Thursday, August 13, 2020

Something to Know - 13 August

Casting aside HCR and all the latest news, stop and read about the agricultural economic and social issues surrounding the food that comes from crops and orchards.  If you read all of this article from the NY Times, maybe you will understand all the problems related to the growing and harvesting.   I am not going to suggest how the problems could or should be resolved.  Just understand what all is involved, and you try and figure out what is going on to make an enlightened and humane response.

The Scramble to Pluck 24 Billion Cherries in Eight Weeks

Every single one needs to be picked by hand — even in a pandemic. Seasonal workers say they may be essential, but they feel disposable.

By Brooke Jarvis
Aug. 12, 2020
Consider the cherry. Consider this cherry, actually, this one here, hanging off the tree at the very end of a long, deep green row. Look at how its red and gold skin shines in the bright sun. It's a famous hybrid variety, a Rainier, which means it has sweet yellow flesh and that you'll have to pay a premium price to eat it. If you do, it will be delicious, the very taste of summer. But first it will have to get to you.
So far, this cherry has been mostly lucky. No disease has come for its tree, though there's a bad one, little-cherry disease, stalking nearby orchards. No frost kept its springtime blossoms from giving way to fruit. No excessive rain has fallen in the short time since it ripened.

That could have been a disaster, because water likes to pool in the little divot by the stem. There it seeps into the flesh, making the cherry swell. Too much, and the cherry will burst through its own skin, causing splits; whole harvests can be lost this way. So dangerous is poorly timed water that cherry growers rely on fans, wind machines and even low-flying helicopters to dry ripe fruit before it is lost. Yet wind presents its own peril: It can knock cherries against one another or into branches, bruising them so that they're rejected on the packing line, where fruit is sorted for size and quality with high-tech optical scanners. Rainiers, because of their color, are particularly prone to showing their past with telltale "wind marks," tiny incursions of brownness on that golden skin. This cherry has just a few.

But it's not to market yet. The window in which a sweet cherry can be picked for sale is excruciatingly narrow. Cherries don't continue to ripen once they're off the tree, the way a peach does, and once picked they don't store for very long, even when refrigerated. If they're too ripe, they won't make it to the packing house, the truck or the airplane, the grocery-store display, your summery dessert. The sugar content must be Goldilocksian — neither too high nor too low. Wait even a couple of days too many, and it may be too late.

Paige Hake, the second generation of her family to farm this orchard, considered the cherry. Then she considered its neighbors, with their own wind marks, in the lambent heat of a June afternoon. She looked down the long green row of trees, lined with its strip of white plastic fabric, meant to reflect sunlight onto the undersides of the cherries, helping them color evenly. She consulted with her father, Orlin Knutson, who has been growing fruit on this stretch of dry sagebrush steppe near Mattawa, Wash., for 41 years, the last 31 of them organically. There was a refrigerated truck waiting by the gate, with a growing stack of full bins next to it. There was rain in the forecast, as well as more heat, and sugar levels in the cherries were rising as they spoke. They wanted to get these cherries harvested today; they were far enough along that it was probably now or never, a whole year of investment and work leading to this one afternoon. But it was getting late, and there were a lot of other cherries that needed to be picked, and today the crew of people available to pick them was smaller than they would have liked. She turned to me and pointed to the wind-marked cherry, still unsure whether it would be worth the cost of trying to get it to market. "Would you buy that at Whole Foods?" she asked.
The yellow cherry was one of a great many across the orchards of Washington State that were just beginning to ripen. Karen Lewis, who works with growers as a tree-fruit specialist for the agricultural extension service of Washington State University, has tried to calculate exactly how many individual cherries need to be picked during a whirlwind season that Jon DeVaney, the president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, calls "eight weeks of craziness." Multiplying all the millions of boxes by the number of cherries they can hold, Lewis determined that as many as 24 billion individual cherries must be plucked, separately, from their trees and placed carefully into bags and buckets and bins, each and every one of them by human hands.
Lewis thinks that people who aren't used to thinking much about the source of their food, or who assume that the food system is as mechanized and smoothly calibrated as a factory, spitting out produce like so many sticks of gum, ought to spend some time contemplating that figure and what it means. "I'm here to tell you that people do not think we harvest everything by hand," she says. But hands, belonging to highly skilled workers, are needed for every last cherry. During the harvest, many thousands of people are out picking by dawn, nearly every day, their fingers flying as they watch out for rattlesnakes under dark trees. (Compounding the labor crunch, this is also the time when workers in the region must hand-thin more than 100 million apple trees, so that the remaining fruit can grow larger.) Later in the season, many of the same hands will pick and place each peach and plum and apricot, every single apple — five and a half billion pounds, just of apples, just in Washington, just last year. "I think those numbers are staggering," Lewis said.

The cherry industry has done everything it can to squeeze every possible bit of extra time into the season. Growers plant at a range of different elevations: Every 100 feet above sea level, one orchard manager says, buys you an extra day until maturity. And they choose different varietals that ripen at slightly different speeds — most red cherries are marketed to the public simply as "dark sweets" but are actually a genetically distinct array, whose different sizes and tastes and unique horticultural personalities are intimately known by growers and pickers. If everything bloomed and matured all at once, Lewis said, there's no way there would be enough bees, enough trucks, enough bins, to make the scale of the current cherry harvest possible. Most of all, there wouldn't be enough people. There already aren't.

For years, the tree-fruit industry in Washington — like the salad industry in California, the blueberry industry in New Jersey, the tomato industry in Florida and countless other sources of the things that we eat — has been struggling to find the workers it needs to keep producing food. Across the country, the number of farmworkers is dwindling. Current workers, who are often immigrants without legal permission to work in the industries that are reliant on them, are getting older; those who are able to are leaving an industry that's poorly paid and physically damaging and often exploitative; and crackdowns at the border mean that there are fewer new arrivals to take their place. To cope, some growers have turned to a ballooning visa-based "guest worker" program, which comes with its own significant problems, while many others have simply buckled under debt and rising costs, going under or selling their orchards to ever-bigger companies. "Everyone's squeezed pretty much to the limit," Knutson said, surveying the dark leaves, the shining fruit, the clear blue sky. "It's kind of an ugly time."
Such was the state of things before the coronavirus pandemic arrived, bringing with it a host of new troubles. When I called Lewis early in this year's cherry harvest, she had just sent out a newsletter that, along with the latest updates on cherry disease and apple varieties, included information on suicide prevention. Piled on top of everything else, she said, "this is enough to take people to their knees."

In March, when the United States began to lock down to slow the spread of the new virus, some workers noticed a change in how the government talked about them. As leaders planned for closures, it became clear that many of the lowest-paid and least-respected jobs in America were, in fact, the most important: the ones that could not be paused or interrupted or bypassed if society was to keep functioning. You could not, as Knutson put it, simply close the door to a farm for a month and then reopen it. People who had regularly been called illegal suddenly found themselves rebranded as essential.
Harvest seasons were underway or rapidly approaching across the country; without enough workers, the nation's food would not be produced. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it would "temporarily adjust its enforcement posture," narrowing its focus to people involved in criminal activity rather than arresting anyone who was undocumented. In California, where labor-intensive fruit-and-vegetable crops account for about 85 percent of the state's crop sales, farmers handed out letters that workers who feared attracting the attention of law enforcement by going to work during lockdowns could carry with them: not papers by the usual definition, but a paper to show that they were, informally, and just for now, legitimate by virtue of being indispensable.
In Sunnyside, a city of about 17,000 people in the heart of the fruit belt that follows the Yakima River across south central Washington, this change in perspective felt belated and insufficient. Israel S., a father of four who has worked seasonal jobs in fruit and hops for the last decade, and who asked that his last name not be used because he is undocumented, had a trove of videos ready to pull up on his phone. One was a news report, in Spanish, about crops spoiling in Alabama after a harsh anti-immigrant law went into effect in 2011 and undocumented workers fled the state. (A similar law in Georgia that year may have cost as much as $391 million in unpicked crops, according to one University of Georgia study, even after the state tried to fill the gap with prisoners.) Another video showed endless rows of ice-covered Pink Lady apples, frozen in place on their branches before they could be picked, while mournful piano music played. (It reminded Israel of the previous fall, when there had been so few apple pickers that he sometimes stayed out working until dark, the apples hard and frigid in his hands.) Other farmworkers he knew shared the videos on Facebook, and Israel understood why. They knew their own importance, even if much of the country did not.

It was nearing dinner time, and Israel was in the kitchen of a rented house with his wife, Guadalupe, who was cooking tortillas on a hot plate, and their 18-year-old daughter, Nayeli, who was stretching tired arms. Israel and Nayeli woke up at 2:30 that morning so that they could drive an hour and 20 minutes to a cherry orchard near the Oregon border, arriving well before the sun crested the hills to begin 10 hours of picking. They had done the same every day for 10 days, and would do the same the next day, and again and again, for weeks, until Israel's eyes started to droop as he drove. Each morning, Guadalupe would be up even earlier. When schools and day care centers were open, she would join her husband in the fields, but with them closed, the cost of a babysitter for the younger children would negate most of her day's wages. Still, she got up every day to make fresh tortillas to pack for her husband and daughter's lunches. Nayeli, she teased, didn't like the store-bought kind.
The family was worried about getting sick — other than work, they went out only to pick up food, and a large bottle of hand sanitizer took pride of place in the middle of the plastic-covered kitchen table — but they were also ineligible for stimulus checks or unemployment benefits. There had been no question that those who were able to do so would keep working. There was no question for many people living and working in the valley, with its orchards and vineyards and fruit-packing houses and dairies and meatpacking plants. The virus first spread in more populous and affluent Seattle, on the other side of the mountains, but a lockdown there brought cases down quickly. Here, in Yakima County, the curve of the virus never really flattened; outbreaks spread in meatpacking plants, which the Trump administration prohibited from closing, and the warehouses where workers pack fruit for shipment and sale. (Workers at seven packing houses went on strike to demand more safety precautions and hazard pay, and at least one of the strikers, David Cruz, died of the virus.) In June, cases were rising faster than anywhere else in the state: Though the county was home to just over 3 percent of Washington's population, it would by the next month have 20 percent of its cases. "If you stay home," Israel said, "there is no money for rent."
Israel and Guadalupe are both from Michoacán, one of the poorest states in Mexico. They used to live in New Mexico, then California, then Oregon. Israel worked in restaurants and construction until jobs disappeared in the 2008 recession and friends told him there was opportunity in the fields of Washington. By driving long distances, he can find work most of the year: trimming, thinning, trellising, harvesting. But he wouldn't call it opportunity, exactly. Because of the pressure to work quickly, both he and Guadalupe had been injured falling from ladders and now lived with chronic pain: Israel in his shoulder, Guadalupe in her back. "Supposedly it was better here," he said, "but it's not. There's more work for less money."
Israel was still wearing his work clothes — he was careful not to wash them with his children's clothes, because of the pesticides, which burned his throat — and there was cherry juice smashed into his pants. He'd brought home a large bucket of the fruit that he and Nayeli picked that day, a dark red variety called Coral, which was a nice kind to pick because the cherries are large and fill buckets a bit faster. For each bucket they filled, climbing up and down a ladder they carried from tree to tree, they earned about $3.75. Cherry work is sometimes compared to a casino: If the trees are full and there are few split cherries to pick around, the money can be unusually high for fieldwork, leading people to travel from California and elsewhere just for cherry season. But, Israel said, if trees "don't have much, you're just walking around for hours." Today had been a good day. Not counting the three hours of driving or the cost of gas, he and Nayeli estimated that they each averaged $20 an hour. "You have to go very quickly to earn that," Israel said.
Earlier, wanting to show how hard it was to stretch that money, Guadalupe gave me a tour of the house, the best they could find within their budget. "First, here," she said, pointing down at rough cement as I stepped through the front door, "there is no floor." Israel had pulled up the carpet, so full of rat excrement that the children were getting sick. He'd made other repairs, too, but there was much more that needed fixing: a leaking roof, with mold visible in the ceilings and windows; no working electricity in the back of the house; a shower, kitchen sink and toilet that all drained directly into a puddle in the yard. It cost a thousand dollars a month, plus utilities, and the landlady, who wanted to move into the house herself, was threatening to have the sheriff evict them. Guadalupe concluded the tour in the unlit back hallway. "We are essential, but we are in the shadows," she said. "No one sees us."

She dished out bowls of rice and stew for dinner. The family joked about the familiar indignities of different crops they had worked — the way hops can make your clothes smell like marijuana; how onion cutting requires a dangerous knife "as sharp as a mother-in-law's tongue" and can leave a smell in fabric that lasts a full year; the time a friend of Israel's was so exhausted during the cherry harvest that he fell asleep while picking and knocked his head on a tree branch. Nayeli made fun of the ancient boombox she and her dad sometimes took to the orchards, saying it was nearly the size of an air-conditioner yet still struggled to compete with the music of other workers. "In the orchard, you don't play English music," she said. "The language is Spanish."
Nayeli, who gave a speech at her virtual graduation from high school the week before, had her first job picking cherries, after school and on weekends, when she was 9. But she had no plans to keep following her parents' path. She had won a scholarship from the University of Washington and was saving her income from the cherry season to cover the cost of moving away.

Another steppe, another orchard. This one, between the Snake and Columbia Rivers, held 210 acres of cherries, 220 of apples and 40 of peaches and nectarines. It was the first day of the year's second harvest. Paul Carter, who manages the orchard for the large fruit company Stemilt, surveyed the morning shadows, the sun on the trees. "We've invested, we've pruned, we've irrigated, and we've not got one dime back," he said. "Everything's out there," unpicked and vulnerable.
Carter remembered when he was young and his parents and grandparents used to come to Washington from their home in Arkansas to pick fruit, like lots of people did back then. These days, he added, "I'm the only white boy around here." He was also one of the few people in the orchard who lived locally. Today there were nine pickers who lived in nearby towns, though all came by way of other places (one woman descended a ladder to explain that she lived in Pasco, but wasn't very comfortable being interviewed in Spanish — she was originally from Guatemala, and her native language was Mam). Forty-five others had come from Mexico just for the season, to live and work at the orchards on temporary agricultural visas.
About 10 years ago, the agricultural labor crisis in Washington became so acute that Lewis compared it to a pressure cooker: "We were about to burst." Growers began turning to a little-used program that grants temporary work permits, known as H-2A visas, to foreign farmworkers. A present-day version of the midcentury Bracero program, for years it was used to bring Mexican fieldworkers to California, South American shepherds to the West and Caribbean sugar-cane workers to Florida. Washington State is now the second largest user of the system, which has also expanded rapidly across the country: Last year, the State Department issued 202,025 H-2A visas, compared with 31,892 in 2005. In order to employ workers on H-2A visas, farms are required to advertise for workers locally and come up short; they must also provide housing, transport and a minimum wage to guest workers and local ones alike, so as not to depress wages. These costs mean that growers view H-2A as a last resort, but one that they are turning to more and more. "It's horribly expensive," said Carter, as masked workers picked another block of Rainiers, nestling them carefully into small, protective bins. But the alternative, he continued, is "pure disaster. You're just on the prayer system" at a time when "a farmer's whole destiny is in his ability to get a whole bunch of people."

In March, as the virus continued to spread around the world, the State Department announced that it would suspend visa processing, effectively shutting off the flow of seasonal agricultural workers coming from Mexico. Industry groups and Sonny Perdue, the secretary of agriculture, pushed back with such urgency that the decision was quickly reversed; the State Department announced that the H-2A program would be continued as "a national security priority." It's meaningful, said Daniel Costa, a lawyer and immigration expert at the Economic Policy Institute, that the H-2A system is one of the only parts of the immigration system that hasn't shut down because of the pandemic: "The government has moved heaven and earth to make sure companies can keep employing these workers." Even though the visas were reopened, said Kristin Kershaw Snapp, the director of corporate affairs for Domex Superfresh Growers, another major Washington fruit company, the threat that they might not be was enough to realize how precariously the system was propped up. "That was a very scary 12 hours," she said.

In light of the pandemic, Washington's governor, Jay Inslee, convened committees to draft new safety requirements for agricultural work sites. Social distancing was a particularly fraught issue for H-2A workers, who usually travel in employer-provided vans and live close together in shared housing or hotels. (Other cherry workers are often squeezed into tents, which the cherry industry, in an effort to forestall even worse conditions, has been given unique permission to use for housing.) Unexpected fragility was everywhere: If the state, for example, banned the use of bunk beds, as Oregon had, some farms could lose half of their emergency work force. In the end, Washington allowed bunk beds, though only if workers were organized into "cohorts" of 15, kept separate from other groups and slept head-to-toe to create more distance between their faces. The farmworkers' union Familias Unidas por La Justicia filed a lawsuit, arguing that the rules were a product of industry pressures and not supported by best practices in public health. But the court, which didn't find that the state had acted in an arbitrary or capricious manner, upheld the decision. In May, Lauren Jenks, an assistant secretary for the state health department, told The Los Angeles Times that the cohort system wouldn't remove all risk. "This is just sort of a terrible math right now," she said.
In the Stemilt orchard, a young man from Oaxaca, working on his first H-2A visa, told me the work is "marvelous," the pay far more than he could make at home. When the crew stopped for "lunch" — it was 9 a.m., a sign of how early they started — a 57-year-old from Michoacán, working his 12th annual contract, said that he was glad for wages that had helped pay for surgery for his son and that he had grown used to being able to see his family only part of the year. When he first started coming to the U.S., he often worked alongside local workers, but now he mostly sees other guest workers: "We were few, and with time it's been growing and growing and growing." (A month later, in July, a group of H-2A workers who worked for Stemilt in 2017 sued the company for using what they said was an illegal production quota system, threatening workers with termination if they failed to pick enough apples in a day. A Stemilt spokesman declined to comment, citing unresolved legal proceedings.)
Dan Fazio, a co-founder of the Washington Farm Labor Association, which helps growers bring in H-2A workers, sees the program as a good start toward a legal, well-regulated work force, though he adds that the costs and standards can be burdensome, especially for smaller-scale growers; he would like to see costs for housing passed on to workers, instead. When this year's extra, last-minute requirements were added, he said, "a lot of people threw up their hands and said, 'I can't do it.'"

The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don't know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
Employers have to provide a safe workplace with policies that protect everyone equally. And if one of your co-workers tests positive for the coronavirus, the C.D.C. has said that employers should tell their employees -- without giving you the sick employee's name -- that they may have been exposed to the virus.
What is school going to look like in September?
It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California's two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won't be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation's largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There's no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.

Some worker advocates, by contrast, call H-2A a modern system of indentured servitude. Workers often enter the program heavily in debt, because of travel costs (employers are required to reimburse these, but a recent survey of workers found they often don't) and because of the exorbitant fees they pay to recruiters in their home country. Upon arrival, they are dependent on their employers for their right to be in the U.S., which, coupled with the debt, makes it difficult for them to stand up to unsafe working conditions, wage theft or retaliation. A few years ago when H-2A workers at a blueberry farm in northern Washington called for a work stoppage to protest conditions after a 28-year-old worker fell ill on the job and then died, dozens of them were fired and then deported.

"They're seen as loyal," Costa said, "but it's because they have no other options." This spring, as companies rolled out temporary "hero" pay for front-line workers, and the Trump administration offered billions in aid to farmers and ranchers, it suggested the opposite — a pay cut — for H-2A workers. (So far, there has been no cut.) Florida's governor, Ron DeSantis, blamed his state's skyrocketing cases on "overwhelmingly Hispanic" farmworkers, not stopping to question why they might be unable to stay home or what would happen to the food system if they did.
As workers kept Stemilt's orchards going in April and May, the company used proactive testing and quarantines to contain an outbreak of asymptomatic cases at its H-2A housing; there were no reported deaths. But when harvest season arrived, cases spread at other orchards. In late July, after the virus broke out among workers at Gebbers Farms, one of the state's largest cherry and apple growers and an employer of more than 3,000 H-2A workers, the state began an investigation into conditions at its labor housing, where bunk beds were still in use despite the farm keeping workers in cohorts of 42 instead of 15, as mandated by the state. (A company spokeswoman said that Gebbers applied for a variance to use a larger cohort system and didn't receive a response. After the outbreak began, it reduced its cohort size to 14 people.) As of early August, at least 200 workers showed symptoms or tested positive, and there were two confirmed deaths: Juan Carlos Santiago Rincon, a Mexican in his 30s; and Earl Edwards, a 63-year-old Jamaican. Reached by phone, Edwards's wife, Marcia Smith-Edwards, said that he was placed in the isolation unit on the farm and received no medical care during his illness. (In a statement, the Gebbers Farm spokeswoman said that safety officers checked on sick employees and that thermometers and transport to a hospital were available.) When Smith-Edwards last spoke to her husband, on July 31, he told her, "I am being treated in America like hogs and pigs." Later that evening, she received a call that he had died.

Many local farmworkers have mixed feelings about the system that employs the people they call "los contratados." Some told me they resent that H-2A workers have their housing and transport paid for while they struggle to pay their own bills, that they hear about cases where employers, illegally, pay local workers less than workers on visas. "What about those of us who are already here?" asked Josefina Luciano, a farmworker and advocate who started working in dairies after years in fruit, asparagus and onions. "Why don't you value my work?" Still, when she talked about the contratados — staying away from town in isolated housing, afraid of reprisals for speaking up — her eyes filled with tears. "They're disposable," she said. "Same as us."
One June morning early in cherry season, the sun rose on hundreds of cars and trucks, many of them with California plates, parked along the edge of a long orchard off a dusty road. In the rows of trees, many people were unmasked, working quickly, and clusters formed where they poured cherries from their buckets into bins. Erik Nicholson, a national vice president of the United Farm Workers, stayed on the road, which was public property, and called out to the pickers in Spanish as they carried their ladders from row to row. "How many buckets for you so far?" he asked. "Are they giving you masks?"
I met Nicholson, who lives in Eastern Washington and has worked with farmworkers for three decades, in the parking lot of a corner market at 4 that morning. (Farmworkers were specifically excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, and now fewer than 2 percent of them are unionized, but the U.F.W. sees its role as broad advocacy of their rights.) Nicholson had led negotiations with growers' organizations to help craft the state's new safety regulations, and now he was spending his days on the road, checking on orchards to see if the regulations were being followed. That meant tapping into the informal network — text messages, word of mouth — that local workers use to find the best places for picking. A man who stopped to get coffee had shown Nicholson a text message with the address of this morning's orchard. The drive was at least 45 minutes from his home in Prosser, but word was the picking would be good.

Nicholson checked the portable toilets and hand-washing stations, required this year to be placed every 110 yards instead of the usual 440 (for workers, a long walk is a costly use of time), and found an unusable sink, stuffed with wet paper towels, and bathrooms without any toilet paper. He pointed the mess out to a supervisor, who said a cleaning service would arrive soon; about 20 minutes later, it did. In a few hours, after the state's Department of Labor and Industries opened for the day, Nicholson would file a safety complaint against the orchard owner, Finley Cherries, one of more than 30 reports that he and two colleagues would file about infractions they saw at various farms. (More than six weeks later, he received an official reply to this one: "Could not be substantiated.") At the public talks he sometimes gives, he asks people to hold a strawberry and then to think about the hands that last handled it: Did that person have access to sick leave, to clean bathrooms, to soap and water, to health care? Often, the people he's talking to react by putting the strawberry down.
Many of the orchard workers who talked to Nicholson — cautiously, while supervisors in idling white trucks weren't pointedly watching — were more interested in discussing their pay than the pandemic. A man who looked to be in his 60s complained that the per-bucket rate was lower than he expected. "It's robbery," he said, "but what are we going to do?" At 7:20 a.m., after two hours of work, a group of young men climbed into a pickup truck and drove away. The pay was too low, they said, the picking standards too exacting. Tomorrow, they would return to California, hoping for something better.
Growers and pickers talk differently about the price of farm work. Labor represents an ever-higher percentage of growers' spending — these days, Lewis said, cherry growers spend as much as 75 percent of their annual production costs in the few weeks of their harvest — and their revenue per bin is declining. Fazio shared a common joke in apple circles: Farmers lose money on every box, but don't worry, they're going to make up for it in volume. But pickers, too, are losing. They haven't seen their per-bucket pay go up for at least a decade, even as their costs of living have risen substantially, and despite shortages, farmworkers remain one of the lowest-paid groups in America. Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis, says that when piece rates do not rise with minimum wages, slower workers are squeezed out, leaving the rest to work fast and with higher risks. With H-2A workers, Martin added, "we're getting the N.F.L. of pickers."

Without the power to set prices, growers have struggled to compete with cheaper production costs elsewhere in the world, and more and more of them are leaving the industry. What's left, increasingly, are companies with the size and the money — or, as is becoming more common, with the necessary cadre of outside investors — to adopt expensive new technologies meant to reduce their reliance on people. This trend toward consolidation and automation is longstanding, says DeVaney, of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, but most pronounced in bad years; he expects the financial stress of the pandemic to speed it up. Nicholson says he wonders where that will leave rural communities that have already been hollowed out.
After being asked to leave the orchard, we bought breakfast tacos and ate them in a park, where Nicholson gestured at the trailers across the road, the quiet, dingy downtown down the street. When people are replaced with technology, he said, "the money is not going to stay here. It's going to go to Mountain View or Palo Alto." For fruit such as cherries, Martin expects some combination of three possible futures: more mechanization and ever fewer people; a major expansion of guest-worker programs; and the replacement of American produce with imports. This happened not long ago to the Washington asparagus industry, which largely collapsed in the face of cheaper Peruvian asparagus. Around the world, the portion of food that is imported is rising fast.

It wasn't just the U.S. that panicked when the pandemic threatened migrant labor. In Germany, the government encouraged students and unemployed people to step in after borders closed but ended up allowing experienced workers to be airlifted from Romania and Bulgaria instead. In Britain, where Brexit's impact on migration left 16 million apples to rot last year, the government's patriotic, pandemic-era "Pick for Britain" campaign mostly failed, also leading to airlifts.
Martin quoted a dictum from the economist Varden Fuller that he thinks of often: that modern agriculture depends, for its seasonal labor force, on poverty at home and misery abroad. He has calculated that the cost of raising the wages of farmworkers in the United States by 40 percent, bringing workers above the poverty line, would — even if it were footed solely by consumers — increase a typical household's spending on fresh fruit and vegetables by just $21 a year.
In the early days of the pandemic, there was outrage at images of all the food wasted — rivers of dumped milk, fields of plowed-under potatoes — when restaurants and schools closed, airplanes and cargo ships failed to depart and the workings of the food system were thrown out of whack. DeVaney wondered if shortages and back orders would make people realize how much work and how much vulnerability is hidden when they click an "order" button and groceries show up at their door: Would there be a real effort to make things more resilient? Or would people go back to being "complacent and oblivious?" Kershaw Snapp, of Domex Superfresh Growers, was used to thinking of farmers as eminently adaptable, simply because they dealt so frequently with disaster. (She remembered a time a warehouse burned down overnight, and an alternative plan for storing freshly picked fruit was in place by 8 a.m.) After the virus, though, things suddenly looked different. "Everything is more fragile than I thought it was," she said.
In Sunnyside, Israel and Guadalupe found a new small house, where the plumbing and electricity worked and the deposit was within reach. The workdays stayed long. They had little hope that even the small changes since the pandemic — things like more access to soap in the orchard — would last after it was over. But they could still imagine that things might be different.

One day while talking with the family, I told them that I was also interviewing other people who interact, in different ways, with the cherries they pick: growers, consumers, vendors. What should I ask them? Israel wanted to know if there could be a path to legalization; Nayeli if wages could be raised. But it was Guadalupe who answered the quickest. "If we are important," she said.
Outside, the heat of summer beat down on dry hills and lush orchards alike. Every day, hands filled buckets, buckets filled bins and, one by one, across the state, the cherries were plucked. By the thousands, then the millions and finally the billions — an exuberant bounty corralled into neat, sellable stacks by dusty roadsides.
Eventually, the cherries began to fade, but the peaches and apricots and nectarines grew heavy and ripe and the first of the apples reddened. The virus continued its spread, heat advisories kept children inside and still the fruit was relentless. Every day workers carried their ladders from row to row. Every day the fruit of their labor was stacked into refrigerated trucks and sped away.

Brooke Jarvis is a contributing writer for the magazine. She last wrote a feature about young climate activists.

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

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