by Dustin Dolf
photography by Reina Santa Cruz
They are hunched over the entire time. Their backs ache under the sun’s glare. Joints are strained, and pores sweat under heavy clothing. There is no shade, and if there were, it would make no difference. They are here to work, and before them stretches row after row of thousands of plants. The tedious work never seems to end. This is the reality that scares most people away from picking fruit. But the fruit must still get picked, and these conditions are a way of life for many workers from Mexico.
Adrian Vargas is no stranger to hard work – he began picking berries as a child. “I still love it!” he says. Vargas and his wife now own and run strawberry fields of their own in Claremont and Montclair. Eleven years ago, he acquired the field in Claremont through a lease, after many years working for other companies.
The Vargas’ both immigrated from Michuacan, Mexico. They have five sprouts of their own, children between the ages of 13 and 26, as well as four grandchildren. The younger children already have a hand in the family berry business, often helping to sell the strawberries. Their 8-year-old grandson Adrian sometimes even does a little picking.
Their strawberry patch is nestled between the 210 Freeway to the south and Base Line Road to the north, on the south east corner of Baseline Road and Towne Avenue. Despite being hemmed in by the surrounding ranch homes and gray streets, one still has a sense that the area once consisted of vast groves of agriculture.
On a typical day, Vargas commutes from his home in Rancho Cucamonga—another former agricultural powerhouse—and treks between his fields. Eyeing the budding fruits, he must determine onto which field he will focus the picking power of his workers. Once the day’s picking is complete, his wife, children and grandchildren sell the bounty of berries at their on-site Claremont stand.
Not a perennial plant, strawberries must be replanted each season. First, the soil is turned and watered. The strawberries are planted on clumps of dirt, which are covered in black plastic, and holes are punched through by a machine for the seedlings to grow up through. “Weather means everything” explains Vargas. The plants are delicate and heavy rain can ruin the young plants, destroying all their work. Often times, the new plants are in the ground before Thanksgiving.
The plastic keeps out the weeds and keeps in the moisture for the berries. About every eight clumps are sprinklers. The ditches between the clumps are deep enough to capture water for the plants and are spread out far enough so that the tractors can drive through them.
Work begins at 6 a.m., when the strawberry pickers arrive at the field. They pick for three or more hours, finishing just as most people are showing up for their jobs. The job itself is grueling, especially for the uninitiated. Everyone is stooped over for the duration of the harvesting, and it is painful to their waists if the workers are unconditioned. “It takes a week for the pain to go away when the workers begin the season, but after three or four days, they get used to it,” Vargas says.
The pickers approach their work in a systematic way. Empty cartons load onto metal carts. Into the cartons, the newly-picked, ripe strawberries are loaded before being dumped into crates. A flat-bed truck moves along with the workers, collecting the red, glistening bundles their efforts produce. Only the best berries will make the cut. The perfect strawberries are bright red, and any appearing less than ideal are tossed on the ground or sold as seconds. Vargas says his fruit is grown without the aid of pesticides.
Like soldiers moving with singular purpose, the pickers line up on each aisle and proceed forward. Once a picker has a full load, the berries are unloaded into the crates. When they reach the end of their aisles, everyone shifts over, rotating onto a new set of rows. Although the sun has yet to heat the air, the morning is still young. Though it might not seem overly warm, the direct glare of the sun creates its own discomforting temperature. Despite the heat, the workers have to wear pants to protect their legs, and hats to protect their faces from the searing rays of the sun. While all the clothing and gear would weigh down an inexperienced person, the men move fairly quickly—at a pace that does not tire them quickly—but a constant, practiced glide. Conversation is kept to a minimum.
It’s a redundant job, with little variety. The pickers’ entire year unfolds in a similar way. Every season, the those who work on Vargas’ fields return for five months. During the off-season, they put the migratory in “migrant workers,” as they head north to follow other harvests and pick fruits such as cherries, grapes, peaches and apples. They work all the way up to Washington, then return to Mexico for three months to be with their families. While some do have families in the United States, others support their families who live in Mexico. Vargas explains that “only Mexicans want to work in the fields,” adding, “because they will do anything to earn much-needed money.”
Down the road at the Montclair field, strawberries there are sold to markets and restaurants, such as Marie Calendars. Those they sell at their stand begin to sell in January, with the strawberry season usually lasting until mid July. Like any other product, supply and demand determine the cost of their fruit. While the weather may have an impact on the supply, the demand is solely in the hands and appetites of their customers. Vargas often gets the same customers each season. The family has established long-standing relationships with their clientele. They have watched red-mouthed children grow into teens.
Vargas explains that his two fields are located in areas that are good for growing strawberries. One thing gives Vargas’ Claremont location an advantage: A lack of competition, unlike in Montclair, where there are multiple fields along Mission Boulevard.
The landscape around Vargas’ Claremont field has recently under gone a dramatic change with the 210 Freeway, which he philosophically sees as brining “some good, some bad” his way. Bumper-to-bumper traffic along Baseline Road is gone. Those who do use the road travel faster, and are less inclined to stop and taste Vargas’ berries along the way. The freeway cut his field down to approximately three acres, and the proximity of all those people passing through has resulted in some of his farming equipment being stolen. Otherwise, he feels the freeway expansion has had a positive impact on his business.
Vargas notes that the city of Claremont is still supportive of his business because he has remained there for so long. However, the strawberry field property is zoned for single family residential housing. If a private organization wanted to construct anything other than what the area is zoned for, they would have to apply for a zone change. Vargas and his workers are aware that the city of Claremont has recently rezoned the large field adjacent to his for low-cost housing. If the city does eventually decide to redevelop the very land he leases,Vargas hopes he has the support of Claremont residents who wish to preserve open land in their community.
Every year, the same workers come back to this little strawberry field despite the pain they know they will endure for the first three days upon arrival. The same aches. The same sun hanging above. The same dirt waiting to be turned. Worries of too much rain coming too soon are always there. But the customers are always there too. They come for the same thing as well.
Like Vargas himself says, “There’s nothing like fresh fruit!”