Back Forty: Field lessons

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Santa Maria, California, May 18, 2022. Ivan Gallardo’s hands have to work fast, grabbing a bunch of snow peas at a time, without damaging them. Photo by David Bacon.

By David Bacon

Snow peas are a rare crop among the miles of fields devoted to broccoli and lettuce in Santa Maria, in California’s Central Coast. Each of these crops demands from growers its own cycle and system for planting and cultivation, but for workers the labor makes a constant demand — speed. They are paid at a piece rate, and to make any money a person must work so fast that the movement of hands becomes a blur.

Not long ago, I pulled my car to the side of the highway when I saw a crew almost hidden in tall rows of vines. It was a small group, working for a small grower, harvesting snow peas.

The field was planted by Marco Bautista and his father Berto Bautista, the owners of Bautista Farms. But unlike many growers, they don’t own the land under the vines. Marco explained that the family rents three fields next to one another, each planted at slightly different times. As one ripens, the workers go in to pick. By the time they finish that field, the next one is ready. And when workers have come to the last row in the last field, more snow peas are ready in the first field and the cycle starts again. 

In the season between April and October, Bautista says, the crew will pick each field at least eight times. Mark Gaskell, a farm adviser for the University of California Extension, says “the best fields may be picked 15 to 20 times, with three to five days between pickings.” A good snow pea field can yield as much as 10,000 pounds per acre, and in 2020 snow pea exports earned U.S. growers $52.6 million.

Photographing these farmworkers required creating images that get close enough to see the blur of hands or the determined expression on a face — images that allow the viewer to imagine the weight of the filled bucket. I can take the photographs because the farmworkers show me what they do, educating me about this work. They let me into their world.

The crew was working a field along that part of State Route 166 that begins as East Main Street in Santa Maria, and ends as West Main Street eight miles later in Guadalupe. My education about farm labor began along this road decades ago. My teachers were workers like Luis Ayala and Paulino Pacheco. Both were older men born in Mexico, who’d spent their lifetimes as farmworkers on this side of the border. In Santa Maria they’d organized the big lettuce and row crop strikes of 1969 and 1970, and I met them just after I joined the United Farm Workers a few years later.

Luis and Paulino knew that workers often carry a big load of anger into the fields. Paulino remembered going to Delano, in the Central Valley, at the beginning of the great grape strike in 1965, and then coming home to Santa Maria determined to start the farmworker movement there. He collected a few dead cockroaches (not hard in farmworker housing) and took them to work in his shirt pocket the next day. As the morning grew hot he went to the water cooler, put his mouth under the spigot (no paper cups in those days) and then pretended to spit the roaches out. He yelled at the foreman that the water had bugs in it, other workers began shouting, and the strike in that crew was on.

Both Luis and Paulino got blacklisted for their union activity, and worked in the union’s campaigns in the Central Valley for many years afterward. They and the small group of Santa Maria Chavistas (so called because they followed Cesar Chavez, a founder of the United Farm Workers union) were unreconstructed radicals. On my first visit to the house of one farmworker family, I saw a huge picture of Che Guevara on the living room wall.

When I met Luis and Paulino I was a legal worker in the UFW office; my Spanish was still too primitive to be effective as an organizer. In the mornings, they’d take me with them to visit crews working on the 10-mile stretch of fields between Santa Maria and Guadalupe. I learned something about organizing, but even more about work. As a city boy from Oakland, seeing the labor close up was a revelation. I’d been a printer, and the repetitive motions of work in the factory are not unlike those in the field. But the pace demanded by work on the piece rate, for workers cutting lettuce or stripping snow peas from vines, was something else again.

That road, where I found the snow pea harvesters, continues to be a school for me, as I’ve gone back to take photographs and talk with the people in the rows. Marco Bautista and the workers explained not just the cycle of work, but the impact of the plants on the soil, and on the people who will eat them. At the end of the season these snow pea vines will be plowed under. Snow peas concentrate nitrogen in their root nodules, so their fields can be rotated with other crops that will use what the peas put back into the earth.

Picking snow peas benefits humans as well. One cup fulfills the daily requirement for Vitamin C, so they’re healthy both for consumers and the land. And snow peas are delicious. They can be eaten whole, and in fact are called mange tout in French, meaning “eat it all.” In Chinese they’re called he lan do, or Holland pea. We think of them as a common ingredient in Chinese dishes, but the fruit (peas are fruits rather than vegetables) was first cultivated around the Mediterranean, and later adopted with enthusiasm by Chinese cooks in the 1800s. From China the peas made their way to Santa Maria, where Mexican hands pull them from vines and pack them into boxes for restaurants, food co-ops, even Safeway.

These photographs — you can see the full set on my blog — are a reality check on who and what it takes to get the snow pea from the field to the plate. The next time you see the pods on the market shelf, I hope these images will help you imagine what the work looks and feels like.