Who’s picking your produce?

Author Seth Holmes (center) with Triqui family in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico.
Author Seth Holmes (center) with Triqui family in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico.

I may be delirious from lack of sun, but, yes, I’m already starting my countdown to Washington’s Skagit Valley strawberries. I’m dreaming of a leisurely mid-morning stroll at farmer’s market concluding in a well-spent $2.50 for a quart of the sweet, satisfying red gems that are soooo much better than the ones from California.

But while $2.50 isn’t much for many Seattleites, the low price masks a far greater cost for the farm workers who pick the strawberries. Exposure to pesticides, summer heat, and knee, back and hip pain, are just a start.

Washington native Seth Holmes spent five years conducting research among undocumented farm workers in Skagit Valley berry farms. He found a disturbing state of affairs that would sour anyone’s strawberries.

The workers — mostly Triqui people from Oaxaca, Mexico — must work frantically with no breaks in order to pick the amount of strawberries necessary to fulfill their contracts (ironically, in part thanks to Washington’s high minimum wage). At the time of his research, that equated to about 50 pounds of strawberries every hour. To exacerbate the stress, if they missed the weight quota for the day, they could be fired for the next day.

In recent years, more Washington farms have signed up for the federal H-2A guest worker program citing labor shortages. But, while workers under the H-2A program often make more money — $12 an hour is the current wage requirement for Washington — this puts more pressure on both farm workers facing increased quotas, and farm owners facing shrinking profit margins.

According to Holmes, this feverish pace of work leads to 40-year-old farm workers who have the arthritis of 70-year-olds.

Holmes is a medical anthropologist in the vein of Partners in Health’s Paul Farmer.

freshfruit_coverIn his new book “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States” he takes on the social structures that bring American citizens fresh, local, healthy produce at low cost, but produces suffering for the Triqui.

Holmes documented the workers’ dangerous migration, traveling with them from Oaxaca across the Arizona border, where many were arrested. He meets up with them again in California, where they worked in Madera County, and on to the Skagit Valley, where he picked berries with them in the shadow of Mt. Baker.

Publication of Holmes’ book last summer happened to coincide with a push by the farmer workers’ movement for a boycott of Sakuma Brothers Farms’ berries. His disturbing discoveries only added fuel to the fire.

In the book he writes that workers suffer from insomnia, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, tuberculosis, liver and kidney disease, and HIV infection, among others. Several studies indicate risks of obesity, tobacco use, alcohol use, illicit drug use, mental illness, suicide and homicide.

To compound the issue, research estimates that less than a third of migrants have health insurance, while only 13 percent are served by the federal Migrant Health Program. Of course, as undocumented workers, they are also excluded from standard worker’s compensation programs.

Holmes’ book examines the social structure on the farm, from the farm owners to the supervisors (often Latinos from Texas) to the farm workers who are almost entirely Triqui indigenous.

His findings even look at why the Triqui people are always left to strawberry picking — one of the hardest types of agricultural labor. A more privileged farm worker job is harvesting apples, but Triqui people never get those jobs.

He had supervisors explain to him that strawberry pickers have to be “lower to the ground” like the Triqui and that they “like working bent over.”

He noticed that Triqui people don’t wear gloves while they work despite signs (in English) declaring that insecticides were being sprayed. He asked if they were concerned, but “[they] say that their bodies are stronger than white people so the pesticides don’t bother them.”

He also examines how the North American Free Trade Agreement has prohibited Mexico from placing tariffs on U.S. imports, while allowing subsidies in American agriculture, thereby giving a competitive advantage in the global market to American farmers, displacing farmers like the Triqui, who traditionally farmed maize back in Oaxaca.

But Holmes’ point goes beyond the politics to how physicians actually treat immigrant patients. He gives the example of a farm worker, who gets severe headaches unless he drinks 20-24 beers. When he sees the doctor, the treatment’s emphasis is for the man to work on his behavioral issues rather than considering how the man’s problem had come to this in the first place, considering the insecurity of illegal migration, low status in the social structure, stressful pace of work, etc.

“Without being trained to consider social structures and hierarchies, [doctors] only see biological and behavioral determinants,” said Holmes. “Well-meaning physicians are blaming the wrong things — inadvertently blaming the victim instead of the social structure.”

While it does all eventually come back to the strawberries, it goes beyond simply being willing to pay more than that $2.50 a quart.

Holmes’ conclusion is a need to change misguided perceptions about migrant workers and the conditions they can tolerate, which have become normalized in society. This means a conscious shift in thinking by everyone — from the Triqui themselves, to health workers, farm owners and managers, politicians, and yes, also consumers.

You can hear Seth Holmes reading from “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies” at Elliot Bay Books at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 25.