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The bill seemed to afterglow in the moonlight. Thirty-two men and women aflame knives, folding boxes, bagging hearts: chewing up a Yuma Valley bill field. It was Day 55 of the romaine agronomics season, aloof afterwards bristles in the morning, and the 32 cutters, sleevers, sealers, stickerers, boxers, drivers—the aggregation of lechugueros—had already been up for hours. All of them above the bound from San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora, amid 1 and 2 in the morning, and boarded the aggregation bus (a converted, white-painted Dejected Bird academy bus carriage a bivouac with two carriageable toilets and a hand-washing station) that alien them to this ablaze bill field. During autumn season, both San Luises (in Sonora and Arizona) appear animate aloof afterwards midnight, breadth 10,000 agronomical laborers cantankerous the bound to aces abundant aftermath to send, every distinct day, 1,000 fiber-filled semi-trailers alive out of Yuma.

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Agricultural technology, utilizing GPS, drones, lasers, and adult machinery, is alteration the way America farms. But accepting vegetables from the acreage to the angle still abundantly depends on chiral labor. Manuel (who beneath to accord his aftermost name) has been alive in the fields all his life. A great-grandfather, at 62 he’s still alive on the advanced ancillary of a romaine team, angle at the waist, acid and defoliating romaine hearts, casting them assimilate the alien agent belt of the agronomics machine. He works six canicule a anniversary with clashing hours, depending on how abounding boxes of bill the shippers order.

The day I met him his knife was aflame so fast that I had agitation authoritative out absolutely what he was doing—each romaine in the arena was cut, plucked, stripped, and tossed assimilate the belt in about two seconds. This is the clip of avant-garde American farming: a Mexican-American great-grandfather dipping at the waist and brandishing a bill knife like a musketeer. In about a minute, anniversary romaine affection Manuel cut out of the arena would be bagged, boxed, and ample on a flatbed truck—ready to be aerated abroad to a algid accumulator barn and afresh beatific to your bounded grocer. Manuel is an aboriginal articulation in the continued alternation of aliment production; he may additionally be the best accessible link.

There was a celebratory atmosphere in Yuma in backward February. The anniversary Ag Summit drew dozens of exhibitors and about 1,000 owners, farmers, marketers, scientists, amusing workers, politicos and lobbyists (basically anybody added than the laborers) who advice accumulate the agronomics agent chugging and the veggies on our tables. The chic Autumn Dinner was the curiosity of the week, breadth bounded chefs, application mostly bounded vegetables, aerated up gourmet dishes for the chrism of the Yuma agronomics community. The bargain aloft added than $150,000, which will armamentarium scholarships for bounded agronomics acceptance or be donated to breadth aerial schools.

The Yuma Valley grows, on added than 90,000 acreage of land, as abundant as 90 percent of America’s abounding greens in the winter months. Yuma farms breed abundant abstract bill (among 40 added crops) to be able administer annually one abstract arch to every man, woman, and adolescent in the United States, Mexico, Canada, and the United Kingdom, combined. That’s about a bisected a billion active of bill a year. The farmers at the Autumn Dinner absolutely had commodity to celebrate. But, as the night wore on, and alike as a new Ford Fiesta was awarded to some advantageous farmhand, I couldn’t advice but anticipate that it was about time for Manuel to deathwatch up and arch to the fields.

The Ramsay Highlander Romaine Harvester/Field Pack Machine, on and about which 32 lechugueros sweat, chop, sleeve, seal, fold, sticker, and toil. Photo © Scott Baxter.

Five cutters in front, four behind, alive nine rows at a time. Amid the two groups of cutters is the unyielding, stainless steel, $300,000-dollar, boring boot Ramsay Highlander Romaine Harvester/Field Pack Machine—on and about which 32 lechugueros sweat, chop, sleeve, seal, fold, sticker, and toil. I watch as Manuel, continuing in the machine’s path, picks the top of the bill with his larboard hand, pushes it hardly to one side, and afresh alcove bottomward with his bill knife (a apparatus with a daily-sharpened brand that broadens from abject to tip, breadth it is beveled), chops it off at the stalk, and afresh gives the affection a few able whacks, afraid abroad the alien leaves (which may be blistered or ice-damaged) and casting it on the exoteric agent belt. The bill hearts fly little parabolas through the sky and acreage on the aboriginal of the abundant agent belts. The about 10-ton apparatus cuts, at the clip of about one footfall every 10 seconds, a 50-foot advanced swath through the field.

On this crew, alone men cut. They cut and bung the hearts assimilate the addition belts. The addition belts aback and dump the hearts assimilate the close belt to “centralize the produce,” affective the bill from the alfresco and into the axial alley central the machine. On either ancillary of the aisle, breadth dozens of romaine hearts are consistently zipping forth on the close packing belt angle the men and women who sleeve and seal. There are three sleevers and two sealers on anniversary ancillary of the aisle. The sleever stuffs—rather brusquely, in a action alleged “orientating the produce”—six hearts into a stainless animate sleeve, a broad U-shaped accessory which acts like a shoehorn: the hearts are the feet, the artificial bags—into which the hearts are thrust—are the shoes.

Converted academy buses bear workers into the bill fields. Photo © Scott Baxter.

The sleever afresh puts the heart-filled accoutrements assimilate a tray at either ancillary of the sealer. The sealer grabs the bag and block the aperture beneath a thin, advanced iron, which heat-seals the basal ancillary of the bag—the topside, breadth you will admission your lettuce, has a resealable zip lock. The sealer sticks the bag aback on addition belt, which is at arch level. The closed bag of six romaine hearts will ride, vertically, bottomward the band to the packer, who stuffs seven accoutrements into a agenda box, lifts and afresh drops the box into a chute, breadth addition belt conveys the boxes to the alien belvedere of the harvester. A stacker afresh takes the boxes off the apparatus and endless them—a action alleged “side offloading”—on a bivouac and into architecture of eight.

Meanwhile, three men are benumbed on an aerial belvedere of the machine. Two of these men are authoritative boxes; and one of these two is additionally “driving” the agriculturalist (he usually has to accomplish adjustments aloof at the end and alpha of anniversary row). The third man is application a sticker gun to put a small, fluorescent-orange sticker (which numerically identifies the autumn day, the crew, and the grower) on anniversary bag and anniversary box that will be abounding with lettuce. One aggregation affiliate (who was not a stickerer) said that stickering is the cushiest job.

It is a awful engineered, super-efficient, field-to-bag, human-geared bill apparatus that turns aglow blooming fields into neatly ample boxes of cleaned, zipped, and closed bags—and abrogation lettuce-littered advance of acreage attractive like a tornado has ripped through. I had to beam at the affair for about an hour, and—like a academy kid on a Tinkertoy—monkey about for a continued while afore I fabricated faculty of the ability of it. With the aid of the machine, the aggregation of lechugueros usually packs about 1,500 boxes, or about 63,000 hearts, anniversary day of agronomics season. This season, in about 110 canicule of harvesting, they will assemblage about 130,000 boxes, which is about 5.5 actor hearts of romaine. That’s a lot of lettuce, and additionally a lot of sweat.

Emma Torres is the CEO of Campesinos Sin Fronteras, a nonprofit alignment whose mission is to advance self-sustainability for acreage workers. Photo © Scott Baxter.

One of the agronomical ironies of Yuma (and there are a few) is that you can eat bounded and eat ample in the aforementioned bite. Admitting there are accustomed companies like Dole operating in the Yuma Valley, best of the farms, alike the big ones, are family-run. Bill and Vicki Scott are the carnality admiral and administrator of affection assurance, respectively, of the family-run Amigo Farms, which manages about 7,000 acreage in the Yuma area.

On an aboriginal morning in February, the brace best me up at my cabin at 4 a.m. to appearance me one of their bill crews, breadth I met Manuel, at work. The Scotts, both University of Arizona educated, and with decades of acquaintance in the fields, are a down-home, caring couple. They chock-full at a Amphitheater K and insisted on affairs me a coffee. Aback they best me aback up hours later, we chock-full for eggs at the bounded restaurant, Burgers & Beer. Bill speaks chatty Spanish and has a affectionate affinity with Amigo workers. He sat on the aggregation bus with me and chatted with the acreage easily as we were alien against the farm.

The actual altitude of these workers, as far as I witnessed, were not oppressive. They assignment hard, no doubt, but they are paid aloft minimum wage—$9 an hour, as able-bodied as a piece-rate of $1.85 a box, which can translate, depending on the account adjustment from shippers and how bound they carve through the bill fields, to as abundant as an added $60 a day. They are additionally offered cafeteria breaks, baptize breaks, and adumbration bolt to assignment beneath aback it’s hot enough—basic needs that are not consistently accepted on added farms. Activity in general, however, is not accessible for these workers, and their aches don’t stop aback they leave the fields. The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs describes acreage assignment as “extremely low-wage assignment … Best farmworkers acquire beneath than $10,000 per year from what is generally backbreaking and alarming labor.”

Before sunrise, a 32-person aggregation works on and about an expansive, automatic bill harvester. Photo © Scott Baxter.

Emma Torres is the CEO of Campesinos Sin Fronteras, a nonprofit alignment in the Yuma breadth whose mission is to advance self-sustainability for farmworkers. I asked Torres if activity for farmworkers is bigger now than it was 20 years ago. She hesitated to answer, acknowledgment that it was bigger in some ways, and worse in others. Alone some of the workers accept year-round jobs. Abounding of them accept to “seguir la corrida” or chase the crops, abrupt with or afterwards their families from Arizona to either California or Colorado. To save money on rent, workers generally charge into baby apartments.

For the farmworkers who don’t, or can’t, seguir la corrida, they may alone accept abiding assignment four months of the year. In the off-season, they either try to aggregate unemployment (not consistently successfully) or acquisition odd jobs. “The farmworker citizenry has consistently been at the basal of the pole,” Torres said. The Arizona Circadian Star appear that Yuma had a “nonseasonally adapted unemployment amount of 23.3 percent.” Seasonally, unemployment numbers, according to Torres, can be as aerial as 78 percent. In July and August, San Luis becomes “a actual depressed community,” she said.

Campesinos Sin Fronteras, which Torres helped found, fills a gap in basal casework for farmworkers that contrarily would not be filled. She said it was “very unlikely” for those who assignment in the fields to accept any allowances at all, including bloom insurance. They accept no ailing leave, and generally alive day-to-day. “There are no binding benefits,” Torres said. (Amigo Farms offers bloom allowance to their workers through a provider in Mexico, which is generally adopted by the workers who alive in Mexico.) Added dangers and vulnerabilities accommodate pesticide poisoning, abode injury, ancestors separation, minimum job security, and aerial stress.

Blanca Lira Sanchez takes affliction of the bus that transports workers into the field, including elimination debris and charwoman toilets. Photo © Scott Baxter.

Torres knows these fields, as able-bodied as their hazards. Originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, she confused to San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora, aback she was 12, and started alive as a acreage artisan in California’s Salinas Valley that aforementioned year. She alone out of academy afterwards fifth brand to advice her parents autumn strawberries, tomatoes, and grapes. “I was absolutely acceptable at it,” she told me. She was authoritative money, and she admired the work.

But afresh her bedmate died of pesticide-related leukemia at 25, aback Torres was alone 24 and their additional adolescent three weeks old. Torres heard the wake-up call. She knew that she bare to apprentice English, to go aback to school. She didn’t appetite her kids “to end up in the aforementioned position I was in,” she said—that is, in the fields. She put herself through school, becoming a GED, afresh afterwards a bachelor’s degree, and finally, in 2009, a master’s amount in amusing assignment from Arizona State University. Now she concentrates on accouterment absolute aid and advocating for workers’ rights through Campesinos Sin Fronteras.

I batten with Florencio, 31, addition of the cutters at Amigo Farms, who declared the amaranthine application of alive up afterpiece to dusk than to sunrise, sleeping four hours a night (plus communicable naps on the aggregation bus), and afterward the autumn from Yuma to Huron, California, to assorted genitalia of Colorado. His ancestors is “mixed”—that is, of alloyed aborigine status. Abounding of the workers who cantankerous every morning accept spouses or accouchement afterwards papers. Abounding U.S. citizens or acknowledged residents, Torres told me, “decide to alive in Mexico … it’s cheaper for them … But at one point or addition they’re afar and they can’t be together. Sometimes bodies chase the crops for months.”

I asked Florencio what assessment the break took on his family—he has a wife and two adolescent daughters. “It’s hard,” he said. He would adopt to alive in the U.S., accumulate his ancestors together, and abstain the circadian cephalalgia of commuting above an all-embracing boundary—if alone he could allow it. Torres explained that it’s not aloof apartment costs and citizenship cachet that accumulate workers active in Mexico. They can’t allow any of the basal casework on the U.S. side: not healthcare, food, nor clothes.

Florencio nodded aback Manuel, the great-grandfather acid hearts abutting to him, said that he could “get acclimated to everything.” Abounding of the workers I batten with deflected my questions about alive conditions. Were they ambuscade something, or was activity aloof tough—and they were in the average of active it? I asked Florencio if he anticipation his alive altitude were unfair. He looked at me with a array of muscled resolve, and afresh answered, vaguely: “One needs to assignment in adjustment to live.”

Martin Vera works as a autumn supervisor. Photo © Scott Baxter.

The owners and growers I met, at JV Farms and Amigo Farms, went out of their way to accomplish the circadian lives of their workers better. The Yuma Alpha Vegetable Association (YFVA), a able nonprofit that promotes, protects, and lobbies for Yuma vegetables, additionally runs Activity of Love, a affairs that occasionally delivers breakfast to workers out in the fields, or gives them abruptness arcade sprees at Target.

Though the antecedence seems to be on the product, Steve Alameda, the admiral of YFVA, told me that growers in Yuma “appreciate the heck out of” the farmworkers. He declared them as “talented, intelligent, hard-working. They can do anything.” And admitting Activity of Love skims the apparent of the absolute issues adverse farmworkers, Alameda’s activity marks a tone-shift in the grower-worker relationship, at atomic in the Yuma Valley.

Emma Torres said that there is no accessible animosity amid the workers and the growers. It may be, however, that the workers accept absent the battle. Because of mechanization, the added assurance on guest-worker programs (which accompany acreage laborers into Yuma fields for capped six-month periods), and college levels of education, not abounding of the farmworkers’ accouchement are continuing out in the fields with bill knives. (Manuel, the great-grandfather, may actual able-bodied be replaced by a water-jet—the latest agronomics technology, appropriately declared by a University of Arizona abstraction as a tourniquet abbreviating about accessible acreage workers).

Alameda told me that abounding of the accouchement of farmworkers are activity to school, and appetite to be active or designing the adult machinery—for which there are far beneath jobs. Meanwhile, with parents (and alike great-grandparents) still ascent at midnight and activity through actual aboriginal mornings, there ability not be addition activity area in the United States that is added exploited, or added racially divided.

A acreage worker, who beneath to accord his name, pauses in the morning light. Photo © Scott Baxter.

I asked Pablo Francisco Delgado, originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, and a agriculturalist at JV Farms, how abounding Americans assignment in the fields in the Yuma Valley. He estimated the cardinal was about bristles percent. I asked how abounding white Americans. “One percent,” he answered, and afresh revised: “Less than one percent.” He attributes the absence of white American fieldhands to education. Alike first-generation Mexican Americans, he told me, whose parents formed in the fields, already they go to academy “they appetite to run the machines, or drive the truck,” he said. “They don’t appetite to be cutters.”

As Torres explains it, it’s the arrangement that leaves farmworkers behind, added than growers or farmers. Sale prices almost awning assembly costs, and best growers, admitting almost well-off, aren’t authoritative millions, and their acquirement is accountable to acclimate and altitude shifts, outbreaks of bulb disease, and customer demand. I stood with Delgado and watched as a nine-acre acreage of romaine was disced (destroyed) by a tractor.

Shippers ordered beneath for the anniversary than the acreage had planted, months ago, and the bill would be bent by the abutting anniversary aback the abutting orders came in. The nine acreage of destroyed romaine represented a accident of about $7,800 for the farm. Afore the row Delgado and I were continuing in was chewed into the dirt, he cut us both a affection out of the ground, and we took a brace of big bites of lettuce—it was bitter, hardly milky, and delicious. (Etymologically, the words bill and lactate allotment a accepted root. If you’re agnostic of lettuce’s adjacency to milk, try bitter into a alpha romaine heart, or bottomward any old arch of bill into your blender.)

Bill Scott, of Amigo farms, put it bluntly: “Growers are at the shippers’ whim.” The burden of the alternation in the agronomical sector, however, is borne by the men and women who assignment in the fields. They are the best vulnerable. Torres declared them as “reduced to aloof surviving.”

“They don’t accept a voice. They don’t accept representation,” she said. Which is why, Torres explained, “I accept abstruse to try to be able advocating for the farmworkers afterwards accepting to become the adversary of the growers.”

For all the advances in ability and assurance that accept gone into agronomics in contempo years, Torres explained, the bearings of the workers hasn’t demonstrably improved. She gave me an example: Hairnets and gloves apparent in the fields aren’t meant to assure the worker, she said; they are “meant to assure the aliment from the worker.” For her, the antecedence is clear, and the antecedence of big ag is not the worker.

Like best fieldworkers, Odalis Aguilar starts acrimonious afore daybreak. Photo © Scott Baxter.

Under her beach Aeropostale hoodie, Odalis Aguilar, 19 years old, wears a baseball cap and a hairnet. She additionally wears a dejected artificial apron, artificial sleeves, and dejected medical-looking gloves. Aguilar grew up in Tucson, went to aerial academy in San Luis, Arizona, and now lives in San Luis Río Colorado, Mexico. She is a U.S. aborigine and a sleever, spending six canicule a week, during autumn season, capacity romaine hearts into a metal sleeve and bottomward them into a bag. The morning I met her, Aguilar was cutting abundant mascara and ablaze saffron-colored lipstick. She had a round, arresting face, and her abrupt glances up from the bill seemed like acute stares, maybe in allotment because she was covered from arch to toe in bolt and plastic—not abundant was assuming but the amphitheater of her face.

I asked Aguilar what was hardest about her job. She said she hurts sometimes, and that this job “brings a lot of affliction to people.” She meant able-bodied affliction (she sleeves a brace thousand accoutrements a day) but accepted that the affliction was additionally general, psychological. She goes home every day afterwards work, showers, eats, and goes to bed by bristles in the afternoon. By midnight she is up again, alpha her day, communicable the bill hearts afore they shoot accomplished her on the packing belt. I asked if she had a approaching in the fields. “No,” was her absolute answer. She wants to be a nurse, and will alpha architecture credits appear a amount abutting abatement at Northern Arizona University’s Yuma campus.

“We put a lot of accomplishment into packing these things,” Aguilar told me as she snatched the hearts off the belt, blimp them into the metal sleeve, shoehorned them into bags, and anesthetized the accoutrements to her right. “We try to accomplish abiding aggregate is safe, clean.” I asked her who was activity to ample her role aback she leaves for school, aback Manuel assuredly retires, and aback the bearing aloft her is above alive age. “Not me,” she said.

Maybe her reticence was due to the actual appeal of her work—she didn’t appetite to let too abounding bill hearts shoot by. Or maybe she was aloof attractive advanced to the end of her day. Or the end of her time in the fields.

When I asked Florencio what he admired bodies who eat the bill he picks knew about his job, he straightened up, captivation his aciculate bill knife in one duke and a romaine affection in the other, anticipation for a moment, and said, “I aloof ambition they paid me more.”

This commodity originally appeared in Edible Baja Arizona, and is reprinted with permission.

Top photo: Lechugueros generally activate their canicule at one or two in the morning, bridge the bound at San Luis Río Colorado and branch into the fields. All photos © Scott Baxter.

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