By Elizabeth Henderson
Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, service berries, elderberries, jostaberries – some of the tastiest and most healthful foods that Nature provides. I am an avid berry picker. To be a good picker, you have to switch your awareness to berry-mode. You stand near the bush or crouch near the plants and focus on the color of ripe berry – red with no white spots for strawberries, deep blue with no green showing for blueberries. Then your hands dart out and grab them – ever so gently. You can only cradle a few in your palm or you crush them. You disregard the stabs from thorns, the stain of dark juice on your skin. Your hands dart back and forth from bush to basket.
You fill it till just before the berries are about to cascade to the ground. Then you grab another container. This is fun for an hour and not too tiring for half a day. But it’s very different if you have to keep picking for 12 – 14 hours, day after day. When you do this for a living, payment is by the pound or the pint – piece work that puts you under pressure to pick as fast as you can without taking a break. Legally, even a slow picker must be paid minimum wage per hour, but an unethical employer can find many ways to underpay.
There are machines for picking blueberries – but the machine picks all the berries at once, whether ripe or not, and then someone has to sort out the unripe berries and bits of stem. No one has yet invented a machine to pick strawberries – human pickers, hunched over or on their knees, crawl along the rows of low-growing plants to seek out the ripe treasures. The Swanton Berry Farm, famous as the first organic strawberry farm and for inviting the United Farm Workers to unionize its workers, has found a way to mound the strawberry beds so that the workers do not have to stoop as low, and the work day starts with warm up stretches.
The biggest supplier of berries to area food stores is Driscoll, a company which has grown from a farm to a large broker, sourcing berries from hundreds of farms around the planet. Thanks to the services of Driscoll, you can eat berries all year round, shipped from Baja, Mexico in the south to Washington State in the north or even from the other side of the planet from farms that have thousands of acres of berries and hire thousands of workers to pick them. The biggest grocery chain in the Rochester area (hint, name begins with W), has mountains of these berries. The Abundance Coop mainly carries berries from other sources or local farms.
Familias Unidas por La Justicia, a small, grassroots union of berry pickers in Washington State, has called for a boycott of Driscoll, with support from Community Alliance for Global Justice, Seattle, and Community-to-Community Development, Bellingham.
Since 2013, this union has led workers at Sakuma Brothers Farm near Bellingham, WA, on a strike, claiming that the farm is guilty of wage theft and of intimidating workers who attempted to unionize and retaliating against them. The charge of intimidation is substantiated by the July 2013 restraining order against Sakuma handed down by Skagit County Superior Court Judge John M. Meyer. The June 2014 court settlement on behalf of the workers, substantiates their claims of wage theft. District Court Chief Judge Marsha Pechman approved a settlement of $850,000 for back pay for workers who were undercompensated between 2010 and 2013, and in 2013, in a private settlement with the union, Sakuma offered $6,000 in back pay for 30 farmworker youth, some as young as 12 years old, who work as berry pickers.
Familias Unidas also won a case to require farms in Washington to pay workers for their legal break time. Despite Driscoll’s stated policy of supporting workers’ right to unionize, the company continues to buy berries from Sakuma Brothers Farm.
The latest news is that Sakuma has agreed to meet with Familias Unidas por La Justicia on July 14. On July 11, the union is holding a march to show community support for their cause. For those of you near enough to join, they will gather in the parking lot at the corner of Cook Road and Old Highway 99 in Burlington, WA and then march to the Sakuma Brothers Farm Processing Plant for a rally. For the most recent updates, you can view the videos posted on the Community2Community Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Community2Community/ or see the Familias Unidas Por La Justicia Facebook page.
Update: the meeting did take place and both sides said it was “positive.” There is still no agreement on a union contract.
In the Rochester area, berry patches on farms range from half an acre to ten acres. Nobody has to strain their back crouched over for 12 hours in a row, day after day to harvest these berries. If you only ate local berries in season, you could start your annual berry feast with strawberries in June, blackberries early July, blueberries July – October, red raspberries from early July till even as late as early November. You can buy them at the Abundance Coop, an area farmers’ market or go to a U-pick farm and pick some yourself. You can gorge on this delicious fruit – when it is at its peak of flavor and nutritional quality. You can freeze some or make jam, jelly or juice to save for the winter. And then wait till berries are in season again. How wonderful they taste!