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5 Things One Anthropologist Learned While Working As A Migrant Berry Picker In Wash.

Courtesy of Seth Holmes

Seth Holmes is a doctor and anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley who did something that wouldn’t occur to most white, middle-class, highly-educated Americans.

About a decade ago, he spent a year and a half traveling, living with and working alongside migrant indigenous Mexican farmworkers from the state of Oaxaca. His stint included two seasons picking strawberries and blueberries on a large farm in Skagit County.

He didn’t identify the farm, though he said it was the largest farm in the Skagit Valley and employed about 500 people at the height of the picking season.

During that time, Holmes did as much as he could to live life as the berry pickers do. He lived in an uninsulated plywood shack in the labor camp. Because the shack had a tin roof, it would heat up to more than 100 degrees in the middle of the summer, and in the fall, when temperatures would fall below zero, his breath would condense on the tin roof and freeze. Then, as the sun came up in the morning, it would rain down on him and wake him up. 

Credit Courtesy of Seth Holmes
Courtesy of Seth Holmes

Holmes spent one or two days a week picking berries. The rest of the time, he interviewed the Triqui and MixtecOaxacan workers as well as the farm executives, supervisors, local white teenagers who would weigh the berries and field workers who drive tractors and spray vinegar on the fields.

In his book "Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States," Holmes chronicles a harrowing trip he took with several undocumented workers crossing the border from Mexico to Arizona, after which they were caught by U.S. border agents. And he describes migrating with some of the workers to California, where he was one of 19 people crowded into a three-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment for the winter.

Holmes shared with KPLU these five things he discovered while working as a migrant berry picker in Washington state.

1. Picking Berries Is A Highly Skilled Job

Holmes says he got increasingly faster during the time that he picked, and he picked as hard as he possibly could, imagining the whole time that each strawberry was worth 5 cents and he had a family that he needed to feed.

“I learned how to pick with both hands separately, popping the leaves and stems off the berries with each thumb, but I was never able to keep up with the migrant farm workers who I picked next to,” Holmes said. “I always missed the minimum weight, though I got closer over the course of two seasons, and that realization led me to question the legal and political definition of unskilled workers or low-skilled workers versus skilled workers or high-skilled workers.”

Holmes says that was a troubling realization because he himself is viewed as a high-skilled worker thanks to the level of education he has attained.

“These people were clearly skilled at what they do, very skilled in a way that I wasn’t, and so it looks to me like this definition is much more about what we as a society value,” Holmes said. “It looks like we don’t really value the skills of the people who provide us with the fresh produce that we eat, which to me seems like a sad commentary on some parts of our values as a society.”

2. Picking Berries At Speed, Duration Required Hurts The Body

Holmes says he often felt a lot of pain in his knees, hips and back while picking.

Credit Courtesy of Seth Holmes
Courtesy of Seth Holmes

“It always seemed like whichever position felt the best, I was the slowest at picking, so I always felt like I had to pick in the most painful position, bent over with both knees as far as I could, in order to be as fast as I could," Holmes said. "And at one point, I wrote in my journal, 'This feels like pure torture.’”

The impact is much more pronounced on the migrant farmworkers who pick full-time. Holmes writes that agricultural workers have a fatality rate five times that of all workers. They have increased rates of nonfatal injuries and ailments, including lung problems, urinary and kidney infections, tuberculosis and other sicknesses.  

“A lot of the physicians and nurses at times felt hopeless about watching the farmworkers’ health and especially muscles, ligaments and bones deteriorate,” Holmes said. “In several interviews with farm workers, people told me things like, 'We used to play basketball, but now we can’t play basketball anymore because our bodies hurt too much.’”

3. Organic Fields Don't Necessarily Mean Better Worker Treatment

“The organic farms and organic fields that I saw and observed and worked on didn’t necessarily treat the workers any different or better or worse than the traditional farms and fields that had pesticides,” Holmes said. “In some cases, the organic farms did treat their workers worse. I often try to buy organic food that’s local, but I want to buy food that supports the workers as much as I can.”

Holmes says one way to find information about working conditions on different farms is to check the websites of the United Farm Workers or Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, an Oregon-based farm workers union. He says you can also look for a new “EFI” label, short for Equitable Food Initiative.

“Produce from those farms has gone through a certain kind of contract with the workers or a certain kind of evaluation for treating the workers well,” Holmes said.

4. Treatment On The Farm Depends On Ethnicity, Citizenship

Credit Courtesy of Seth Holmes
Courtesy of Seth Holmes

Holmes says he observed a very well-defined pecking order based on ethnicity at the farm. He says he doesn’t think it was created purposely, but a result of internal biases of different people in charge of hiring.

He says, for example, Latinos who were U.S. citizens often were in management or supervisory roles. Mestizo Mexicans, sometimes known colloquially as “regular Mexicans,” were often hired for jobs that were slightly more desirable than berry picking, such as driving tractors or spraying vinegar on organic fields.

Some indigenous Mixtec people from Oaxaca managed to get similar jobs to the mestizo Mexicans, Holmes says, but the indigenous Triqui people found themselves at the bottom end of the pecking order, picking berries.

“There’s a way that the job you have, and the housing that you live in, which relates to the job you have, were determined in an unconscious way by your race, ethnicity and your citizenship status,” Holmes said. “For example, a U.S. citizen from Texas hired people for certain jobs. They would often hire people like themselves for the better jobs, and hire other people for the worse jobs.”

5. Local Farming Struggling To Survive Due To Global Economics

Holmes writes that the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, helped fuel the out-migration of the Triqui people from Oaxaca because their corn crops could no longer compete with cheaper corn from American farms, which received U.S. government subsidies.

“[The Triqui people are] not able to afford to get uniforms, so therefore their kids can’t go to school, they can’t pay for minimal electricity or meat for nutrition, and so each family has been forced to send at least one person to the United States to work and send back money,” Holmes said.

But globalization has also resulted in increased competition for the berry farm in Skagit County. Holmes says the owner of the farm described how hard it is to compete with farms in states with lower labor costs, such as South Carolina, or with farms overseas, especially when it’s just as easy for strawberries to be delivered to a San Francisco restaurant from China as from Washington state.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.