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Produce Corner
April 2014

Strawberry Fields: A Pathway to Economic Equality
By Dennis Linden


Strawberries are a fascinating fruit. The berry is not only botanically unique, but the fruit itself has become a symbol for so many diverse, seemingly opposite, emotions in today’s culture: love, decadence, prosperity, passion or innocence – take your pick depending on circumstance. In April and May the strawberry is an expected ingredient on Easter and Mother’s Day brunch menus, every bit as much as the cranberry is at the Turkey Day table. The business of growing this very perishable fruit in California is as unique as the berry itself, with a history of spurring both agricultural innovation and social change. The crop has developed from a negligible percentage of the state’s AG production in the 1920s, into a global commodity, especially over the last fifty years, supplying berries 11 months of the year to both domestic and international destinations worldwide.

A quick Internet search will produce many creative explanations as to the origins of the name given to this delectable fruit, a.k.a. the myths of etymology. I will repeat my favorite, having no trust in its accuracy though it sure sounds logical: Because of the damp climates typically found in Great Britain and Ireland, it was necessary that a layer of straw be placed around this crop to keep the fruit off the soil. Hence, the original two-word term, straw berry. The American Indians were already eating strawberries, which they called "heart-seed berries", when the Colonists arrived. The crushed berries were mixed with cornmeal and baked into a bread. Colonists refined this recipe with flour and the Strawberry Shortcake was invented!

A member of the rose family, the strawberry is unlike any other berry variety in that its seeds are in full view, on the skin. This is a part of the plant’s self-preservation mechanism; strawberry seeds respond to light and therefore need no covering of earth to germinate. For centuries most all two and four-legged creatures on the planet have been attracted to the bright color and sweet sugary smell of ripe wild strawberries. The seeds passed through the digestive systems of these berry admirers intact and in reasonably good condition. This was Nature’s system of insuring both propagation and wide distribution of this delicate, highly perishable, thin-skinned fruit.

In the fresh produce marketplace the propagation and distribution of fresh strawberries, especially in California, has been tamed into a multi-million dollar industry. While California’s perennial sunshine has supported a moderate volume of late spring and summertime strawberry production since the 1920’s, crop volumes started to really burgeon in the 1950’s due to improved growing technologies and techniques. For instance, California strawberry growers were the first to develop and use drip irrigation to conserve water.

The greatest impact to production over the last fifty years has been the development of new strains of berries, each best suited for the various climate zones within the state, by the University of California. Southern California varieties, which start harvest in late winter, have been adapted to thrive on shorter daylight hours and to produce an early fruit harvest. Varieties planted in the central coast region of the state have a much longer production cycle, harvesting right into the fall. These new varieties and technologies have made for an 11-month harvest season, gapping only in December.

The strawberry harvest moves up the state, starting in January in the countryside around San Diego. It then follows the progressive tilt of the earth towards the sun, ripening in several growing districts along the way, south to north in succession. While there used to be a substantial volume of berries grown in Orange County from January through March, most fields have been replaced with housing developments. There is still a smattering of strawberry operations in this most southern part of the state; however the bulk of the late winter / early spring supplies are now grown in the coastal region around Oxnard, CA.

Interestingly, the field-level dynamics of growing and harvesting fresh strawberries commercially has proven to be an instrument of social change twice over the last 75 years. According to data kept by the California Advisory Board, the industry has gone through two racial demographic dominances in the last century. Up until the beginning of WWII, Japanese immigrants, who began entering this country in numbers in the 1920s as field workers, owned and grew more than 90 percent of California's strawberries. This demographic was so dominant that the war brought the industry to almost a complete halt when Japanese growers were forced into internment camps by the U.S. government.

After the war, many rebuilt their dominance in the strawberry industry and, in fact, were able to drastically increase production because of the new technologies in growing practices. By the end of the 1960s, the major labor force for all crops in California were migrants coming up from Mexico. Fast forward to figures gathered at the end of the 2012 strawberry season by the Advisory Board; Latinos now comprise two-thirds of strawberry growers in California, where 90 percent of the nation's strawberries are grown. Like the Japanese before them, many Latino growers are former pickers or the children of field workers who worked their way up to rent and then own the land.

This all makes perfect sense if one understands the botanical workings of the strawberry plant itself and how it is harvested. The strawberry is an annual nursery crop; meaning, plants are first propagated in commercial operations in the northern part of the state and shipped by the millions to all growing districts where the seedlings are transplanted into the field by hand each year. To be brief, after a few months of tedious tending the first flowers appear at the end of long shoots that eventually become berries. One plant will produce several “sets” of these flowering shoots over the course of a harvest season. Berries are picked by hand right into the clamshell containers that will go on sale at retail. In the world of migrant labor, the picking of strawberries is a specialized craft that takes training and experience to master. And that’s where the physical act of harvesting strawberries has been an instrument of social change in California.

Since the strawberry is field-packed for retail it must be picked at just the right stage of ripeness to be sweet and make it through the distribution pipeline in good condition. Moreover, since each plant continually bears fruit throughout the harvest season, the crop must be gleaned of berries as each set ripens – ripe berries missed in one picking session may turn too ripe to ship overnight. A strawberry grower cannot inspect every berry or pick every tray of fruit, so he must trust the discretion and experience of his picking crew. This crew is usually the same group who picked his crop last season and the season before; the group always has a crew leader who manages his team as they work their way up the state though each growing district.

Long Stem Strawberries

And it’s a little more complicated than just picking ripe berries. A specific degree of ripeness might be required depending, for instance, on how far the fruit is going to be shipped that day or the wishes of a buyer. The grower communicates this to the crew leader, who “adjusts” the color range being picked by the workers. Some growers require all berries in the top layer of a tray be faced in one direction for eye appeal on a special order; again this is dialed in by the crew boss and executed by crews who take extreme pride in harvesting a beautiful tray of perfectly uniform strawberries. This is a very different mindset than is required in harvesting a staple crop like lettuce, for instance. Ever wonder how those lovely long-stemmed strawberries got to that Mother’s Day buffet table? Only the very best of the very best pickers are awarded the privilege, and extra pay, of picking stems.

So it requires a special expertise, work ethic, desire and ambition to rise to the status of a strawberry picker. Further, a few from this elite group have the hustle and management skills to be crew bosses; characteristics that has led to ownership. This path usually starts with a picker or crew boss earning enough to want to rent a few acres as a sharecropper from a grower-employer and then using the income to buy a plot of his own.

There has never been another crop to have been so clearly dominated by two separate minority races in this country’s commercial agriculture history. Sociologists attribute this phenomena to the strawberry’s unique harvest system that actually rewards a little hustle and hard work with a way out of the field that many have obviously taken. Hmmm, next time I am tempted by strawberry shortcake I think I will give in for the good of economic equality!