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Measuring Onion Economics : Agriculture: The Antelope Valley harvest has become the county’s most highly valued vegetable crop, and to farm workers the yield represents a way to eke out a living.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Out under the flight path at U.S. Air Force Plant 42, where sleek jets and lumbering cargo planes soar overhead, Salvador Beleche and Luis Mendoza have been living in hovels made of burlap bags and plastic sheeting draped over Joshua trees.

In an annual rite joined by hundreds of other Latino men and women, Beleche and Mendoza have come to the Antelope Valley to work the region’s onion harvest. And their presence is proof that while Los Angeles County’s agriculture industry may be down, it is not yet out.

Antelope Valley onions have become the most highly valued vegetable crop grown in Los Angeles County, though producers say the region’s harvest is little known to most people. This year’s yield is expected to approach 50,000 tons, and will be shipped around the world.

Yet the harvest carries a human price. To farm workers, onion economics are measured in 94-cent increments. That’s the typical pay for each 80- to 100-pound burlap sack of onions they pick. And for 60 to 100 sacks per day--from dawn to sundown--a worker may take home $50 to $80.

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It was an eerie scene this week in Palmdale. As C-130 and C-141 military transport planes, each worth tens of millions of dollars, circle above to practice takeoffs and landings at nearby Plant 42, about 400 laborers toil below in a sandy 80-acre field picking brown onions.

The land is owned by the Los Angeles Department of Airports, which hopes to one day build a major airport there. But in the meantime, since the property must remain undeveloped, airport officials lease it out to the valley’s onion growers to gain a small source of revenue.

Just off a normally deserted stretch of 50th Street East near Avenue M, scores of cars, pickup trucks and campers have gathered at the edge of the onion field in the early morning hours. Some men and women are picking while others are sharpening their tijeras, or scissors, as they wait to start.

Arnulfo Camarillo, 36, wearing a straw hat to provide some shade, says he’s been in the area several weeks for the harvest. Camarillo, as many of the workers, says he follows the various crop harvests around Central and Southern California through the year.

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Camarillo lives to the north in the Kern County town of Lamont, but many of the workers are from Texas and Mexico, and from Guatemala and other Central American countries. According to field supervisor John Paredez, many travel the year and return home annually for a winter break.

These days, Paredez, a Bakersfield resident, says there are more laborers than work, especially since the recession has pummeled Southern California’s construction industry, erasing its relatively more attractive jobs. Still, he says of his field crews, “They make way better than minimum wage.”

Camarillo, saying he’s slow, figures he fills 50 sacks of onions in a day, netting about $40. Standing, he bends over, pulls several from the ground and then clips their stalks and roots. Asked if he and the others consider any one crop the best to work, he replies, “They’re all heavy. It’s tough.”

After working in the fields for three years, Camarillo says he wants to find a job in Las Vegas, perhaps as a janitor, where “it’s nice and clean” and where people “are eating all the time.” In the meantime, he eats Mexican food from a vendor in a nearby truck and sleeps down the road at a camp.

About a mile from the field, set back off the road near a cluster of trees, is the camp where many of the workers return at night to sleep for free. But when people talk about the Antelope Valley having among the county’s most affordable housing, this isn’t what they have in mind.

The site is miles from much of anything in either Lancaster to the north or Palmdale to the south. It’s part of the no man’s land created around Plant 42 because of the jet traffic and the vacant airport land. But at least for this year’s onion harvest, it’s a place many call home.

Home for Beleche and Mendoza is a collection of makeshift shelters, some as simple as an uprooted tree on its side covered with burlap bags. Others are as complex as Beleche’s family sized hovel built around a standing Joshua tree.

Burlap bags, sheets of plastic and cardboard panels are the building materials. Sometimes the floor is just dirt, and sometimes it’s more bags, blankets or cardboard. Strewn about are empty beer cans, litter and other debris.

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Although there are portable bathrooms in the onion fields, none are visible at the camp. Residents get their water from a metal tank. Some vans and cars are parked nearby with occupants resting in the shade from the midday sun. Nearby, a group of men has a portable stove set up for eggs and oatmeal.

Beleche, a short, wiry man, insists his living conditions are tolerable. With Mendoza interpreting, Beleche notes that one can see many similar shelters--absent the Joshua tree--on the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

Back at the onion field, Paredez acknowledges that the camp and several other similar gathering places have sprung up in the area. Paredez says he and his employer have nothing to do with the camps, that the workers are paid but where and how they sleep at night is their own doing.

Miles to the north in an industrial area of Lancaster, it looks as though a snowstorm has struck the Giba-Wheeler Farms complex as the desert winds blow flurries of white onion skins across the parking lot of one of the Antelope Valley’s big three onion growers.

The onions along 50th Street East belong to Giba-Wheeler, part of about 700 acres of onions in the Antelope Valley that partners Phil Giba and Gene Wheeler are growing this year. Inside, Giba stresses that farming today is all about big business.

In the past two weeks since the harvest began, Giba, an inveterate Lakers fan who delivers fruit each week to Magic Johnson, figures Giba-Wheeler has shipped about 110 truck containers of Antelope Valley onions to Japan. At 45,000 pounds each, that’s nearly 2,500 tons of onions, he says.

Normally, the Japanese grow a lot of their own onions, but monsoons in recent weeks ruined much of those crops, Giba said. The sudden demand has turned what had been lackluster onion market prices into healthy profits, at least for now.

Giba-Wheeler, a partnership formed in 1984, expects to harvest from August through October about 21,250 tons of the 40,000 to 50,000 tons expected from the valley. The majority will supply Southern California-area supermarkets between now and February, Giba said.

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Around the world, from Taiwan to Dubai to Australia, where some of the company’s onions go, Giba says Antelope Valley onions are recognized as being the best of the winter crop--the spicy variety grown at this time of year. Yet many Antelope Valley residents don’t even know his company, Giba says.

About 100 people are working six-day, 10-hour workweeks inside the company’s plant--an old turkey slaughterhouse--sorting, bagging and shipping the onions, and many have worked there several years. Onions such as his, Giba said, are better if picked by hand rather than handled by machines.

Los Angeles was the nation’s most productive agricultural county during the 1940s. But its farmland since then has been steadily consumed by urbanization. The still open spaces of the Antelope Valley remain as sort of a last outpost of major farming in the county.

From 1989 to last year, the county’s total agricultural production--including nursery items, fruits and nuts, crops, vegetables and animal products--fell from nearly $316 million to $201 million. And $149 million of that was related to nursery products, county agriculture officials say.

Onions from the Antelope Valley, the only place in the county where they are grown in quantity, were the county’s third most valuable agricultural product--worth $13.3 million last year, behind only trees and shrubs ($105 million) and bedding plants ($23.6 million), officials say.

To Southern California consumers, the Antelope Valley onion harvest is a slice of spice for a summer barbecue. To Giba, it’s his business and an industry to tend. To Camarillo and the other farm workers, its a way to eke out a living on dusty back roads that most people never see.

Bountiful Harvest Mostly grown in the Antelope Valley, onions are L.A. County’s top vegetable crop in dollar value. Top Crops Top three products in the county, 1992. In millions of dollars Trees & shrubs: $105 Beddling plants: $24 Onions: $13 Yearly Sales County totals in millions of dollars for past three years. All vegetables: $17 mill. Onions: $13 mill. Source: Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner


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