Sunday, March 26, 2006

The cost of produce

When I was a teenager in the 1960s, my step-brother was in a summer program that recruited teens to work in the fields alongside Mexican and Chinese laborers. Every day he came home smelling delightfully of strawberries and complaining mightily about how hard the work was. I considered him a whiner. What could be more pleasant than a summer day picking strawberries? Perhaps eating a few too, and making money to boot--a dollar a crate! (There was a recession on and I was trying to earn money for college.) I tagged along with him a couple of times. Two days was all my body could handle.

By the end of the first hour in the field I had discovered there was no way to pick strawberries and put them into a wooden crate that didn't hurt after 15 minutes. You could squat down and sidle along the rows until your feet went to sleep and your thighs ached miserably. You could stoop from a standing position each time you picked--the preferred choice among the experienced workers--until your back cried out in pain. You could kneel between the cramped rows until your knees froze up and refused to do your bidding.

Because the rows are picked every day, there weren't that many ripe ones on the plants. This meant more stooping or sidling per berry. You'd get docked if you turned in a crate with too many unripe or overripe berries.

In that long day in the sun I made $4. The fastest picker in the field that day made $24, a pretty good day's wages in 1964. If she could have picked strawberries year round at that rate, she could have made $6,048 in a year. Of course, strawberries are seasonal and one of the more lucrative crops to pick.

The next time I went out, we were topping onions. Cutting the tops off of onions is pretty easy--if you do it once. Doing it for hours is brutally hard on your hands, even with gloves on. It's known as one of the tougher field jobs. I made $1 that day.

At the end of the summer, my step-brother vowed he would never eat another strawberry in his life.


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