Harvesting Under Smoky Skies

Aug 26, 2020

With sheer precision, a farm worker harvests a row of strawberries. He tosses the bruised berries that won’t sell on the ground, the others into plastic packaging. It’s hard work, even without a pandemic and wildfires. 

 

About ten days ago, the River Fire broke out near Salinas and air quality turned hazardous.

No matter smoky skies, heat, rain, or the coronavirus, the people who harvest our food face the elements everyday. Staying home isn’t an option when your paycheck depends on how much you pick. 

Jesus Ahumada, an ag foreman, oversees a team of 65 people. They begin the day at an organic field off River Road. 

The sky is grey and smoke is in the air. Last week, it was much worse. The sun glowed orange and ash rained down.

“It hurt our sinuses, the smoke was so thick,” said Ahumada in Spanish, translated by Bob Gomez.

Ahumada made the call to stop work for one day. 

“We decided to tell the supervisor we had to stop working because the smoke was really too intense,” he said. 

This week, air quality has improved. The farmworkers had on cloth face coverings to protect themselves and others against COVID-19.
Credit Erika Mahoney

Henry Gonzales knows first-hand what this job takes. He was a migrant farm worker when he was a child. Now, he’s the agricultural commissioner for Monterey County. 

As we stand looking out over the field, I overhear Gonzales tell Ahumada, “you’re a really good supervisor.” 

Jesus Ahumada, an ag foreman, and Henry Gonzales, the agricultural commissioner for Monterey County, look out over the strawberry field.
Credit Erika Mahoney

As a farmworker snaps the packages of strawberries closed, Gonzales said showing up to this job can be a risk. But the fruits and vegetables don’t wait. 

“They're ready when they're ready,” Gonzales said. “And if you're not there to harvest them, they're going to go to waste.”

Gonzales hurried to collect N-95 respirators for farm workers after the fire broke out. The California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) has a stockpile of PPE for essential workers. 

The state has shipped close to 1.4 million N-95 masks to county agricultural commissioners in 35 counties, Cal OES spokesperson Brian Ferguson said. And since Friday, close to 455,000 N-95s have been distributed by ag commissioners for wildfire smoke protection. 

Gonzales said his office has distributed over 150,000 of them to local farm workers within the past week. 

“So those were, I think, really a godsend that we were able to get those considering their scarcity,” he said. “The healthcare field, so many different industries need the N-95s. And we're just very fortunate to have the ability to get those for us as well.”  

Gonzales has asked for about 300,000 more since wildfire season is just beginning.

Social distancing signs mark the entrance to the field.
Credit Erika Mahoney

This year has been a series of adapting to new challenges. Just a few months ago, Gonzales was searching for surgical masks for local farm workers to protect them from the coronavirus. His office has distributed over half a million. As of Wednesday, 1,647 agricultural workers in Monterey County have been sickened with COVID-19. So far, they make up over 20 percent of those in Monterey County who have contracted COVID-19. 

“It's been a tremendously difficult year,” Dr. Caroline Kennedy said. 

Kennedy is the medical director of the Clinic Services Bureau at the Monterey County Health Department. The 10 community health centers treat about 650 people a day.

Kennedy cares for farm workers and their families, who are vulnerable to the virus. She says often, they go home to congested living situations and everyone in the family gets infected.

“I’m frequently testing people who tell me there's no work, there’s no money,” Kennedy said.  

When you’re behind on bills, not showing up to work is a tough choice.

“Do you stay home when the air quality doesn't make you feel well, or do you just go back to work?” Kennedy said.  

Farm workers are paid at least minimum wage. If they pick beyond a certain number of crates, they are paid by the crate.
Credit Erika Mahoney

Farmworkers are paid at least minimum wage, but earn more money the more crates they fill.

Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales says going forward, he wants to have a stockpile of N-95s set aside for local workers.  

“At the ready and not having to order them from some faraway place and take 10 to 14 days to get here. And by then, it's too late,” Gonzales said. “We really need to have supplies of those on hand.”