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

Priscella Vega, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

This year, Oregon was hotter than any place in the United States except for Death Valley, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. At least one farmworker died from heat-related causes while working in June at a nursery in St. Paul, a tiny city in the northern part of the state.

"2021 was a storm for disaster," Krahmer-Steinkamp said.

Garcia, her supervisor, said it became harder to find farmworkers willing to travel from California.

"They say, 'I want to be there and help you, but can you find a room for me and my friends?'" he said. "I did that before … but I stopped because sometimes I lost my money. They promised me, 'Let me finish my job here and I pay you money at end of the season.' And they left a week before the end."

Villegas and Ventura, who eventually had four children, noticed the familiar faces they had seen over the years dwindle at camp.

Workers could no longer afford to rent rooms. Some grew too old to make the journey. Some stayed permanently, lured by the still-cooler weather compared with the Central Valley. Some left the fields to take on other jobs, marking another trend seen in farm work nationwide, where younger generations are opting for better-paying jobs.

About a mile down the road from Krahmer-Steinkamp's farm, Oscar Cruz saw the long-held tradition wane within his own family.

In 1992, Cruz left his home in Costa Rica, a town in Mexico's Sinaloa state, to follow the strawberry harvest in Oregon, where he permanently settled. In the fall, he migrated south to California to pick olives and visit family members before returning to work at home. Back then, he said, 500 people arrived in Oregon ready to work even if it meant sleeping in their cars for weeks.

He loved the tranquility of working in the fields and hoped his children would one day follow in his footsteps. And for a few years, his family joined him.

 

But the adventures stopped after four years when his family craved a stable life. Cruz became a ranch supervisor at an Albany blackberry farm, overseeing workers. When two of his daughters and one son picked blackberries, only one daughter, Sarai, 20, fell in love with the work.

Another daughter, Cruz said, couldn't handle the heat. Instead she's studying nursing at Clackamas Community College. His son is considering returning one day for the money.

Villegas and Ventura hope their children will pursue something greater. If given the chance, the couple said they would've pursued different jobs.

After this year's sweltering season, the couple are unsure whether it's worth continuing their Oregon run.

"We go because it's too hot here in the summer and the weather is beautiful there," Ventura said from home in Fresno. "But now, what's the point in going if it's the same as here?"

Aware of the lack of work, the Boring rancher begged them to not move on to another farm, the couple said. Their boss, they said, asked them to pull weeds and organize materials in hopes the next crop would yield better results.

"It's only going to keep getting worse the way we've been treating our planet," Villegas said.

The rain attire they purchased long ago is no longer necessary. It's always packed in their duffel bag, but it's never worn.

©2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.