THE CENTRAL VALLEY
Reedley High School and Madera High School are located approximately in the center of the vast Central Valley of California, measuring 450 miles long and 40 to 60 wide, for a total of 22,500 square miles, from Shasta County in the north to Kern County in the south. The Central Valley is slightly smaller than the state of West Virginia.
Aside from its large size, the Central Valley is primarily well known for its agriculture output. It is one of the world’s most productive agriculture regions. In 2011, the annual agriculture output was $17 billion according to the American Farmland Trust. This expansive agriculture land, with nearly one-third of the US domestic harvest, has earned the name of breadbasket of the country. There are approximately 450,000 farms that produce a variety of crops, ranging from grapes to nuts, from corn to strawberries. The largest almond production in the world (77%) comes from the Central Valley and the grape product is larger than the Napa Sonoma.
The Central Valley became better known with the book, “The Grapes of Wrath”, written by the famous author, John Steinbeck (1902-1968). Steinbeck narrates the miseries of immigrants from the Dustbowl, who came west to the Central Valley of California during the Great Depression of 1929-1930. Unfortunately, the deplorable working conditions described in the book have not changed much today. The only visible change is the field laborers who are primarily from Mexico.
The number of farmworkers who plant, raise, and harvest this immenseagriculture land is unknown, but the farm work gets done producing billions of dollars in profits year after year. These poor farmworkers who live in the shadows have not profited from this land of billions because they continue to earn low wages.
In September 1955, Juan Garcia brought his wife and nine children to Parlier in the Central Valley. During that time the Valley was recruiting field laborers outside of California in order to harvest the bountiful grape crop before it spoiled. In hot scourging conditions, Juan, his wife, and their older children picked raisin and wine grapes. The family worked by “piecemeal” or “contracted”, not by the hour. For raisins it is called “on the table”, which is actually just a large sheet of brown paper where the laborer places fresh grapes that dry into raisins. In 1955, Juan and his family earned 6 cents a table. Today farmworkers get 45 cents a table, which is still below minimum wage. It is to the advantage of the growers to pay piecemeal because the field laborers work faster and the product gets to the market on time before it over ripens and spoils. Sadly, working faster for the farmworkers does not get them more money. They are lucky to make the minimum wage. According to the American Farmland Trust, farmworkers make around $11,000 to $16,000 per year. Besides low wages and no health insurance for most, farmworkers are exposed to fertilizers, harmful pesticides, and extreme weather conditions. Tragically, every year during the summer a few field laborers die from extreme heat.
The Central Valley crop productivity continues to rise each year but the lives of farmworkers who make this possible remain in poverty. The field workers, with little or no voice, remain the weakest link in the production chain. This mega agriculture industry depends on these hardworking field laborers to raise and harvest the crops, yet they continue to live in poverty and in the shadows.