The Science of Sustainability

Farmworkers Pay a Heavy Price for California's Bounty

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Next time you enjoy a bowl of fresh juicy strawberries, consider this: chances are, the farmworker who picked them for about $7.50 an hour comes home to toxic tap water tainted with chemicals used to grow them.

When I first came to California many years ago, it took me a long time to get used to the idea that I could buy fresh strawberries in the middle of winter. For this Pennsylvania girl, fresh strawberries meant late spring, time to hit the local farm stands with my mom, looking for the plumpest specimens for her light-as-air shortcake.

Well into adulthood, in fact, the taste of strawberries has–until recently–evoked that exhilarating moment when school let out, freedom beckoned, life seemed filled with possibilities.

Of course, California has distinct growing seasons, too, but the mostly mild climate of the state’s agricultural regions allows farmers to harvest strawberries and corn in December; some crops, like oranges, broccoli, and avocados are grown year-round.

California's ability to raise fruits and vegetables all year helps feed the nation, and the state's nearly $40 billion agricultural industry has dominated America’s agricultural production for decades. To maintain this productivity, farmers use nitrogen fertilizers and waste manure from cows. Plants need nitrogen to grow, but crops typically take up less than half of all the nitrogen applied. The rest is released into the air, runs off into streams, or slowly percolates through the soil into the groundwater.

Once in groundwater, nitrogen turns into compounds called nitrates. Studies link nitrates to thyroid dysfunction, various cancers, and miscarriage, though the evidence is inconclusive. But there’s little disagreement that nitrates pose a serious risk to infants, who can develop a potentially deadly disorder called “blue baby syndrome,” which starves tissues of oxygen.

Nitrates turn toxic when bacteria in the gut and saliva turn them into nitrites. And because babies have a different community of microbes in their guts than adults, including more nitrite-producing bacteria, they are far more vulnerable to nitrate exposures.

California officials have long known that nitrates are one of the most widespread contaminants in the state’s groundwater. About 16 million people in California get their drinking water from groundwater sources. That’s why, in 2008, the Legislature required the state Water Resources Control Board to report on the causes of contamination and identify potential solutions. The water board contracted experts at UC Davis, who released their widely covered report in March.

The UC Davis researchers looked at nitrate contamination in two of the prime agricultural regions in California, the Tulare Lake Basin and the Salinas Valley, where about 2.6 million people rely on groundwater. They found that agriculture accounts for 96% of nitrate-contaminated groundwater. More than a quarter of a million people in these regions may have nitrates in their drinking water.

Faucet

More than 250,000 people living in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley can't drink their tap water because it's contaminated with nitrates. Most are low-income and Latino. (Photo: Benutzer:Alex Anlicker/Wikimedia Commons)

Some of the poorest people in the state live in these agricultural areas. And many of those coping with tainted drinking water work in the fields that leach the nitrates, picking our produce, our strawberries, oranges and lemons.

In April, I went to Tulare County for a story for Environmental Health News to speak with residents who've been struggling with nitrate contamination for years. Their taps dispense toxic water they can’t drink but they still have to pay for their monthly water bill. And then they have to buy bottled water from the grocery store or fill up five-gallon jugs from a water vending machine—something I’d wager most San Franciscans have never seen.

One woman I spoke to, a single mother of four named Bertha Dias, makes $7.50 an hour picking fruit. She pays nearly five times as much to have safe drinking water in her house than the average San Franciscan pays to drink water so pristine Willie Brown famously bottled it as Hetch Hetchy Mountain Water.

The nitrate contamination problem has been covered before, including an in-depth investigation by California Watch in 2010. Yet the problem hasn't gone away.

Low-income people seeking safe drinking water throughout Tulare County are working with the Visalia-based Community Water Center to find their own solutions. Potential solutions run from digging a new well to hooking up to a larger water system to installing filtration systems under the sink. But many measures are temporary fixes, until the state figures out how to deal with the problem over the long term–which the UC Davis study concluded would cost about $36 million a year.

In 2009, strawberries brought in more than three-quarters of a billion dollars for Salinas Valley farmers, resulting from a 10-year increase in consumer demand, Carolyn O'Donnell, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission, told a reporter for TheCalifornian.com. She attributed the increased demand to better-tasting varieties that hold up better under shipping.

Now Bay Area consumers can see Salinas Valley strawberries at their local grocery stores nearly anytime except winter, when shipments from Southern California pick up the slack.

But now when I think of strawberries, the romance is gone. I can't help but think of Bertha Dias and the other farmworkers like her, who spend long, hot days picking our fruit and vegetables out in the fields, only to come home to water they can't drink. They deserve better.

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Category: Biology, Blog, Environment, Food, Health, Sustainable Food, Sustainable Health

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Liza Gross

About the Author ()

Liza Gross, a freelance science writer and senior editor at the biomedical journal PLOS Biology, channeled an early love of wildlife into a lifelong exploration of the numerous ways diverse species, including humans, interact in the natural world. She writes mostly about wildlife, conservation, and environmental health. Her stories reflect a deep curiosity about natural and social interactions and often highlight evolutionary relationships that remind humans of their place in, and responsibility to conserve, nature. Her article "Don't Jump!" published in Slate, won an ASJA award in the op-ed category. She's a visiting scholar at NYU, a 2013 recipient of NYU Reporting Award funding and a Dennis Hunt health journalism fellow. Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • http://www.californiastrawberries.com/ Carolyn O'Donnell

    The California Strawberry Commission continually seeks and funds research projects to improve production practices that minimize their impacts on the environment. Recent fertilizer studies in strawberries have shown that strawberries (in California) take up the majority of the fertilizer applied. A more recent fertilizer study funded by the commission resulted in more precise nutrient application ranges. You can find further information on this nutrient study at http://www.berriesnw.com/SFU/2012/SFUdocs12/MontereyCropNotes05-12.pdf. You can also find more information on other research funded by the commission in the annual production research reports at http://www.calstrawberry.com/research/researchreport.asp.

    I was surprised to see this post quote a wage for a field worker in Tulare County, which is not a significant area for strawberry production. I checked the wage data on the California Employment Development Department’s Labor Market Information website for Santa Cruz/Watsonville area, where strawberries are a significant part of the agricultural landscape. For the first quarter of 2012, the EDD site cites farmworker wages as:
    Mean: $14.25
    Median: $13.68
    10th Percentile: $9.11
    The data can be searched on the EDD site: http://www.calmis.ca.gov/htmlfile/county/scruz.htm.

    There's no denying that farm work is hard work: California's fresh produce harvest depends on farm workers to get the crops from the field to the market. California's strawberry growers recognize the importance of field workers, and their families. Nearly 20 years ago, the growers initiated a scholarship program solely for the children of strawberry field workers in California. Since the inception of the program, more than $1.5 million in scholarships have been awarded, enabling recipients to earn the credentials and degrees to become educators, health care professionals, architects, business professionals, engineers, and social workers, to name just a few career choices made by these students.

    California's strawberry growers care about their workers and their communities. On only 38,000 acres, they produce 88% of the strawberries in the U.S. California strawberry growers have funded and implemented cutting edge research on integrative pest management, irrigation water management and air emissions reduction. Liza, I hope that you accept my invitation to come on down to Watsonville and learn more.

  • Loriel

    Ms. Gross, do you know if there is a difference in nitrogen based fertilizer application in organic vs. conventional strawberries? I've always bought organic or none at all, because of super toxic methyl iodide pesticide use, to name one, for my own heath but mostly the health of the farm worker.

    Also, in response to Ms. O'Donnell, do you know if your EDD wage data includes undocumented workers? I kind of doubt it. But if so, that is good news.

    Thanks for this article.

    • Carolyn O'Donnell

      Hi Loriel -
      You'd have to check with the EDD to determine their criteria for collecting data. The numbers I quoted are directly from the EDD site, and not an "industry funded" study. Workers must provide reasonable documentation that indicates that they can be employed in the US. That said, employers are not experts, and are not required, to determine if every piece of documentation presented is authentic.

      Additionally, methyl iodide was never applied on strawberries in California. It was used by one farmer to supress soilborne disease during the ground preparation phase on a corner (5 acres) of a remote field in nothern Santa Barbara County. This was done before any plants were planted or any field workers were present in the field. Subsequently, the company who manufactures methyl iodide has withdrawn all sales and supplies from the United States. You might be surprised to learn that many "conventional" strawberry growers also use organic techniques and materials.

      Strawberry production is particularly labor intensive, and strawberry growers, ranch managers, crew supervisors, pest control advisors, and all other farm personnel recognize that they have no jobs unless the health and welfare of the farm workers are put ahead of other considerations.
      Carolyn

  • Liza Gross

    As mentioned in this post, I spoke with a farmworker in Tulare County who picks fruit for $7.50 an hour. The mean hourly wage for the 1st quarter of 2012 for farmworkers throughout California was $9.39, the median $8.98, according to the California Employment Development Department. The median hourly wage for Monterey County was $9.09. Wages vary as these statistics indicate. In the caption, I extrapolated from Dias and her fellow fruit-pickers' experience to strawberry workers, which yielded an inaccurate industry-wide figure. Nonetheless, the primary point–that some of the poorest residents of California have the worst water–remains.

    As for strawberry workers’ actually wages, here’s an independent source, not funded by the industry. Last year, Philip Martin, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California-Davis and chair of the University of California's Comparative Immigration and Integration Program, reported in the California Institute for Rural Studies' blog that strawberry workers on average have among the lowest average earnings of all crop workers.

    Martin noted: “An average 1,000 hours of harvest labor is required to harvest a typical acre of strawberries, representing half of the $19,000 cost of production. The best strawberry pickers earn $10 to $12 an hour during the peak season, but most earn less. In surveys of farm employers, strawberry workers have the lowest average hourly earnings, an average $9.13 an hour in 2007, lower than the average $9.31 for employees of labor contractors and the $10.27 average of all crop workers. Reasons for low strawberry wages may include the long season, the ability of families to work together and, because the work involves bending rather than climbing trees, more older workers and women, which increases the pool of workers available to harvest berries, holding down wages.”

    Loriel, the UC Davis study did not specifically address organic agriculture and I'm not aware of studies that have compared organic vs conventional strawberry farming practices.

  • http://www.californiastrawberries.com/ Carolyn O'Donnell

    Hi Liza -
    Thanks for citing the report done by Phillip Martin; here is the link for your readers who might be interested in some of his writings about rural life, immigration and migrant workers: https://secure.are.ucdavis.edu/people/faculty/philip-martin/selected-publications/

    I still find your article confusing, tying strawberries to groundwater conditions is Tulare County, which is not a significant strawberry growing region. The nitrates study you reference has the majority of its well data and agricultural acreage coming from Tulare County, and a smaller amount of the data from the Salinas Valley. http://groundwaternitrate.ucdavis.edu/

    While strawberries may be the most highly valued crop in Monterey County (which includes the Salinas Valley), in 2010, strawberries were grown on 10,664 acres, out of more that 1.9 million acres of agriculture in Monterey County – less than 1% of the acreage. (2010 Monterey County Crop Report, required annually by the government, and not an industry-funded study: http://ag.co.monterey.ca.us/assets/resources/assets/163/cropreport_2010.pdf?1313167433)

    Do all people deserve clean drinking water? You bet they do! A number of bills are progressing through the California legislature to provide assistance to both farmers and those with affected water systems. AB 2174 (Alejo) and AB 2238 (Perea) address this issue. The California Strawberry Commission has already committed resources to fund research to address this issue. Findings from these studies will be disseminated to growers and farm advisors who work with growers.