The fastest strawberry pickers can complete approximately nine baskets per hour, being paid between $1.75 and $2.00 per basket. Growers say this piece rate can suffice for minimum wage, but that is rarely the case. Exposed to dangerous pesticides, unable to access benefits like healthcare, and often facing threats of deportation, farmworkers face back-breaking labor and depend on nonprofits to provide essential services their employers don’t.

Though farmworkers grow and harvest the food we see at Safeway, Trader Joes, and the UC Santa Cruz dining halls, the harsh reality is they can barely afford to purchase groceries themselves.

To combat this issue, the Center for Farmworker Families (CFF) provides essential items and services for farmworkers that they don’t receive from their employers. With food provided by Second Harvest Food Bank, the CFF held their monthly distribution event on May 14, serving some 350 farmworker families — the vast majority being undocumented Oaxacan migrant workers. 

The CFF, headed by Executive Director Dr. Ann Lopez, is a nonprofit organization that promotes awareness around issues affecting farmworkers and advocates for farmworkers’ rights both on the fields and at the legislative level. 

“What we’re doing [at our distributions] is basically subsidizing growers,” Lopez said. “The pay is so low that farmworkers can’t buy their own food. They have a choice of paying rent and starving or not paying rent and buying some food. And I don’t think anyone should be faced with that choice [when] they worked so hard.”

At the May 14 distribution event, farmworkers were able to access basic needs ranging from food, clothing, and toiletries to services like acupuncture and massages to relieve back pains — resources they often do not receive given their low wages and scarce benefits.

Low Wages and Piece Rates

According to the National Agricultural Workers’ Survey, last conducted in 2016, one-third of farmworker families in the U.S. live below the poverty level and nearly 70 percent do not have health insurance. Further, exemptions to the Fair Labor Standards Act mean that in many cases, farmworkers are not guaranteed basic labor rights like overtime pay, mandatory breaks, or even a minimum wage

Farmworkers are often paid either in piece rates, where they receive a set pay per box or basket of produce, or in a combination of piece rates and hourly wages. Using the example of strawberries, UCSC community studies professor Julie Guthman says that while growers justify the use of piece rates by claiming it increases productivity and allows farmworkers to get higher wages, that isn’t always the case. 

“[Growers] say that the workers like [piece rates] because they get higher wages per hour, but only the fastest people can make that much to make it worth it,” Guthman said. “So they’re working at a breakneck pace, hunched over […] running through the fields to bring [strawberries] back to the station to be counted before they run back out and start picking again.” 

Many growers have attempted to assist farmworkers by providing trolleys or growing a big, easy-to-see variety of strawberry, Guthman added, but they’re more hesitant to meaningfully raise wages.

Other growers, like JSM Organics in Aromas, Calif., pay their farmworkers between $14 and $20 an hour, as opposed to piece rates. JSM is a small-scale, family-owned organic farm that employs between 25 and 40 farmworkers and grows cane berries, strawberries, vegetables, and flowers.

Prompted by his own experience as a farmworker, JSM owner Javier Zamora said he didn’t want to replicate the breakneck pace of farmwork seen at larger farms. 

“When you work for a big company or conventional farm, you do work on a piece rate, and they push you to the limit, and you’re doing work that’s not so easy to do,” Zamora said. “So when I started my own farm I didn’t want people to feel the same way. I didn’t want [workers] to feel like they weren’t making the money that they deserve.”

Labor Abuses Target an Already Vulnerable Population

The situation is even more dire for undocumented farmworkers, who comprise 75 percent of all farmworkers in California, and 83 percent in Santa Cruz County.

Due to their immigration status, undocumented farmworkers receive virtually no protections from their employers, leaving the door open for rampant labor abuses such as wage theft and union busting. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, employers nationwide illegally withheld $65 million from farmworkers between 2001-2019. 

CFF Director Dr. Ann Lopez said growers achieve that by refusing to give undocumented farmworkers official contracts and subsequently refusing to pay them their wages. Growers then leverage deportation threats to keep workers from voicing concerns or addressing these labor violations.

Comprehensive immigration reform is Lopez’s main concern on her list of issues that would transform farmworkers’ lives. 

“I don’t think any farmworker who’s been in the field, bent over, picking and harvesting food to feed us, at their own peril, living in poverty, should be worried about deportation,” Lopez said. “For God’s sake, who’s doing who the favor?” 

Despite rhetoric that undocumented people “steal” jobs and resources, they cannot access basic government benefits like food stamps or health care. 

Former Santa Cruz Mayor and former UCSC community studies professor Mike Rotkin pointed out that farmwork is the work that nobody wants to do.

“When people talk about, ‘we don’t need these Mexicans coming into our country and they’re all just taking our jobs away,’ it’s bullshit, because there is no interest in doing farm labor,” Rotkin said.

As a student in the 1960s, Rotkin worked as a farmworker in New York and Florida as part of a research program about migrant farmworkers, and helped implement a similar program at UC Santa Cruz as a professor during the 1970s. Through his experience, he has seen how even though farmworker conditions have improved, they are still subjected to dangerous and hazardous work conditions.

Chemicals and Pesticide Drift

Exposure to harsh chemicals and pesticides significantly contribute to health problems in farmworkers and their children. According to the UC Global Health Initiative, exposure to pesticides can cause increased rates of cancer in farmworkers and neurodevelopmental disorders in their children, among other health issues.

According to the CFF, there are between 10,000-20,000 physician-diagnosed cases of pesticide poisoning annually among U.S. farmworkers, whose life expectancy is only 49 years. Since cases are underreported, estimates suggest the number could be as high as 300,000 annual cases.

“Pesticide-poisoning could affect up to 300,000 farmworkers per year in the US.” Courtesy Micah Williams, Center for Farmworker Families.

CFF Director Dr. Ann Lopez said one of the more pressing concerns has to do with restricted-use pesticides, which are more toxic and are highly-regulated by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. California allows growers to apply for these restricted-use pesticides through Notices of Intent (NOI), and Lopez believes it is crucial for NOI’s to be published ahead of time in the areas they will be used. 

“We want that information published, so everybody in the area knows what the chemical is, where they’re going to fumigate and when, so that [people] can take protection,” Lopez said. “I am sick and tired of seeing the impact of these pesticides on the children of farmworkers. It is absolutely criminal.”

Despite pesticides being sprayed only on farms, pesticide drift can carry the toxic chemicals into neighboring communities and schools. In 2018, Good Times reported that schools across the Pajaro Valley Unified School District – where the majority of students are underprivileged students of color – keep their windows closed as students and teachers alike have come down with pesticide-related health issues ranging from cancer and neurological disorders to respiratory issues. 

UC Berkeley’s Chamacos Study, the longest-running study on the impact of pesticides on the health of farmworker’s children, found that children exposed to pesticides while in the womb have significantly lower IQs and shorter attention spans. Combined with potential physical health impacts during childhood as a result of pesticide exposure, Lopez considers what the generational impact of pesticide-related health issues will be. 

“When I think back on my interviews [with farmworkers] when I was doing my research about farmworkers, the vast majority that I talked to want their kids educated, having a career, and out of farm work, [but] we steal that from them,” Lopez said. “How is a kid whose brain doesn’t function right going to be successful?”

Other alternatives to harmful pesticides are possible.

“UV lights used at night to keep mice away from crops at JSM Organics.” Photo courtesy Javier Zamora, JSM Organics.

At JSM Organics, Zamora focuses on products that are not harmful to humans to protect his crops, and emphasizes innovation and different approaches that can help protect farmworkers. As opposed to traditional pesticides, Zamora uses UV lights at night to keep mice away from crops, and certified organic inputs like dusting sulfur and diatomaceous earth, which pose little risk to humans. 

Lopez points to multiple studies by the Rodale Institute and the United Nations that show an organic and regenerative farming future is not only possible, but necessary. The proof is not only in those studies, but at UCSC’s own Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, which has successfully had field-scale production for years.

“This industrial farming system is unsustainable, it’s highly destructive, and it doesn’t work,” Lopez said. “If [organic and regenerative] production can feed the entire planet, then why are we poisoning the planet? I guess it’s for profits for the agrochemical industry.”