Hard work, low pay: What it's like to be an undocumented farm worker

A first-person narrative of life in the fields

By Lindsay Abrams

Published November 7, 2013 5:44PM (EST)

Modern Farmer, written for "anyone who wants to know more about how food reaches their plate," debuted a new series of confessionals from agricultural workers. The first installment features Odilia Chavez, a 40-year-old undocumented farm worker in Madera, Calif. (Chavez OK'd the use of her full name, explaining: "Agriculture is dependent on undocumented workers. We need the money from the farmers, and the farmers need our hands.")

Chavez, who's been working in the fields since 1999, has encountered sexual harassment and attempts from contractors to take advantage of her undocumented status. But her account of the day-to-day toil that goes into farm work is striking in and of itself:

I’d never worked in a field. It was really hard at first — working outdoors with the heat, the daily routine. But I’ve certainly learned. In a typical year, I prune grapevines starting in April, and pick cherries around Madera in May. I travel to Oregon in June to pick strawberries, blueberries and blackberries on a farm owned by Russians. I take my 14-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son with me while they’re on their summer break. They play with the other kids, and bring me water and food in the field. We’ll live in a boarding house with 25 rooms for some 100 people, and everyone lines up to use the bathrooms. My kids and I share a room for $270 a month.

...The work is hard — but many jobs are hard. The thing that bothers me more is the low pay. With cherries, you earn $7 for each box, and I’ll fill 30 boxes in a day — about $210 a day. For blueberries, I’ll do 25 containers for up to $5 each one — $125 a day. With grapes, you make 30 cents for each carton, and I can do 400 cartons a day – $120 a day. Tomatoes are the worst paid: I’ll pick 100 for 62 cents a bucket, or about $62 a day. I don’t do tomatoes much anymore. It’s heavy work, you have to bend over, run to turn in your baskets, and your back hurts. I say I like tomatoes — in a salad. Ha. With a lot of the crops, the bosses keep track of your haul by giving you a card, and punching it every time you turn in a basket.

"I do have a lot of pride in my work, though," Chavez adds. "It can be fun. We joke around." Her entire story is worth reading over at Modern Farmer.

Lindsay Abrams

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Agriculture California Farmers Undocumented Immigrants