Strawberries of Wrath : Pickers’ Plight: Blistering Heat, Back-Breaking Work


This time of day, this time of year, Saddleback Mountain begins the dawn in close, hovering, then slowly draws back as darkness seeps out of the sky. For a few moments, the peak seems to glow, back lit in the soft morning haze as the sun rises for its daily assault.

And it is an assault, a relentless battering of energy that takes rather than gives, leaving you drained and parched, weak and dizzy.

Strawberry pickers know that. So they prepare for it as they gather just after 6 a.m. to begin work in a Western Marketing Co. field off Alton Parkway and Jeffrey Road.


The wardrobe is a trick of the trade, knowledge gained in many instances through years of experience. Some of the workers wear hats. Some wear bandannas. A few wear a combination of both, red and blue kerchiefs tied around baseball caps. And loose, long-sleeved shirts that guard against the chill now and the sun later on.

This is the peak of strawberry-picking season in Orange County, when workers harvest a crop valued at more than $35 million--by far the county’s most valuable agricultural crop, employing some 2,500 people.

In a typical year, farm workers would be picking berries now for store shelves. The recent strawberry-born hepatitis scare, though, has ruined consumer demand for fresh strawberries. So the scores of flats of berries to be picked today are destined for another fate: The best will be sliced and quick-frozen; the mangled will be pureed by processors; those with mold or rot or insect damage will be ground into the field itself.

But first the berries must be picked.

There are no tools for the job. It is all hard hand labor. As workers arrive, they pick out a small wire cart with a single wheel, like the frame of a miniature wheelbarrow. A worn, light-red plastic crate, which will hold about 18 pounds of berries, sits atop it. The idea is to push the cart before you, tossing the good berries in and dropping the rotten or moldy ones underfoot.

When the crate is filled, you carry it to the weighing scale where someone checks it and where someone else punches a hole in a red ticket. This is your scorecard, and the basis for the day’s bonus pay.

Western Marketing pays its strawberry pickers $5 per hour, minimum wage, plus $1.50 for each crate of strawberries. Thus, time is money. With that incentive, most fill four to six crates an hour.


In anticipation, the workers take a few minutes before the workday begins to scout the rows, trying to pick ones with a lot of visible berries. Some stretch their arms and backs, limbering up like Jack LaLanne for a morning workout.

At 6:30 a.m., we are sent into the fields. The more agile and ambitious scurry along the troughs between knee-high lanes of berry plants. The less dexterous take care not to trip over the inch-thick tractor tracks as we make our way to the end of the row, then pick our way back to the beginning.

The job is done by crouching, or bending from the waist. Some wear back braces.

Strawberry picking, it turns out, is a perverse exercise in the dashing of ambitions. A strawberry exists to rot, to reach ripeness then soften, fall to the ground and let its seeds sink into the earth to begin the cycle again. The pickers’ task is to catch the berry before it succeeds, a process of negative Darwinism. Here, the fittest are culled and eaten; the weak are left to reproduce.

The berries don’t want to go. Ripe, red and plump, they refuse gentle pulls. You have to slide your thumb under the hull--technically, the calyx--and pop the berry free without mashing it into paste. The berries are juicier than they look, and as you drive your thumb in some of them, they squirt invariably at the eyes. Berry pulp itself quickly backs up under the thumbnail, leaving the tip swollen and tender.

Experienced pickers do the job in a blur of action, taking one hand and an instant to do what it takes a novice two hands and several seconds. It’s not skilled trade so much as practiced adeptness. The fastest among them will make $14 for each of the five hours of picking this day.

You can tell the fastest workers by sight. They’re panting a bit, their faces covered by a sheen of sweat even in the morning cool. When they fill a crate, they run with it to the truck, then run back with an empty one. They can’t be, but they seem to be, oblivious to the pain involved, which has its own progression.


At some point, you realize that it hurts less to bend over than it does to stand up straight.

Most of the workers have filled three or four crates, and moved well ahead in the rows. In part, that is because they know from experience the heft of 18 pounds of berries. A novice does not, and after gingerly carrying the crate from the field to the weighing stand, a foreman gestures and says something in Spanish, then in English: “Too many, too full. Here, let me give you some back.”

A full crate, it turns out, is about 25 pounds. The excess goes into an empty crate, a start on the second load. But carrying the berries back to the field feels like a farm field version of taking coals to Newcastle.

Now a fresh problem presents itself: Which row? A coffee cup left as a marker has been picked up by some Good Samaritan policing trash. It takes a few minutes to find the right spot in the right row, and then the routine continues. Bend, sweep the plant with one hand while trying to pluck berries with the other.

After a while, whistling breaks out on the dirt road between fields, near the trucks, which you dismiss as more of the incomprehensible background of jokes and conversation in Spanish. The whistling gets closer, though, and then someone’s yelling. You stand up, painfully aware of the hinge that is your back, and realize that it’s break time.

Pickers stream from the fields, stopping briefly to wash the red from their hands at a water tank mounted on the back of a portable toilet, then grab food from the lunch truck. There’s water, cans of soda and iced tea, doughnuts, hot dogs wrapped in foil and freshly made tacos. Some sit on the edges of the mounded rows to eat, while others squat or crouch, talking softly between bites.


It is only 8 a.m.

To the south, the San Diego Freeway has clogged, muting the usual dull roar of speeding traffic. Nearby, suburban homes--built some 20 years ago on farm fields--send a steady stream of drivers to the freeway.

The sun has come up fully now, though a cool breeze keeps the heat at bay. The wind is a mixed blessing. It makes life a little more bearable for the workers, but when it blows hard from the hills, it carriers worms and bugs, which settle in the fields. The berries carry scars from one such Santa Ana infestation in March, when field managers decided to lay down pesticides to save the crop.

After 15 minutes, the whistling starts again and the workers begin moving back into the fields.

The work slips into a not-unpleasant rhythm. It doesn’t get easier, just smoother. Pain becomes a given, something to be worked around. You kneel for a bit, then stand and place one leg on the mounded earth while leaving the other in the trough, using your own thigh for upper-body support.

As the work wears on, sounds dissolve into an easily ignored backdrop, the distant cars--louder now that rush hour is past--merging with the chatter of other workers and the bird songs from trees along the nearby San Diego Creek channel.

The day settles into a tedium of growing heat, stiffness and pain. Novelty becomes routine, an assembly line, or dis-assembly line, with the strawberry pickers the first step in the process of moving product from field to store.


In the distance, Saddleback has faded in the haze, a silhouette hinting at itself. You forget it’s there until you stand up to stretch the pain from your back and hands, and look around. As a fellow worker carries another crate to the truck, you wonder amid the ache at the ease with which something so predominant can become so invisible.