A family of strawberry growers had big dreams. Then came the pandemic

The strawberry-growing Carranza family
Three members of the Carranza family, from left: Cruz, 43, his father, Javier, 62, and brother Flavio, 21, in Ventura County.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

They were picking strawberries, father and son, in the afternoon sunlight of the Oxnard Plain.

The men, 62-year-old Javier Carranza and his son Cruz, 43, piled the ripened fruit into cardboard boxes destined for farmers markets. Father on one row, son on another, moving steadily from mound to mound.

Once or twice, the pickers chomped into a berry, testing their crop for flavor. Yes, these were ready for sale tomorrow. Not any longer, like so many supermarket varieties picked before peak ripeness. As if to emphasize it, Cruz leaned in to offer a visitor a brilliant red strawberry.

The pandemic age gives this normally kind farm-life gesture a new layer of risk. Could this organically grown fruit have been contaminated by something other than regular old dirt? The strawberry hadn’t been anywhere but here, where it was born. In a bite, the spike of acid and sweetness shook the brain.

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There is nothing like the taste of a fresh California strawberry, one of the state’s most plentiful and emblematic agricultural staples. Crimson, shiny in any light, firm but juicy, the strawberry in peak form is a marvel of taste that has been grown on the coastal plains for generations.

Father and son continued their harvest. It looked like an almost idyllic moment, as if the novel coronavirus pandemic was not swirling all around them — and now threatening their livelihood. Peak strawberry season in Southern California approaches in May. Yet with restaurants shuttered and some farmers markets suspended, demand has dropped. The Carranza family is worried.

“Before the coronavirus, we sold everything,” Javier said in a raspish, gentle voice. “And now it’s slower and slower. Now we’re selling about half.”

Cruz Carranza, left, and his father Javier Carranza plant sunflowers
Cruz Carranza, left, and his father, Javier, plant sunflowers on the family’s plot.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Adding urgency to the uncertainty, this year the Carranzas did something they had never done before — gathered up money and invested in the trade directly. They hold a single acre of strawberries, splitting costs and profit with the landowner, well-known farmer Phil McGrath, in addition to four more rented acres of flowers and greens.

“We check one by one, looking for those that are completely red, so that it has the best possible flavor,” Cruz explained. If not, “what is going to happen with our product, sir? It stays here.”

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The Carranza family is a rare unit in the state’s strawberry supply. They are not laborers on a large industrial farm, like those paid by the box, but an entirely family-run enterprise that sells to restaurants and at five farmers markets: Santa Monica, Hollywood, South Pasadena, Ojai and Santa Barbara. At least until recently, before the coronavirus began forcing closures.

Their button of land sits on the McGrath Family Farm in Camarillo, practically hugging the 101 Freeway. The legacy farm — founded a century and a half ago by the ancestors of Phil McGrath — has been subdivided over the years. Substantial acreage is leased to a company that grows crops for Driscoll’s, the biggest brand in berries in North America. A portion of the land is leased to small organic farmers like the Carranzas.

Javier Carranza moved north from Mexico in the early 1980s. He began working at McGrath in 1997 as a fieldworker. Soon his wife, Teresa, and his sons joined him. Flavio Carranza, their youngest, arrived in 2002 at the age of 4.

One recent evening, Flavio walked amid his family’s fields, pondering the future. He is a sprightly guy with a small frame. At 21, he is around the same age as his brother Cruz’s oldest children, who are technically his nephews. They all play a role in the family operation.

 Javier Carranza, left, and his son, Flavio, display strawberries that the family has grown
Javier Carranza, left, and his son Flavio with some of their crop.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“My dad, my brother, my madrina, they’re out here front-lining the harvest, for the day of,” Flavio said.

He speaks better English than his older brother or father, so Flavio, who functions as the family’s unofficial spokesman, and Cruz’s children take care of the customer-facing parts of the business: logistics, accounting, transport and selling at the market. Cruz’s wife, Olga, also works on the family’s crops. Teresa, the clan’s matriarch, plays an important role, preparing meals for the fieldworkers of the clan, on a firm schedule.

‘My dad, my brother, my madrina, they’re out here front-lining the harvest.’

Flavio Carranza

“And that’s how my family employs themselves,” Flavio said.

The Carranzas immigrated from the Mexican state of Michoacán, which makes them something of an anomaly. Most workers in the strawberry-picking season come from indigenous communities in the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero. An estimated 36,000 farmworkers pick crops in Ventura County alone. Many have temporary worker visas, but many are without papers.

Advocates fear such workers, living in close quarters and transported in packed buses, are especially vulnerable to the virus. As of April 28, Ventura County had 508 reported cases of coronavirus and 17 deaths.

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In this regard, the Carranzas are relatively at ease. They don’t live in a motel or flophouse, like many intermittent laborers, but on the McGrath property itself, in a trailer home. Commutes are a short drive. Or a good walk. Flavio beamed when he pointed toward his home.

“I used to just come out in the afternoon, pick strawberries off the vine, and come home. And that was it,” Flavio said. “I didn’t know anything about it until I started working with my dad and my brother about four years ago.”

To an observer driving by, fields of crops might appear fixed features of the landscape. But in truth, farmland is always shifting. Crops rise and fall. Farms are divided up. Small farmers rent land from bigger ones.

The farmland is also a web of interconnected companies that reflect deep ties over generations among old-school farm-owning families. It’s a network that the Carranzas, in their minor way, are trying to crack into.

California’s 420,000 farmworkers are working through the crisis. But language barriers and a lack of communication on the coronavirus put many at risk.

The McGrath enterprise, begun in 1879 by Irish transplant Dominick McGrath, once covered more than 5,000 acres. In 1971, the land was divided among relatives, and Phil McGrath started running the 300 acres now known as McGrath Family Farm.

Most of that acreage is now leased to Reiter Affiliated Cos., a farm that supplies Driscoll’s.

Today, 30 acres remain in small growers’ hands, said Michael Roberts, another small farmer at McGrath, who spoke on Phil McGrath’s behalf. On the small owners’ acreage that remains, Roberts said, McGrath is trying to build a legacy as he enters retirement.

“The Carranzas mentored me as well,” Roberts said. “They taught me how to grow, and at this point, Phil has created a scenario where there’s a budding farming academy.”

Even before the pandemic, farmers always faced uncertainty and risks. Drought. Too much rain. Disruption by wildfire. Pests. The Carranzas, for example, were fighting off a spider mite infestation on a small section of their strawberry patch.

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As May approaches, the broader strawberry industry is holding its breath. California produces more strawberries than all other 49 states combined.

When shutdowns first went into place, the overall demand for strawberries actually grew, said Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission. “We think consumers were realizing that strawberries are a healthy choice to eat,” she said.

But will that trend continue? Demand, O’Donnell said, “picks up again on Mother’s Day and graduation and things like that, but we’re not sure what’s going to happen this year.”

Other questions consume the industry as well as the many cooks who might be sitting at home incessantly scrolling through troubling news feeds. Can the agriculture machinery keep grinding during a global pandemic? Can essential workers — those who grow and pick our food — stay safe?

Javier Carranza
Javier Carranza straightens out irrigation lines.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Community-based and indigenous-led organizations aimed at helping and protecting farmworkers abound in the Oxnard area. The Farmworker Resource Program in Ventura County is circulating safety information about the coronavirus in the Zapotec, Mixtec, Triqui languages, which are spoken among indigenous natives of southeastern Mexico, said Talia Barrera, the program administrator. They also do outreach in Purépecha, the indigenous language from Michoacán.

“We have to keep being creative in our outreach efforts,” Barrera said. “The growers are adapting and they’re implementing best practices.”

The calls on social media to shut “everything” down sounded impractical in a local’s cold analysis. “Just some realistic statistics,” Barrera said. “In the county of Ventura, the ag industry is one of the largest. They contribute over $2 billion, just the berries alone. We have over 400,000 farmworkers [in the state]. We have to make sure they’re well taken care of.”

Leaders in the organic strawberry industry say they’ve also stepped up. Molly Gean, co-owner of Harry’s Berries, said that their pickers are keeping one row apart and wearing masks. Gean also praised farmers markets, which were temporarily shut down in Southern California, but have reopened in many locations with stricter social distancing measures. “They’ve taken extraordinary steps,” she said.

Even so, the markets have not weathered the pandemic particularly well. Not only have closures and regulations careened wildly since stay-at-home orders kicked in — one weekend South Pasadena was closed but Hollywood was open; another weekend it was reversed — restaurant clients who shop at the markets or order directly from the farms have been decimated by the lockdowns.

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“It slowed down just at the wrong time,” said Tony Carranza, 20, son of Cruz and Olga.

On a recent Wednesday, his sister Jennifer Carranza, 24, was selling flowers and strawberries grown by her family at the Santa Monica farmers market. She now wore a mask, as did all customers and vendors. “It’s weird and it’s different,” Jennifer said. “We’re getting used to it.”

A week later, flower vending, viewed as nonessential, was banned inside the Santa Monica market, creating another setback for the Carranzas.

Strawberries
Jennifer Carranza sells strawberries April 1, before a mask requirement was put into place at the Santa Monica farmers market.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

There are signs of hope. The family is seeing an uptick in orders from local residents for produce boxes. A few days a week Flavio and Tony drive around delivering produce to people’s doors.

What they don’t sell, the family channels to food bank distributors such as Food Forward. At the McGrath farm, the public-facing store is called Abundant Table.

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As life under lockdowns and the pandemic takes hold, the divide between people’s awareness of what they eat and where it comes from, Flavio said, feels more pronounced than ever.

“Farming is just something that’s just thrown out there in society, it’s so abstract to the common person,” he said. “So because of that, we’re too disconnected. So many of the farms are family-owned. ... I don’t think they see it.”

With the coronavirus, the clan’s entire chain, from start to finish, is being affected. Work to prepare future crops is being put on hold.

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“Before we get to the actual part of selling the produce, and selling the flowers, there is a person who has to grow them in a greenhouse,” Flavio said, referring to starters, or trays, the very first step of a seed’s cultivating existence. “To plant something in May, right now our starter grower has to be planting, so that we can harvest in July. It’s so intertwined. If someone can’t do their job, it makes it a bit harder for the rest of us to follow through.”

At McGrath, a Pacific breeze is often perceptible from across the plain and Port Hueneme. Growing up on this land, Flavio said, he hardly imagined learning the ins and outs of the family trade. Flavio is enrolled at Cal State Channel Islands, with hopes of possibly becoming a teacher. But he admitted to feeling the pull of his clan’s business.

Rain or shine, the elder Carranzas are out there, tending, nursing, picking. Javier and Cruz seem to relish their freedom in the field. “More peaceful,” Javier said. “No one orders us around, everyone knows what they are doing and, well, that’s it. Happy.”

Strawberries
Javier Carranza describes the farming life as peaceful. “No one orders us around, everyone knows what they are doing and, well, that’s it. Happy.”
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Big farm or small, the act of harvesting is the same. Though robot harvesters have been tried, strawberries are only picked and packed by human hands.

“As long as there is strawberry to pick, they are there, because they depend on it,” Flavio said. “Families depend on that.”

Back on the ripest section of the Carranza family patch, the Seascape strawberries were so bright in color, each bulb looked to be near bursting. “They’re clean,” the budding farmer said, encouraging.

How did he know? “They’ll have dust on them,” Flavio chuckled. “But for the most part, that’s it.”

Another bite, grains of dust be damned. Another strawberry explodes, eliciting a reflexive groan.