stored from the previous year and were now heading overseas.
One year for a couple of weeks when I was between harvests, I took a night position sorting tomatoes. As a preteen and teenager, I had watched the news of Cesar Chavez bring the disparity of working and living conditions of the laborers of the grape, lettuce and tomato fields of California to national news. Migrants from Mexico on a work visa, or locals second and third generation of Filipino and Mexican heritage worked in the fields or on the farms located east, west and north of Highway 99, pre-Interstate 5, Bakersfield, Delano, Fresno, Modesto, Merced, Sacramento, Yuba City, Marysville, Chico and every township in between. By the time I considered doing a night shift in the tomato harvest, certain tomato varieties were harvested by hand and others, more for processing, were harvested by the machines. Harvest season was all about timing. No matter what season, each crop pretty much was planted and harvested at the same time. Once tomatoes were ripe for harvest, crews ran day and night to maximize the amount that could be taken from the fields. My experience was a blink in time to most workers. For many is was weeks of twelve hour days, seven days a week until the fields were done. Harvesters and trailers worked side by side, so what was scooped up-tomato plants, dirt, bugs, even a snake or two went up the conveyer belt that ran through the machine. Lined on each side were two metal outcrops, which I am sure have a proper name, but these outcrops were wide enough for maybe five workers per side to stand on. A two or three-bar rail behind us was between us and the ground. Moving down each row, we rocked and swayed as we separated the debris so only the tomatoes went into the conveyor belt that then dumped them in the trailers being pulled by the tractor alongside the harvester.
I would arrive home around six in the morning, keeping an oversized shirt of my husband’s handy because I had to strip down in the porch of our home, throwing everything in the washer. I have never been so dirty with field dirt, sweat and tomato juice stains on my clothes. My parents were shocked at my decision to do this field work even when I told them it was only until my regular seasonal job started in the rice harvest. Both had grown up in rural Texas, but neither of them had done farm labor. Whereas my in-laws who both worked the fields had a different view. My mother-in-law had grown up in a family that traveled the crops from the border town, El Central to Salinas on the coast, to Corning, in Northern California working the fields of whatever crop or orchard there was to be worked. My father-in-law was a manager on a farm in the county he had been raised in. They bragged about me to my parents. Their young, suburban-raised, non-Spanish speaking daughter-in-law had worked in the fields.
It’s been years since I thought about those two weeks working tomatoes. It seemed fitting to write about a time when I was cobbling jobs together and could conveniently walk away from the harvesters in the fields to an air-conditioned job at a warehouse. A lot of farmworkers didn’t and don’t have that luxury. Sure, farms are more modern and automated now, and large corporations have taken over small farms, but farm labor exists still. Pesticide, extreme weather, water issues, wages and back-breaking work conditions still exist. It was watering the tomato plants in my garden this morning that brought back the memories. We all have a Labor Day story. This was mine.
Photo Credit: BoomCalifornia