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Our Summer as Farm Workers on the Eastern Shore of Virginia
Farm Workers After a Long Day in Local Tomato Fields:
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
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!