California’s family strawberry farms are a special place where the state’s 55,000 on-farm strawberry workers are united by the core value of hard work for a better life. Read one farmworker’s story about how she started out as a strawberry picker and is now thinking about how she plans to send her children to college.
Strawberry farming is responsible for 70,000 jobs in the state, and provides steady work that immigrants can count on to feed their families a build a better life in America. Hear from Norma, a Salinas crew supervisor who started off picking strawberries.
Every California strawberry is hand-picked and packed in the field. One of the hardest jobs, farmers understand that without the hard work and commitment of the people working year-round to harvest their berries, that producing and distributing 90 percent of the nation’s strawberries would be impossible.
A few highlights captured from our visit with Bee:
Who knew that some of the most delicious strawberries in the world are grown on a tiny little farm in the little town of Turlock, California?
Nearly 30 years ago, Bee Yang’s father immigrated from Laos to pursue his dream of owning his own business and sending his five kids to college. And that’s exactly what he did after becoming a strawberry farmer in the Central Valley. Now the only strawberry grower in Turlock, Bee has recently taken over the family business after his parents recent retirement, including running their little roadside stand during the summer.
Bee and his wife, Dua, are happy to sell their strawberries directly to customers alongside their small field. Bee says he loves to hear directly from local strawberry lovers about how the berries taste.
Hector Gutierrez is a first-generation strawberry farmer from Oxnard, California. He exemplifies environmental responsibility in California strawberry farming.
Growing up in an agricultural family in the Central Valley, Hector developed a profound respect for the land and a desire be a steward of the environment. He initially farmed vegetables, but several decades ago gravitated to “the pinnacle of what I wanted to do” – growing strawberries.
In addition to being a farmer, Hector is a licensed pest control advisor who understands integrated pest management strategies. He is committed to employing sustainable farming practices, which include a wide range of organic and conventional methods. Some of his sustainable practices include:
- Limiting pesticides with use of a bug vacuum to remove harmful insects.
- Plants flowers to attract beneficial insects.
- Uses fish emulsion as an environmentally friendly fertilizer.
- Participates in cutting-edge research to see a further reduction in pesticide use.
Hector says he has learned a lot from organics, and says, “The public has a misperception about we farm. We only use pesticides if we have to – and even then, as judiciously as possible.”
A while back I had the pleasure of spending a day with Delfina and Donato Olivera, a married strawberry farmer couple from Santa Maria. Not only did I have the pleasure of learning about them and their family, I also learned how to make Oaxocan Mole from Delfina who made this wonderful dish for us after a long day in the field. Be sure to check out the link to the recipe below after getting a glimpse into this wonderful couple.
“If I can get up, then I can continue.” – Donato Olivera
In the mid 90s Donato and Delfina were a young married couple picking strawberries to support themselves and their families. They were hard workers, determined to make ends meet and raise a happy and healthy family.
Today, Donato and Delfina are parents to five grown children, and grow strawberries on 140 acres in Santa Maria, California. With five kids all pursuing degrees and careers in environmental science, law and political science, there’s no doubt their children have inherited their parents’ spirit of hard work, determination and dedication.
With 13 years of experience growing strawberries – and just about the same amount of time picking – Donato and Delfina have evolved into farmers who care deeply for the land, their community, and the 130 people who work for them. Donato says the most rewarding part of his job is the bond they share with the workers. “We don’t treat our team like they are employees – we treat them like they are family.” Delfina has learned different Mixtec dialects to communicate with their employees so they feel included and respected. They both agree there is further reward in working outside and growing a crop that the world enjoys.
While the rewards are many, the challenges – especially of the past – are not easily forgotten. Donato and Delfina recall the struggles they had getting their ranch up and running, working seven days a week with only four employees, while managing a family of small children. With only two acres, they weren’t making much money, and as immigrants from Oaxaca, Mexico, they had the additional challenge of adjusting to a second language and a new culture. But they overcame the obstacles and are proud of the journey.
That same journey continues as they face new challenges with the ever changing and unpredictable farming environment. In recent years they lost an entire crop due to inclement weather and didn’t make a profit. Despite seasons like that, and knowing that “everything can be lost,” the Oliveras remain passionate about farming and plan to continue for years to come. Donato’s motto is, “If I can get up, then I can continue.”
They also lean on each other for inspiration and motivation. As partners in life and farming, the couple seems inseparable. When asked what it’s like to both work and live together, Delfina laughs and says it helps that they do very different jobs – and work at different locations on the ranch.
Strawberry farming leaves the husband and wife team little time to travel or pursue other interests, but family time is highly valued. Delfina loves to cook for her family and is known for her Oaxacan mole, homemade tortillas and salsa. We were fortunate enough to enjoy her chicken mole when we were graciously invited to their home for dinner. Delfina’s delicious recipe can be found here.
Donato plays guitar with a band called “Sin Nombre” (Without Name), comprised of friends and family. The band, well-known in the Mixtec community, plays at family events for special occasions such as weddings and birthdays.
It’s always a pleasure to meet the farmers that help protect the health and beauty of California’s breathtaking Central Coast region. Glen Hasegawa, a third-generation strawberry farmer in Oxnard, California is one of those people. Here are few things Glen shared with us recently while visiting his ranch.
“All of us consider ourselves stewards of the land. We enjoy what we do and want to preserve our farmland – and not cash out. We all live here in the communities. We eat the same fruit. Breathe the same air. We farm in a way that shows we are good neighbors in the community.”
If you could imagine a big silver pick-up truck cruising down a southern California coast highway with a German shepherd on one side of the truck and a surfboard sticking out the other side, you have a fairly accurate picture of what Oxnard strawberry Grower, Glen Hasegawa looks like on any given day. It’s just not always immediately clear if he’s heading to the beach to squeeze in a surf session or on his way to check on the status of his strawberries at one of his gorgeous strawberry fields.
A third generation California strawberry farmer, Glen’s grandfather – and then father – laid the groundwork (literally) back in the 1960’s for what Glen now considers his life. What started out as a small, 15 acre farm has now blossomed into a 600-acre family business. And it looks like there’s no end in sight to this family tradition, with most of his family in the business and signs that the next generation is poised to take the helm in the years to come.
Strawberry farming is a natural occupation for Glen who thrives on working with people and being outdoors in the elements. He appreciates working in the fresh air and has no problem dedicating about 50-60 hours a week needed to successfully grow strawberries. When it comes to the people, he says he loves working with his employees and says that harvest workers are the “hardest working, most humble and honest people around.” He feels committed to the workers who are an integral part of his operation and feels a strong sense of giving back. Glen contributes to the California Strawberry Scholarship Fund and personally assists some of his field workers with their children’s college tuition. He also lends a hand by purchasing books and other necessities related to school costs.
With all the industries Glen could have gone into, his heart and his passion has always been grounded in growing strawberries, and after 25 years he still looks forward to farming every day. His face lights up with a smile when he talks about the anticipation he feels about seeing the very first strawberry of each season. He appreciates all things that grow and thinks it’s always fascinating to nurture plants – especially strawberries – through the various stages of growth.
But while it can be one of the most rewarding jobs in the world, Glen – like all growers – is well aware of some of the challenges. One annoyance is the problem of birds that flock each season and each day to eat the berries – in particular the seeds. “It’s amazing to find berries that are missing all the seeds because the little birds swoop down and can take all the seeds without even breaking the skin of the strawberries.” His solution to this problem is to have a person on each field devoted to distracting the birds away from the strawberries.
And of course there’s the weather. Glen says that strawberry farmers are the biggest gamblers and relates the occupation to playing high stakes games in Las Vegas. He explains that it’s like putting everything down with the risk of losing it all because of circumstances completely beyond your control. For example, he talks about how one good rain can wipe out an entire month’s crop and says, “You can’t do anything about bad weather and that’s one of the toughest things about this job. To lose something that you’ve grown from a tiny little plant is very disappointing and stressful.”
But despite these challenges, Glen firmly believes that the “good aspects outweigh the bad by a long shot,” and that these types of problems are trivial compared to the joy he experiences when he looks out over his acres of beautiful red berries that he raised from little plants. And it turns out, Glen doesn’t just have a passion for growing and gazing at strawberries, but for eating the sweet and juicy wonders. He admits to noshing down about a small basket of strawberries a day.
Glen’s philosophy for growing strawberries lines up with his overall attitude in life. He firmly believes that if you pour goodness and hard work into your passion that good karma will help balance out the things you can’t control, like weather.
If Glen weren’t a farmer, he says he’d still be growing things. Although he has a staff that handles the day-to-day planting, plowing and harvesting, he says he still enjoys jumping on a tractor every now and then.
When he’s not growing California strawberries, Glen likes to travel and check out a baseball game when he can. He’s a Dodgers fan during baseball season and when basketball rolls around, it’s all about the Lakers. An avid surfer, one of his favorite things to do is hop in his truck with Sparky – his 100 lb. German shepherd “puppy” and head to the beach.