Each winter, the fields of Yuma, Arizona, grow half a billion heads of iceberg lettuce. This is what it's like to work as a lettuce harvester in those fields.
Each winter, the fields of Yuma, Arizona, grow half a billion heads of iceberg lettuce. This is what it's like to work as a lettuce harvester in those fields.
September 3, 2018
The lettuce seemed to glow in the moonlight. Thirty-two men and women flashing knives, folding boxes, bagging hearts: chewing up a Yuma Valley lettuce field. It was Day 55 of the romaine harvesting season, just after five in the morning, and the 32 cutters, sleevers, sealers, stickerers, boxers, drivers—the team of lechugueros—had already been up for hours. All of them crossed the border from San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora, between 1 and 2 in the morning, and boarded the crew bus (a converted, white-painted Blue Bird school bus hauling a trailer with two portable toilets and a hand-washing station) that ferried them to this moonlit lettuce field. During harvest season, both San Luises (in Sonora and Arizona) come alive just after midnight, where 10,000 agricultural laborers cross the border to pick enough produce to send, every single day, 1,000 fiber-filled semi-trailers streaming out of Yuma.
Agricultural technology, utilizing GPS, drones, lasers, and sophisticated machinery, is changing the way America farms. But getting vegetables from the field to the fork still largely depends on manual labor. Manuel (who declined to give his last name) has been working in the fields all his life. A great-grandfather, at 62 he’s still working on the front side of a romaine team, bending at the waist, cutting and defoliating romaine hearts, tossing them onto the outer conveyor belt of the harvesting machine. He works six days a week with fluctuating hours, depending on how many boxes of lettuce the shippers order.
The day I met him his knife was flashing so fast that I had trouble making out exactly what he was doing—each romaine in the ground was cut, plucked, stripped, and tossed onto the belt in about two seconds. This is the pace of modern American farming: a Mexican-American great-grandfather dipping at the waist and brandishing a lettuce knife like a musketeer. In about a minute, each romaine heart Manuel cut out of the ground would be bagged, boxed, and stacked on a flatbed truck—ready to be whisked away to a cold storage warehouse and then sent to your local grocer. Manuel is an early link in the long chain of food production; he may also be the most vulnerable link.
There was a celebratory atmosphere in Yuma in late February. The annual Ag Summit drew dozens of exhibitors and nearly 1,000 owners, farmers, marketers, scientists, social workers, politicos and lobbyists (basically everyone other than the laborers) who help keep the agriculture engine chugging and the veggies on our tables. The tony Harvest Dinner was the marvel of the week, where local chefs, using mostly local vegetables, whipped up gourmet dishes for the cream of the Yuma farming community. The auction raised more than $150,000, which will fund scholarships for local agriculture students or be donated to area high schools.
The Yuma Valley grows, on more than 90,000 acres of land, as much as 90 percent of America’s leafy greens in the winter months. Yuma farms cultivate enough iceberg lettuce (among 40 other crops) to be able distribute annually one iceberg head to every man, woman, and child in the United States, Mexico, Canada, and the United Kingdom, combined. That’s about a half a billion heads of lettuce a year. The farmers at the Harvest Dinner certainly had something to celebrate. But, as the night wore on, and even as a new Ford Fiesta was awarded to some lucky farmhand, I couldn’t help but think that it was almost time for Manuel to wake up and head to the fields.
Five cutters in front, four behind, working nine rows at a time. Between the two groups of cutters is the unyielding, stainless steel, $300,000-dollar, slowly marching Ramsay Highlander Romaine Harvester/Field Pack Machine—on and around which 32 lechugueros sweat, chop, sleeve, seal, fold, sticker, and toil. I watch as Manuel, standing in the machine’s path, picks the top of the lettuce with his left hand, pushes it slightly to one side, and then reaches down with his lettuce knife (a tool with a daily-sharpened blade that broadens from base to tip, where it is beveled), chops it off at the stalk, and then gives the heart a few deft whacks, shaking away the outer leaves (which may be blistered or ice-damaged) and tossing it on the exterior conveyor belt. The lettuce hearts fly little parabolas through the sky and land on the first of the numerous conveyor belts. The nearly 10-ton machine cuts, at the pace of about one step every 10 seconds, a 50-foot wide swath through the field.
On this crew, only men cut. They cut and toss the hearts onto the wing belts. The wing belts convey and dump the hearts onto the inner belt to “centralize the produce,” moving the lettuce from the outside and into the central aisle inside the machine. On either side of the aisle, where dozens of romaine hearts are constantly zipping along on the inner packing belt stand the men and women who sleeve and seal. There are three sleevers and two sealers on each side of the aisle. The sleever stuffs—rather brusquely, in a process called “orientating the produce”—six hearts into a stainless steel sleeve, a squat U-shaped device which acts like a shoehorn: the hearts are the feet, the plastic bags—into which the hearts are thrust—are the shoes.
The sleever then puts the heart-filled bags onto a tray at either side of the sealer. The sealer grabs the bag and slips the opening underneath a thin, wide iron, which heat-seals the bottom side of the bag—the topside, where you will access your lettuce, has a resealable zip lock. The sealer sticks the bag back on another belt, which is at head level. The sealed bag of six romaine hearts will ride, vertically, down the line to the packer, who stuffs seven bags into a cardboard box, lifts and then drops the box into a chute, where another belt conveys the boxes to the outer platform of the harvester. A stacker then takes the boxes off the machine and stacks them—a process called “side offloading”—on a trailer and into towers of eight.
Meanwhile, three men are riding on an upper platform of the machine. Two of these men are making boxes; and one of these two is also “driving” the harvester (he usually has to make adjustments just at the end and beginning of each row). The third man is using a sticker gun to put a small, fluorescent-orange sticker (which numerically identifies the harvest day, the crew, and the grower) on each bag and each box that will be filled with lettuce. One crew member (who was not a stickerer) said that stickering is the cushiest job.
It is a highly engineered, super-efficient, field-to-bag, human-geared lettuce machine that turns glowing green fields into neatly stacked boxes of cleaned, zipped, and sealed bags—and leaving lettuce-littered tracks of field looking like a tornado has ripped through. I had to stare at the thing for about an hour, and—like a school kid on a Tinkertoy—monkey around for a long while before I made sense of the craft of it. With the aid of the machine, the team of lechugueros usually packs about 1,500 boxes, or around 63,000 hearts, each day of harvesting season. This season, in about 110 days of harvesting, they will stack about 130,000 boxes, which is about 5.5 million hearts of romaine. That’s a lot of lettuce, and also a lot of sweat.
One of the agricultural ironies of Yuma (and there are a few) is that you can eat local and eat large in the same bite. Though there are familiar companies like Dole operating in the Yuma Valley, most of the farms, even the big ones, are family-run. Bill and Vicki Scott are the vice president and director of quality assurance, respectively, of the family-run Amigo Farms, which manages about 7,000 acres in the Yuma area.
On an early morning in February, the couple picked me up at my motel at 4 a.m. to show me one of their lettuce crews, where I met Manuel, at work. The Scotts, both University of Arizona educated, and with decades of experience in the fields, are a down-home, caring couple. They stopped at a Circle K and insisted on buying me a coffee. When they picked me back up hours later, we stopped for eggs at the local restaurant, Burgers & Beer. Bill speaks fluent Spanish and has a chummy rapport with Amigo workers. He sat on the crew bus with me and chatted with the field hands as we were ferried toward the farm.
The immediate conditions of these workers, as far as I witnessed, were not oppressive. They work hard, no doubt, but they are paid above minimum wage—$9 an hour, as well as a piece-rate of $1.85 a box, which can translate, depending on the weekly order from shippers and how quickly they slash through the lettuce fields, to as much as an extra $60 a day. They are also offered lunch breaks, water breaks, and shade cloth to work under when it’s hot enough—basic needs that are not always granted on other farms. Life in general, however, is not easy for these workers, and their aches don’t stop when they leave the fields. The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs describes farm work as “extremely low-wage work … Most farmworkers earn less than $10,000 per year from what is often backbreaking and dangerous labor.”
Emma Torres is the CEO of Campesinos Sin Fronteras, a nonprofit organization in the Yuma area whose mission is to promote self-sustainability for farmworkers. I asked Torres if life for farmworkers is better now than it was 20 years ago. She hesitated to answer, explaining that it was better in some ways, and worse in others. Only some of the workers have year-round jobs. Many of them have to “seguir la corrida” or follow the crops, migrating with or without their families from Arizona to either California or Colorado. To save money on rent, workers often cram into small apartments.
For the farmworkers who don’t, or can’t, seguir la corrida, they may only have stable work four months of the year. In the off-season, they either try to collect unemployment (not always successfully) or find odd jobs. “The farmworker population has always been at the bottom of the pole,” Torres said. The Arizona Daily Star reported that Yuma had a “nonseasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 23.3 percent.” Seasonally, unemployment numbers, according to Torres, can be as high as 78 percent. In July and August, San Luis becomes “a very depressed community,” she said.
Campesinos Sin Fronteras, which Torres helped found, fills a gap in basic services for farmworkers that otherwise would not be filled. She said it was “very unlikely” for those who work in the fields to receive any benefits at all, including health insurance. They have no sick leave, and often live day-to-day. “There are no fringe benefits,” Torres said. (Amigo Farms offers health insurance to their workers through a provider in Mexico, which is often preferred by the workers who live in Mexico.) Other dangers and vulnerabilities include pesticide poisoning, workplace injury, family separation, minimum job security, and high stress.
Torres knows these fields, as well as their hazards. Originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, she moved to San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora, when she was 12, and started working as a farm worker in California’s Salinas Valley that same year. She dropped out of school after fifth grade to help her parents harvest strawberries, tomatoes, and grapes. “I was really good at it,” she told me. She was making money, and she liked the work.
But then her husband died of pesticide-related leukemia at 25, when Torres was only 24 and their second child three weeks old. Torres heard the wake-up call. She knew that she needed to learn English, to go back to school. She didn’t want her kids “to end up in the same position I was in,” she said—that is, in the fields. She put herself through school, earned a GED, then later a bachelor’s degree, and finally, in 2009, a master’s degree in social work from Arizona State University. Now she concentrates on providing direct aid and advocating for workers’ rights through Campesinos Sin Fronteras.
I spoke with Florencio, 31, another of the cutters at Amigo Farms, who described the never-ending toil of waking up closer to sunset than to sunrise, sleeping four hours a night (plus catching naps on the crew bus), and following the harvest from Yuma to Huron, California, to various parts of Colorado. His family is “mixed”—that is, of mixed citizen status. Many of the workers who cross every morning have spouses or children without papers. Many U.S. citizens or legal residents, Torres told me, “decide to live in Mexico … it’s cheaper for them … But at one point or another they’re separated and they can’t be together. Sometimes people follow the crops for months.”
I asked Florencio what toll the separation took on his family—he has a wife and two young daughters. “It’s hard,” he said. He would prefer to live in the U.S., keep his family together, and avoid the daily headache of commuting across an international boundary—if only he could afford it. Torres explained that it’s not just housing costs and citizenship status that keep workers living in Mexico. They can’t afford any of the basic services on the U.S. side: not healthcare, food, nor clothes.
Florencio nodded when Manuel, the great-grandfather cutting hearts next to him, said that he could “get used to everything.” Many of the workers I spoke with deflected my questions about working conditions. Were they hiding something, or was life just tough—and they were in the middle of living it? I asked Florencio if he thought his working conditions were unfair. He looked at me with a sort of muscled resolve, and then answered, vaguely: “One needs to work in order to live.”
The owners and growers I met, at JV Farms and Amigo Farms, went out of their way to make the daily lives of their workers better. The Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association (YFVA), a multifaceted nonprofit that promotes, protects, and lobbies for Yuma vegetables, also runs Labor of Love, a program that occasionally delivers breakfast to workers out in the fields, or gives them surprise shopping sprees at Target.
Though the priority seems to be on the product, Steve Alameda, the president of YFVA, told me that growers in Yuma “appreciate the heck out of” the farmworkers. He described them as “talented, intelligent, hard-working. They can do anything.” And though Labor of Love skims the surface of the real issues facing farmworkers, Alameda’s enthusiasm marks a tone-shift in the grower-worker relationship, at least in the Yuma Valley.
Emma Torres said that there is no open antagonism between the workers and the growers. It may be, however, that the workers have lost the battle. Because of mechanization, the increased reliance on guest-worker programs (which bring farm laborers into Yuma fields for capped six-month periods), and higher levels of education, not many of the farmworkers’ children are standing out in the fields with lettuce knives. (Manuel, the great-grandfather, may very well be replaced by a water-jet—the latest harvesting technology, aptly described by a University of Arizona study as a tourniquet tightening around available field workers).
Alameda told me that many of the children of farmworkers are going to school, and want to be driving or designing the sophisticated machinery—for which there are far fewer jobs. Meanwhile, with parents (and even great-grandparents) still rising at midnight and slogging through very early mornings, there might not be another labor sector in the United States that is more exploited, or more racially divided.
I asked Pablo Francisco Delgado, originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, and a planter at JV Farms, how many Americans work in the fields in the Yuma Valley. He estimated the number was about five percent. I asked how many white Americans. “One percent,” he answered, and then revised: “Less than one percent.” He attributes the paucity of white American fieldhands to education. Even first-generation Mexican Americans, he told me, whose parents worked in the fields, once they go to school “they want to run the machines, or drive the truck,” he said. “They don’t want to be cutters.”
As Torres explains it, it’s the system that leaves farmworkers behind, more than growers or farmers. Sale prices barely cover production costs, and most growers, though relatively well-off, aren’t making millions, and their revenue is subject to weather and climate shifts, outbreaks of plant disease, and consumer demand. I stood with Delgado and watched as a nine-acre field of romaine was disced (destroyed) by a tractor.
Shippers ordered less for the week than the farm had planted, months ago, and the lettuce would be wilting by the next week when the next orders came in. The nine acres of destroyed romaine represented a loss of about $7,800 for the farm. Before the row Delgado and I were standing in was chewed into the dirt, he cut us both a heart out of the ground, and we took a couple of big bites of lettuce—it was bitter, slightly milky, and delicious. (Etymologically, the words lettuce and lactate share a common root. If you’re skeptical of lettuce’s proximity to milk, try biting into a fresh romaine heart, or dropping any old head of lettuce into your blender.)
Bill Scott, of Amigo farms, put it bluntly: “Growers are at the shippers’ whim.” The brunt of the instability in the agricultural sector, however, is borne by the men and women who work in the fields. They are the most vulnerable. Torres described them as “reduced to just surviving.”
“They don’t have a voice. They don’t have representation,” she said. Which is why, Torres explained, “I have learned to try to be effective advocating for the farmworkers without having to become the enemy of the growers.”
For all the advances in efficiency and safety that have gone into agriculture in recent years, Torres explained, the situation of the workers hasn’t demonstrably improved. She gave me an example: Hairnets and gloves seen in the fields aren’t meant to protect the worker, she said; they are “meant to protect the food from the worker.” For her, the priority is clear, and the priority of big ag is not the worker.
Under her maroon Aeropostale hoodie, Odalis Aguilar, 19 years old, wears a baseball cap and a hairnet. She also wears a blue plastic apron, plastic sleeves, and blue medical-looking gloves. Aguilar grew up in Tucson, went to high school in San Luis, Arizona, and now lives in San Luis Río Colorado, Mexico. She is a U.S. citizen and a sleever, spending six days a week, during harvest season, stuffing romaine hearts into a metal sleeve and slipping them into a bag. The morning I met her, Aguilar was wearing heavy mascara and bright saffron-colored lipstick. She had a round, striking face, and her brief glances up from the lettuce seemed like intense stares, maybe in part because she was covered from head to toe in fabric and plastic—not much was showing but the circle of her face.
I asked Aguilar what was hardest about her job. She said she hurts sometimes, and that this job “brings a lot of pain to people.” She meant muscular pain (she sleeves a couple thousand bags a day) but admitted that the pain was also general, psychological. She goes home every day after work, showers, eats, and goes to bed by five in the afternoon. By midnight she is up again, beginning her day, catching the lettuce hearts before they shoot past her on the packing belt. I asked if she had a future in the fields. “No,” was her definitive answer. She wants to be a nurse, and will start building credits towards a degree next fall at Northern Arizona University’s Yuma campus.
“We put a lot of effort into packing these things,” Aguilar told me as she snatched the hearts off the belt, stuffed them into the metal sleeve, shoehorned them into bags, and passed the bags to her right. “We try to make sure everything is safe, clean.” I asked her who was going to fill her role when she leaves for school, when Manuel finally retires, and when the generation above her is beyond working age. “Not me,” she said.
Maybe her reticence was due to the immediate demand of her work—she didn’t want to let too many lettuce hearts shoot by. Or maybe she was just looking forward to the end of her day. Or the end of her time in the fields.
When I asked Florencio what he wished people who eat the lettuce he picks knew about his job, he straightened up, holding his sharp lettuce knife in one hand and a romaine heart in the other, thought for a moment, and said, “I just wish they paid me more.”
Top photo: Lechugueros often begin their days at one or two in the morning, crossing the border at San Luis Río Colorado and heading into the fields. All photos © Scott Baxter.
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