My friend’s son went off to college in Louisiana. His sophomore English teacher asked the class what product comes from sheep.“Cotton?” his fellow student answered. At least he didn’t answer grapes.
I don’t excuse the teacher for asking such a kindergarten question, but the answer clearly indicates that there is a vast divide between the American public and the agricultural productes they consume.Even for those of us who live in the heart of agribusiness most of the time when we drive past fields of crops all we see are crops. Fruit, nuts, cotton, corn and others quietly, stealthily growing. No people.Yesterday as my friend Connie and I drove back to her home from our lunch at Orange Works, we passed a grape field teaming with activity. Cars lined both sides of the streets parallel parked neatly in the dirt. I had to stop the car and see if these folks would let me take pictures of them working.They were all so gracious. They kept working as they smiled at me. I didn’t want to disturb them for long, or to ask many questions, but I thought you might enjoy seeing them at their task of insuring that you have grapes to purchase at the store. The weather was perfect at just past 1:00, the temperature was still in the 80s, maybe creeping up to the low 90s, but bearable. The dusty air was still, and the workers chatted quietly or did not talk at all as they weighed out the three bunches of grapes to fill each plastic sack. They did not seem hurried or frantic as they packed the sacks of fruit into boxes, carefully arranging them so that the sweet, plump, green orbs were as comfortable lying in their new bed as my puppy is in her bed on the bed.Connie, who grew up here in the Central Valley, told me that the rows of grape plants had white plastic over them to keep the grapes from blistering in the hot sun, and to keep birds from beating humans to the sweet treat.
I remembered way back to when my family had just moved west to Oregon. It was August, 1967, and on the 30th of that month, the grape harvesters in Delano had just won a great victory. They were allowed to have a union represent them. They started to strike. As we entered the grocery store in Portland, Oregon, a mass of people clustered around the entrance to Safeway pressing fliers into our hands and entreating with us not to buy grapes or uvas, as they called them. As a rebellious teenager, I didn’t want to be told not to do anything. I probably asked my mom for grapes even though I could take them or leave them – I preferred a 100% diet of chocolate ice cream, and weighed slightly over 100 pounds then, so felt justified in eating chocolate over grapes any day. I don’t remember what we did, I just remember being indignant at being accosted by strikers, and thinking how different shopping was in the West compared to shopping in Indianapolis. Little did I know at the time what a huge impact that strike had nationally.
At our California Council for the Social Studies CCSS Conference in March 2013 we will honor the 50 year anniversary of the Birmingham marches for civil rights. At the same time we will honor the reflection of those times in our own area – the marches and strikes for minimum wages and safer working conditions for agricultural workers.
So the next time you pop a healthy grape into your mouth instead of a spoonful of chocolate sundae, I hope you will consider the kind workers helped bring that table grape to you. AND to any city slickers like my former self, PLEASE DON’T EVER TELL any professor that grapes – or cotton – come from SHEEP!