Monday, June 28, 2010

reflections on farm work in the heat of the summer

I went berry picking this past Sunday afternoon at Vollmer Farm, a certified organic former-tobacco-farm about 45 minutes northeast of Raleigh. Berries are among my very favorite foods in the whole wide world. So, inspired by the season's bounties - blackberries & blueberries & even a few strawberries - I organized this little berry picking trip with a couple friends. Only one big problem: Sunday was blazing hot with a heat index of 105 degrees, and we went in the hottest midday hours. Whew, not so smart! Under hats, sunglasses and sunscreen, we picked sluggishly for an hour or so, rested often in the shade, then retreated to showers and air conditioning as soon as we'd picked enough to justify the trip. (Photo by Kate Pattison. The author picking blackberries at Vollmer Farm.)

Even with the heat, picking berries was pretty pleasant work - sometimes I was close enough to my friends to chat, and the rest of the time I was alone with my thoughts and the beautiful - if sweltering - day. Being on a certified organic farm, I had no qualms about pesticide exposure as the breezes cooled my bare arms and legs, and as I taste tested the different berry varieties. But, as I squatted and stooped and sweat, I thought a lot about farm workers. Here I am, an "agritourist," picking berries by my own choice, on the farm of my choice, no more or faster than I feel like, and I get to go home whenever I want....and even I am pretty uncomfortable, feeling pretty paranoid about sunburn and getting enough water. What would it be like if this was my job, if I picked berries all day long?

Toxic Free NC Leadership Council member Melissa Bailey wrote an email this weekend about her work with youth farm workers in Eastern NC that I'm sharing some of here with her permission, because she writes so eloquently about this issue.

My team and I have spent a very grueling week. I say this humbly because getting in and out of air conditioned vehicles and sweating an hour under the tin roofs of mobile homes/housing is nothing compared to what agricultural laborers suffer in heat indexes that are now regularly between 105-110 degrees.

The situation causes me to reflect about real climate change and if we can expect similar heat waves over this and future summers. It also raises questions about just how hot it can get and for how long. In short, we all dread August at this point (us and the workers).

I recall a conversation I had with a colleague and very good friend last season when children were experiencing breathing problems and our youth were losing weight quickly with some only getting as far as the cool porch floors or shaded areas in their shorts before they fell into exhausted sleep/rest.

She told me about what it is like when you breed prize animals, in this case, dogs. She recounted the importance to the owners that the animals remain disease and illness-free. She discussed the thousands of dollars some breeds can bring to the owners in income. She explained that the animals had air conditioners, regular physical examinations and were only exercised/trained in the early mornings
and late evenings. We talked about hydration and diet.

I felt sick to my stomach at the comparison. To this day it resonates. I understand the differences. I know people are supposed to seek their own medical attention, their own air conditioning, their own safety levels while in the fields. The
problem is, we all know they don't. Not because they don't care. But because they don't want to miss work, appear weak, or anger the contractor/grower. In short, they desperately, desperately need their jobs.

They need to work so badly they are willing to work in dangerous heat indexes for 8-12 hours, in conditions where contractors/growers can be found at the edge of the field with the water and sitting in their air conditioned trucks/vans. I know this because I drive by it every day I'm out there. Anyone who thinks otherwise is extremely naive.

A few camps only work until noon. The common thread in those camps seems to be that the grower/contractor won't put his workers in the field if he/she is not willing to work under the same conditions. One would think that the human condition would provoke this kind of behavior. Unfortunately, these contractors/growers are a minority.

This heat is so dangerous. It isn't Texas heat or Mexico heat. It's a humid heat that provokes every drop of moisture from your body. In time you stop sweating and you start to feel cool, then you begin to shake. If you don't understand what is happening, you say things like, "My body is used to the temperature now," and maybe you don't drink anything else because you're afraid you'll start sweating again...

Why? Obviously the injustice nags at me but I guess the larger question of how did we ever get to the point that we could so completely dehumanize the labor necessary for our food supply is the larger question. What happened? And how in the world can we keep this from slipping further and further into a time when we just buried them and bought more?

I have to go now. (...) I love my job, even in 107 degree heat indexes. I get to take them (the workers) water and fresh fruit and take them to the clinic and even call the occasional ambulance. I can't really teach anything. They fall asleep too quickly. But still, I go and sweat with them. It seems like the least I can do for a situation I am so powerless to affect.
Thank you, Melissa, for the work that you do!

Now for a little comic relief: check out this article about a joint effort between the UFW and the Colbert Report: "In a tongue-in-cheek call for immigration reform, farmworkers are teaming up with comedian Stephen Colbert to challenge unemployed Americans: Come on, take our jobs."

Stay cool, everyone!

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