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Our Summer as Farm Workers on the Eastern Shore of Virginia

Updated on June 28, 2016

Farm Workers After a Long Day in Local Tomato Fields:

Heather Elizabeth and I after a long day in the field, a tomato throwing contest and a mud fight in which everyone surrounding us joined in. What a day!
Heather Elizabeth and I after a long day in the field, a tomato throwing contest and a mud fight in which everyone surrounding us joined in. What a day! | Source

The Most Interesting Summer of Our Lives

During the summer of 2009, I became a farm worker on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. There were absolutely no jobs to be found, but Heather and I found one!

Living in a pretty rural area, jobs can get pretty scarce. The summer of 2009, there was nothing left to do except become a tomato picker, a farm worker on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. As a single mother with school clothes to buy, it was urgent that I find something and fast! I needed money to take care of my beautiful daughter.

My job search had been ongoing for quite some time. However, with a child coming into the picture the heat was on. Having scoured the entire local area within a 50 mile radius, I resorted to visiting the local employment agency. It wasn’t looking too wonderful there either. There was one cashier job available and an agent had already sent five or six other people to inquire about that position. I was becoming quite depressed.

As we were about to leave, my head hung low still unemployed, a Spanish speaking agent came out of his office after hearing my daughter and I discussing the fact that we would take any jobs at this point. He asked if he had heard us correctly with a slight grin. We both chimed in rather loudly, “Yes, sir!” He took us into his office and gave us a rundown on a job that he had to offer us.

This job was going to be the hardest work we had ever done, but the benefits are that you come out with some cash, a nice tan and a good workout. “We’ll take it,” we replied. Here we are signing up to become tomato pickers in the fields with the migrants and we are ecstatic! We left the employment office with giggles and a ‘we can do this’ attitude.

This started the ball rolling into the most interesting job we both have ever had and most likely ever will. It took us some time to get in with a crew. There are some things that must be done before you are allowed to actually go into the fields and pick.

First, we had to take a class on the effects of pesticides and how to prevent the worst by keeping ones hands washed before eating or smoking and wear long pants and long sleeve shirts to protect the skin. It took two weeks to get into a class. There were English and Spanish speaking instructors, but the Spanish class was first. Having taken three years of Spanish in high school, I can understand and speak enough Spanish to get by. We made it through the Spanish speaking class and received a green card to show that we had finished. You have to carry two cards on you at all times and this was the first.

The next step was to show three forms of identification to prove that you are a citizen or otherwise allowed to work in the United States. I presented my birth certificate, social security card and my driver’s license. My daughter’s father had all of her identification so she would have to wait another four weeks for him to send it to her in the mail.

Upon showing my identification, I had my picture taken and was issued the second card that a tomato picker must carry at all times. This one is the most important because this has the computer chip in it which they scan each time you fill and dump a basket. The baskets are counted via this computer chip, and you are paid by the basket. For large or regular sized tomatoes, you receive a modest $0.50 per basket. Cherry tomatoes are $1.60 per basket and the tiny grape tomatoes are a whopping $3.50 per basket.

The contractor I was to work for was rather afraid to allow me into the fields. Apparently, I was to be the first white woman he had ever seen in the fields. The fear was that the Hispanic men would disrespect me in some way. About a week later, after I had begged him to let me try, he finally caved and let me start picking. This was not before he laid down the law to his crews.

The first day I went into the fields donning jeans and a long t-shirt. I picked the vines clean and I was fast! Having always witnessed white people being “lazy”, my Mexican counterparts were amazed. They told my boss, “She can pick, she can pick!” This made me feel really good.

The first day was a short day. We left the field at around 2 pm. I was really dirty and sunburnt because of my pale, Irish skin; but I wasn’t really any more tired than I would be working any other job.

Hopping into my truck, I drove home with the windows down and the music blaring. It felt pretty good to have worked an honest day’s work again. Once I was home, I showered first because I felt filthy. The fields are dusty when there is a lack of rain and muddy when it does rain. There is no comfortable medium in farm work.

Having picked tomatoes all day without gloves because I was unable to afford them, the tomatoes and their vines had turned my fingernails black. What a mess! It’s not a real good idea to work in the fields without some kind of hand protection, lesson well learned. Need;ess to say, my tiny bottle of black nail polish came in handy for this occasion. If they want to be black, why not paint them black?

The next morning I arrived in the field at 6 am. Sometimes we are a lot earlier than the bosses need us to be. We got into the field at about 7:30 am. I was Little Miss Speedy Gonzales again, picking as hard and fast as I possibly could to make as much money as possible. At 12 pm. we took our first break for lunch. I didn’t want to eat because it was entirely too hot, but I was sure to drink a lot of fluids in order to keep myself properly hydrated. By 12:30 pm. we were back in the field. Taking one more break at 4 pm, we went back into the field at about 4:15 and stayed out there until 8 pm.

Wow! Was I ever tired that evening! I showered, had a grilled cheese sandwich and some grape juice and went to bed right away. A bomb could have dropped in the bed right next to me and had I survived, I still would've never heard it.

I continued to work in the field everyday. I had a really nice tan, which is something that I don’t normally get on my pale skin. I also started to notice some major toning going on all over my body. I was feeling good!

The Hispanic men and women were really nice to me. I had a couple of situations where the men were trying to take me out. One fellow even offered to take care of me so I wouldn’t have to work in the field. Once I made it obvious that I was there to work and not play around or find someone to date, they came to really respect me and I made a lot of wonderful friends.

It was an interesting summer to say the least! I’m really kind of missing the taco truck. My thoughts are towards returning to the fields this summer. Yes, I am a glutton for punishment.

The Most Challenging Aspect of Tomato Picking

The most challenging aspect of tomato picking is getting your heavy, filled bucket to the truck and throwing it up to the dumper. If you want strong arms, this is the job for you! Each bucket weighs in at about 32 pounds.
The most challenging aspect of tomato picking is getting your heavy, filled bucket to the truck and throwing it up to the dumper. If you want strong arms, this is the job for you! Each bucket weighs in at about 32 pounds.

Helpful Products for Farm Work and Gardening:

Invisible America: The Migrant Story

Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert Spends One Day as a Migrant Farm Worker and Pleads to Congress to Not Make Him Go Back into the Fields


 In Florida, farm workers receive minimum wage plus the same pay per bucket. What's wrong, Virginia? You may want to watch out for me this summer. I'm coming soon to a field near you with a picket sign! I don't mind hard work, but Virginians deserve the same pay for back breaking labor as anyone else in the country. It's time for change. NOW!


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    • VAMPGYRL420 profile imageAUTHOR

      Windy Grace Mason 

      6 years ago from Belle Haven, VA

      It's sad that even these jobs have left the Eastern Shore of Virginia, at least temporarily. I've been seeing a lot of farm buses filled with workers and tomato trucks heading both to and from Maryland... However, Kuzzen's (Six L's) is still running in Northampton County. If you are looking for farm work within the Northampton County, Virginia area, you may want to give them a call at (757) 442-4961.

    • VAMPGYRL420 profile imageAUTHOR

      Windy Grace Mason 

      6 years ago from Belle Haven, VA

      Hi there, Beautiful Daughter of mine :) That summer was the most fun I have had in a long time, but we were busting our butts...Go figure lol I am sooooo glad you were here with me, too :) I think we got to know one another a whole lot better during that summer than we had ever had the opportunity to before. I so want to go on a haunted ride ;) I love and miss you and hope that you are doing well in school...Always remember that today is your future and the more you do today, the less you will have to do tomorrow ;)

      Love Always,

      Mommie :)

    • profile image

      Your loving Daughter/tomato picking ninja sidekick! 

      6 years ago

      i love this article and the attention it got! that was the most amazing summer of my life and i am glad i got to spend it with you!


    • VAMPGYRL420 profile imageAUTHOR

      Windy Grace Mason 

      8 years ago from Belle Haven, VA

      Thank you, Sister :) You're exactly right about things like this being published in our local newspapers...This is the reality of the world that WE live in. If you aren't willing to fight for survival and work hard, you will not make it in our world. The Eastern Shore of Virginia is not job central, EVER. You have to take what you can get. A quarter a basket??? Oo That's just INSANE!!! I thought the $0.50 was bad lol You don't make much money in the fields for the work that you do. Like I wrote in the article, the biggest rewards are the nice tan and the toning :P However, you can make enough to get by, frugally. I don't know if the Eastern Shore News or the Daily Times would publish this type of work. The Eastern Shore News was afraid of the last article that was published, which is why it was found in the Eastern Shore Post. I'm considering doing some rewrites to send to other newspapers and magazines. I don't think there is much hope locally unless you kiss the behinds of big business...You and I both don't fit the behind kissing profile lol However, there are some people in Florida and California who would most likely pick up on something of this nature fairly quickly. There is also the major prospect of working toward publishing a newspaper targeted towards people like us...The people who care more about the reality of the world we live in rather than who is running for public office in Accomack and Northampton Counties!!! Old news has become very drab and boring. I sincerely think it is time for serious change ;) We'll have to have a talk and see what our great minds can come up with :) I love you, Sister...No matter how long we are separated or what the stupid reasons may be, we have held this bond for over 30 years. I don't know where the future will lead us, as it is always changing; but I do know without a doubt that I want you here with me every step of the way. No one else can fill your shoes!!! The Creator only made one of you ;) :P

      Love & Light,

      Windy Grace

      P.S. The migrants are an amazing group of people who work hard and love fiercely...Very admirable!!!

    • profile image

      social disaster 

      8 years ago

      Yeah girl.. I remember many of those longs summers.. i started in the field worked weeks on out picking fast and hard it was 25 cent a bucket then.. lol.. telling my age a little i guess but its cool haha because ur the same age ..doh!! no really though .. it was hard work that paid off later ,following that i earned my way to the packing house and done it all from grading to boxing to making the boxes to ,line supervisor.. as i said it paid off.. i learned plenty of skills , but the most important thing that i think i learned was respect for those who will do what it take to provide for their family's . i seen family's picking off one check up to 9 or 11 people picking side by side at that time it was all ages .. and they didn't check the feild so much to see who all was actually working , i found that the things i was hearing in school and neighboring towns were not true about migrants .. others being raciest ect.. theses are very very hard working people .. who i can say from personal knowledge stick by family no matter what .. much props on this writing girl.. one of the best yet .. this is your destiny .. these are the type of writings we should see more of in hometown papers ..keep up the great work sis..luv ya

    • VAMPGYRL420 profile imageAUTHOR

      Windy Grace Mason 

      8 years ago from Belle Haven, VA

      A vacation by no means!!! :( You're exactly right, hotspur.

    • hotspur profile image


      8 years ago from England

      Well exactly, I work with asylum seekers and immigrants and what people forget is what causes people to travel thousands of miles, enter a foreign culture and try to make a new life - it isn't exactly a vacation!

    • VAMPGYRL420 profile imageAUTHOR

      Windy Grace Mason 

      8 years ago from Belle Haven, VA

      Thank you, hotspur :) These jobs are not something that the average person would choose to do lol It was a wonderful learning experience for us. Hard work and a taste of a different culture never killed anyone ;) It is all over the news and the web about 5 children here in the U.S. wearing clothing with American flags on them on Cinco de Mayo (a Spanish holiday)and being told by staff to wear them inside out. Of course everyone has to make a big deal out of it. Meanwhile, I'm over here thinking, "Gee, they probably wore the American flags to be ignorant on a Mexican holiday since they're always complaining they don't want the migrants here." Funny...They wouldn't be buying produce in the local grocery stores without the work the migrants do. I wonder what they plan on eating :P

    • hotspur profile image


      8 years ago from England

      That was really interesting - we don't have tomato fields here (too cold) - but we do have migrant workers who pick crops, not Hispanic but Romanian and other Eastern European naitonalities - we are dependent on them to do all the kinds of jobs we wouldn't choose to do first a fact a lot of right wing / nationalistic thinkers conveniently forget. Great hub!


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