strawberry fields

A few years ago, while teaching my introductory Asian American history course, I decided to personalize the subject of my lecture, truck farming. Most students who take an Asian American history course will learn that Asian Americans contributed significantly to American agriculture and farming, far more so than for their significant, but short-lived work on the transcontinental railroad. It is one thing, however, to learn about farming in the abstract, removed from its actual practice and experience, and another to consider it from the perspective of those who worked in the fields. It surprised many of my students that their Harvard and Berkeley-educated professor had any such experience.

I can’t and don’t claim that I grew up or lived on a farm. However, at one point in my childhood, I did get a first-hand glimpse of the experience of truck farming. The expression, “truck farming,” refers to the farming, or more specifically the harvesting, of crops that cannot be mechanized and require the hand-by-hand work of individual laborers. In my case, this involved picking strawberries.

When I was in elementary school in the early 70s, the company my father worked for folded and despite having earned a Ph.D. in chemical physics in a year and a half with post-graduate work at Harvard, he had a difficult time finding work. Out of desperation, he took a position working for a lab in Miami while the rest of my family, having settled in Portland, stayed in Oregon. My mother, who had little formal education—my grandfather had pulled her out of school after junior high declaring she had had enough schooling for a girl—began looking for ways to help our family’s finances. I’m not exactly sure how, but the first summer my father was away, she found out about an opportunity to earn money picking strawberries. I don’t remember exactly what year it was, but I think I was ten, maybe eleven, and my brother, seven or eight. The two of us accompanied my mother to the fields while my older sister looked after my two younger sisters at home.

The day began at night, with my mother waking us around two or three in the morning. We had to get up, eat, make something to bring for lunch and get ready to leave. We’d walk ten or fifteen minutes to a street corner where a bus would stop to pick up any perspective berry pickers for the day. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it was usually a handful of Latino men and us waiting on the corner in the pre-dawn dark. The bus would stop to pick everyone up, wait briefly for stragglers, then proceed to similar street corners in other neighborhoods picking up people. Eventually, after making a tour of Portland’s eastside neighborhoods, we’d cross the Willamette river, follow Highway 26 to the Columbia river, then proceed north and west to the town of Helena, where the strawberry fields were. All total, the trip took about an hour, maybe a little more.

We’d arrive at the fields just as dawn broke. The strawberries were planted in tidy rows that stretched for acres and each day a different section was marked for harvesting. Departing the bus, everyone would grab a flat, find a spot on a row in the marked area, and begin picking. I remember that stores sold strawberries by the container, squarish green plastic wicker baskets filled to the top with berries. A flat consisted of four rows of five of these baskets; in other words, twenty baskets. Needless to say, even picking quickly, which involved picking only berries that were ripe, but not overripe, it took a fair bit of work to fill up a flat. Once it was filled, you would bring it to the overseers who would spot check it for quality, log your completion, then grab another flat and return to the field.

It was good to start at dawn because as the summer sun rose, so did the heat and the brightness of the light. My brother and I brought baseball caps to cover our heads as the day passed and my mother had a brimmed hat that she would tie in place with a light scarf. Even so, the heat would rise to where it was barely tolerable, even when we wet handkerchiefs to wipe our temples and brows; the cool water was, for a fleeting moment, exquisitely refreshing. My brother and I, being kids and not particuarly motivated, would slow down as the morning passed, but my mother would keep picking berries and filling flats all through the day.

Shortly before noon, everyone would take a quick break to drink some water and eat any lunch that they had brought, then go back to the fields to pick for another hour or so. Around one, the bus would pull up and everyone climbed aboard for the trip back to Portland. Most days, because it was so sunny and hot, when we got back to the city limits, the bus would stop a 7-Eleven where those who wanted could buy a drink or some food. It’s probably because of those stops that my brother and I learned to love Slurpees; we were allowed to buy one to share. After 7-Eleven, the bus dropped everyone off at the street corners where it had picked us up. We’d usually arrive at our corner after two in the afternoon and get home just before three. The next day, unless it was a weekend, we’d get up in the middle of the night and repeat the routine.

For me, and I’d guess for my brother, picking strawberries that summer (and possibly the next; I can’t remember) was more of an adventure than anything else. We got to get up early, take a scenic bus ride, and get out of the house. We knew we were picking berries for money, but for us, it was a rare opportunity, as kids, to earn pocket money that we didn’t usually have; with five kids, my parents never gave us allowances. When we encountered an overripe berry while picking, instead of leaving it, we’d usually toss it at the other, initiating a brief but furious flurry of flying berries until our supplies ran out. As a result, we didn’t earn as much money as we might have, and we spent half of that at 7-Eleven on Slurpees, candy, and beef jerky. More importantly, when summer ended, we returned to school, attending classes, learning subjects, and believing that our education would lead us to bigger and better things.

For my mother, I’m sure the experience was far different. She picked berries non-stop because we needed the money. She never spent a penny at 7-Eleven, and when we returned home, while my brother and I would play, watch TV, or do something else that kids did in the summer, she checked after my sisters, made dinner for all of us, washed and cleaned up, then get us all to bed early enough so that she, my brother, and I could get up in the middle of the night to walk to that street corner to wait for the bus to the fields. With her level of education and unfamiliarity with English, berry picking was the only immediate and available option for her to earn money, so she took it. The adventure that my brother and I had in the fields that summer was her version of hands-on childcare, keeping an eye on the two of us so we didn’t get into any trouble in her absence. As much as our family needed the money, the money my brother and I earned, we were allowed to keep; she never once asked for any of it. Occasionally we would overlook our youthful ignorance and share some of our Slurpee or other 7-Eleven booty with her.

Fortunately, after that summer, my mother found a job at one of Portland’s growing high-tech companies, soldering circuit boards on an assembly line. She still had to get up early in the morning and take two buses across town to get to work, and would often get home after dinner time, so we, meaning my older sister, had to learn to cook and fend for ourselves–although my mother would usually have something prepared so we just had to warm it up and make rice in the rice cooker. Her job was minimum wage, but with benefits it was a tremendous step up from making sixty cents a flat picking berries in the fields. The company my mother worked for also offered its employees courses to learn technical and other skills so they could apply for and move up into better jobs. My mother seized the opportunity to continue the education my grandfather denied her and eventually moved into a position designing, instead of soldering, circuit boards. My father also eventually found a position in the same company, accepting an entry-level engineering job to reunite our family in Oregon.

Despite my lack of awareness and perspective at the time about the full circumstances of that summer, I have never forgotten the experience. To this day, when I see a basket of strawberries in the store, I think about the hour it would take to pick twenty of them just to earn sixty cents. I worked other jobs growing up: delivering papers, washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant, shelving inventory at a toy store, before acquiring computer programming and mathematical skills that led to better paying jobs in more comfortable settings. Those jobs, like my experience picking berries, taught me to appreciate the value of work and money you earn yourself; Slurpees have never tasted as good as they did that summer. They also gave me perspective on the jobs I’ve held and the environments I’ve worked in. My education and efforts have earned me those positions, but without the support of my family to take advantage of the opportunities afforded me, I might be standing on a street corner waiting for a bus to take me to pick berries in a field. I sometimes hear people make jokes about day laborers standing on a street corner waiting for work and wonder about their lack of sympathy, dignity and regard for other people; at another time, that was my mother, my brother and me doing what we needed to do for our family. Living in a capitalist system where money can earn more than people, it is important to remember that the basis of society is not wealth, but people looking after themselves and their families. “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money,” Franklin Roosevelt declared in his First Inaugural, “it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.”

When I tell this story to my Asian American history students, I ask them two things. First, to appreciate the value of work, particularly the hard work involved in truck farming, and second, to recognize the differences between my experience and those of Asian Americans historically. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Asian American immigrants provided much of the labor for agriculture—as well as mining, fishing and canning—in the western United States, they had no recourse to the better pay and jobs that education might have opened for them. Some Asian American immigrants had educations, degrees, and skills, but were still denied jobs for which they were qualified and had to settle instead for what opportunities they could find. In that other time, Asian Americans farmed, mined, and canned fish because they had few if any other choices; that might have been my father as well as my mother and none of my siblings or I would not have had the opportunities we’ve had. Even today, many immigrants with similar backgrounds have difficulties because they may not have requisite language skills. These are the ways race and racial categories operate. These are the conditions that structure a racism that we may not see. Beyond personal taunts or insults, they constrain the lives and livelihoods of the few, arbitrarily, often outside the view of those they do not affect.