Culture, Labor and Strawberries: How is Food Political?

Strawberry production in Watsonville as a historical lens to politics

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Food affects cultural history, cost of living and authority. This mix of food and politics is prominent in the small, central California coastal town of Watsonville — with the strawberry at the heart of it all.

“Obviously [food is] something that people — that everyone in the world needs to have, and there is tremendous inequality in the relationship of production and distribution and function,” said UC Santa Cruz community studies professor Julie Guthman, who has been researching the intersection between food and politics for years. “And so I mean just to me, of course it’s political. How can it not be?”

University Library, University of California Santa Cruz. From Randall Jarrell, Interviewer and Editor. “Hiroshi Shikuma: Strawberry Growing in the Pajaro Valley” (Regional History Project, UCSC Library, 1986).
University Library, University of California Santa Cruz. From Randall Jarrell, Interviewer and Editor.
“Hiroshi Shikuma: Strawberry Growing in the Pajaro Valley” (Regional History Project, UCSC Library, 1986).

Food production is a major contributor to the economy, especially in California. Agriculture is one of the largest industries and creates almost half a million jobs, including the 14,900 jobs created by berry production on the Central Coast.

Watsonville, a town of only 50,000, is incredibly diverse. This has allowed the politics of this community, established through agriculture, to play out through generations.

Before President Donald Trump was elected and began to target undocumented immigrants, before César Chávez fought for fair labor conditions, before the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II — there were strawberries. Since first introduced by the Spanish,  strawberries have been a major constant in the narrative of this region.

In Watsonville the economy is centered around strawberries, Guthman said, and it is highly lucrative. Yet, it has also perpetuated issues in the area like high land values. This is because land is priced for the cost of strawberries, which makes it nearly impossible to sell for other crops and developments.

The strawberry is one of the most pesticide and labor-intensive crops. The system in place is a cycle, Guthman said. When the industry grows, it creates more problems, like a diminishing labor force and increased pesticide use.

“What makes strawberry production successful is also what has been threatening it,” Guthman said.

The Pajaro of the Past

Mas Hashimoto remembers picking strawberries in the Pajaro Valley alongside his mother and brothers from 10 years old well into high school. It was back-breaking labor, he said, and he was even once crop dusted by pesticides. This was nearly 70 years ago ­— before he was drafted into the Army and before he was sent to the Poston internment camp in Arizona — but he remembers it clearly.

“We didn’t have child labor laws for agricultural workers, there was no union, this was years before César Chávez,” Hashimoto said. “I started out at 85 cents an hour, all my earnings, whatever I made, went to my college fund.”

By 1940, Hashimoto and other Japanese Americans grew almost 40 percent of the vegetables in California.

“Japanese growers were some of the original strawberry growers in the Pajaro Valley,” Julie Guthman said. “A lot of them were sharecroppers and in part they had to do with the internment because they couldn’t own land and those who had owned it […] lost it.”

Now Hashimoto is in his 80s, living in the Pajaro Valley with his wife Marcia. They have watched the culture of Watsonville and its agriculture change significantly. Marcia said the Japanese community is much smaller now — children follow careers and individuals marry outside of the ethnicity, a different picture than 1940s Watsonville. Once the largest Asian immigrant minority in Watsonville, they are now only the sixth largest.

The number of Japanese and Japanese American growers has also significantly decreased, Guthman said, and the majority of growers and workers in the Pajaro Valley are now Latinx.

Continuing the History

A lot has changed since Mas Hashimoto picked strawberries in the fields at the age of ten. Instead of the short handle hoes Hashimoto would have to use to pick lettuce and strawberries, workers now use long-handled hoes that allow workers to stand. Hashimoto said this is because César Chávez and the United Farm Workers Association fought for fairer labor conditions like child labor laws, the right to unionize and better wages. But much still feels too similar to workers.

“I think all labor is connected through the history of marginalized folks,” said activist Carolina Morales of the UC Santa Cruz newly formed March Collective during the May Day campus shutdown. “I am the daughter of migrant parents, they migrated very young. Ever since they have migrated, they have been exploited for their labor.”

The March Collective has been working collectively with other activist groups like the Brown Berets in Watsonville and Sanctuary Santa Cruz for fairer treatment for field workers, especially those who are undocumented.

“We have almost a different kind of slavery right now, which is the work of the immigrants in Santa Cruz,” said Sanctuary Santa Cruz member Ernestina Saldaña while fighting for workers rights on May Day. “[…] I refuse to believe that the employer doesn’t know who is undocumented and who isn’t [… Employers can] ask them to do more for the same pay and the fear [they have] to lose the job — it’s enough to be pushed to the limit.”

This activism is especially prominent during the strawberry harvest season, which is in peak from April through June. However, many growers in the Central Coast grow strands of berries that are ripe close to all year round, Julie Guthman said.

Strawberries are still one of the most pesticide and labor-intensive crops, Guthman said, making labor conditions terrible.

“Whenever I see workers in the field, any worker in the field I say a little prayer for them,” Mas Hashimoto said. “Because I know how hard they are working to put food on the nation’s table.”