For poor farmworkers, there is no escape from heat, high prices of California

Priscella Vega, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

"We can ban pesticides, but we can't ban hot weather," said Dr. Marc Schenker, distinguished professor emeritus of public health sciences and medicine at UC Davis and founding director of the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety. "We can't regulate Mother Nature."

In this last summer harvest, in their Boring camp, Villegas and his family cooped up in a bedroom and could hardly sleep. Others felt the same. Some left their bunks to nap under a tree outside. The portable fans ranchers provided blew hot air.

At work, they toiled in 115-degree weather. They worked as fast as possible but couldn't fill their tin buckets with berries. So many had overripened in the sun.

"Ay Dios mío," Ventura asked herself. "¿Que está pasando?"

What's happening?

The couple are part of a shrinking breed of farmworkers.


Anne Krahmer-Steinkamp, a sixth-generation berry farmer in Albany, Oregon, said five years ago she employed nearly 200 Californians from Madera, Stockton and Watsonville who arrived to Krahmer-Steinkamp's farm through phone calls made by her supervisor, Eloy Garcia. This year, only 10 Californians committed to the harvest.

Her workers — once 80% Californians, now about 20% — had been picking for just four days on the 300-acre blueberry farm before triple-digit temperatures set in. She pushed up their morning shift and told them to pick as much as they possibly could. "We set them loose and just flew," she said.

By the second day of extreme heat, Krahmer-Steinkamp said she had lost 15% of her crop. She was lucky; other local farmers lost their entire harvest.

Villegas started working in the fields in the late 1990s. His family left their hometown of San Miguel Cuevas in Mexico's Oaxaca state and headed north for better-paying jobs. In the Central Valley, he picked grapevine leaves until his father announced they would all travel farther north to work.


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