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Tops in His Field : In Unending Process, Worker’s Efforts Help Produce Yearly Bounty of Berries

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Summer means vacation for most families, but for Ezekiel Contreras it signals the beginning of an annual ritual--mowing and digging up acres of strawberry plants after they have stopped giving fruit, then readying the soil for the coming season’s crop.

Contreras, 34, has worked year-round in the same strawberry field, wedged between the confluence of the San Diego and Santa Ana freeways, for the past eight years. He is among many hands employed by Hiroshi Fujishige, a long-time Orange County farmer.

A Santa Ana resident and father of four young children, Contreras said his family’s livelihood depends on the 100-acre field. It lies in the shadow of an encroaching highway overpass, which has already claimed several acres of farmland.

Driving an antiquated International Harvester tractor that chugs along mostly in second gear, the cheerful Contreras recently drove back and forth across the bumpy field, sometimes forward and other times in reverse, mowing two rows of depleted strawberry plants at a time.

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The native of Guerrero, Mexico, seemed oblivious to the monotonous hum of speeding cars and occasional roar overhead of FA-18 Hornet jets, practicing touch-and-go landings at nearby El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

“After eight years of working this field, I am able to see the cars and jets without hearing them,” he said with a grin.

Contreras’ workday had started at 6:30 a.m., when he prepared the old tractor by first attaching a rear mower and then hand-cranking the engine to start it. After a hot and dusty day in the field, he leaves for home about 5 p.m.

By the time Contreras got the tractor’s engine going, 50 or so workers were already stooped over the low-growing plants, picking the third and last strawberry crop of the season. From a distance, the workers’ bent backs reflected colorful dots, scattered over a lush, green landscape like a Christo exhibit.

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“I start mowing today. Come back a week from now and you’ll see a dirt field. You’d never know that there were strawberry plants growing here at one time,” Contreras said on a recent morning.

He mowed behind the pickers, shredding hundreds of plants that had yielded baskets of fruit to nimble fingers the day before. Row after row of plants disappeared under the mower, exposing sheets of clear plastic that had been stretched underneath to keep insects and weeds away and moisture in the ground.

Days later, after the mowing was finished, Contreras ran four discs across the length of the rows, which were about four feet wide and one foot high. The shiny metal discs cut straight lines, which make it easy for workers to pull the plastic up in narrow strips.

Finally, Contreras plowed what remained of the plants back into the soil.

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“I like working outdoors. I used to work on a farm when I lived in Mexico, but farm work is so much easier here. It was backbreaking in Mexico,” said Contreras. “I earn enough money here to make a decent life for my family, and hopefully to give my children an opportunity to get better jobs when they grow up.”

After plowing the field, Contreras and the other workers waste no time in beginning another annual ritual by preparing the soil for next year’s strawberry crop, which will be planted in October.

The workers add carefully measured amounts of a nutrient-rich humus material to the soil. They also add gypsum to neutralize the soil’s salinity. It is a time-consuming process without any shortcuts.

Failure to prepare the soil properly in August and September can lead to a poor crop, both in quality and quantity, when the first strawberries are ready for harvesting in late December or early January.

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“You can also pick strawberries in February and March, but the peak of the season is really April and May. Come back in May and you’ll find 150 people working this field,” Contreras said.

The annual ritual of planting, picking, mowing, plowing and replanting prompted a visitor to comment on the Beatles’ song “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of the Beatles,” Contreras said. “Why would they sing a song about strawberries,” he asked, with an apologetic smile and shake of his head.

The swath cut through the plants by Contreras’ tractor seemed to offer its own message about the permanence of strawberry fields.

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