Saying thanks during Farmworker Awareness Week

Photo by Ellen McCarty

“Every time we sit at a table to enjoy the fruits and grain and vegetables from our good earth, remember that they come from the work of men and women and children who have been exploited for generations.”  Cesar Chavez

March 31st marks Cesar Chavez Day, which recognizes the contributions of a man who looked around, saw injustice, spoke out, organized, and resisted. The resistance of countless farmworkers resulted in the founding the United Farm Workers Union, or UFW, in 1962. Consumer boycotts and farmworkers’ organizing eventually led to better pay and safer working conditions for those who toil on the front lines of agriculture.

National Farmworker Awareness Week (NFAW) was established by Student Action for Farmworkers, in 1999 in Durham, North Carolina. NFAW (March 24-31, 2017) is an opportunity for all of us to look around, see injustice, speak out, organize, and resist. In a time when we care deeply about what we eat, we can easily refuse to see the men, women, and children who grow our food. At the very least, we need to reflect about the individuals who feed this country.

History – “We used to own our slaves, now we just rent them.”

In 1960, the famous journalist, Edward R. Murrow, helped produce a documentary called Harvest of Shame, which focused on the plight of the migrant farm worker in the US at the time. In the film, one farmer makes the chilling statement above, effectively characterizing farm labor as modern day slavery.

In the United States, we expect food to be cheap and plentiful, and it is easy to see where that expectation comes from. For hundreds of years, farmers were able to bring cheap, plentiful crops to market because they had slave labor. The tough reality—154 years after President Lincoln freed the slaves in the South—is that the expectation of cheap, plentiful food remains. That means that feeding this country today still depends on a hardworking, very low earning labor force of farmworkers. Over 70% of that labor force is comprised of immigrants, according to the 2013-2014 National Agricultural Workforce Survey (NAWS). Immigrants are often the only ones willing to do the hard work necessary to maintain that stream of cheap, plentiful food.

National context

“Work hard and you can get ahead” is core to what we think of as “The American Dream.” That dream does not reflect reality if you are a farm worker. Federal laws of the Depression era 1930s specifically excluded farmworkers from provisions that provided for overtime pay, minimum wage, unionizing rights and workplace protections. The 2013-2014 NAWS reported that farmworkers’ mean and median incomes from agricultural employment the previous year were in the range of $15,000 to $17,499. Sixteen percent of workers earned less than $10,000; only eight percent in the United States earned $30,000 or more. Thirty percent had family incomes less than the federal poverty level. Farmworkers earned an average hourly rate of $10.19 per hour. Since the 1980’s, the costs of producing food has skyrocketed, but the real costs have not been passed on to the consumer.

The reality is that farmworker labor is physically debilitating. Workers have to work very long hours, through rain, cold and heat for extremely low wages. Federal laws continue to exempt farmworkers from overtime pay — only 35% reported having health insurance and 31% report living in crowded living conditions (NAWS, 2013-2014). Here in the United States, we can’t claim that hard work will get you ahead and then systematically exclude some of the most hardworking people from basic rights and opportunities afforded to literally every other job in this country.

In recent years, the foodie movement has put more focus on where people’s food comes from and how the animals were treated and raised. Though laudable, starkly missing from this conversation, are the people involved in producing our food. Are the workers treated with dignity and respect? Are they fairly compensated for their work? It is as if the farmworkers are invisible. They are invisible because many are undocumented and have no immigration relief available to them despite their hard work—even if their employers wish to sponsor them. Fortunately, new trends in the sustainable agriculture movement consider not only where food comes from, but also the quality of life for those that grow the food we eat. A recent study indicated that raising farmworker wages to $15 hour today would cost consumers only $21.15 a year.

Today, farmworkers in California earn about $30,000 a year if they work full time — about half the overall average pay for all California workers. Most work fewer hours. Nine in 10 agriculture workers in California are still foreign born, and more than half are undocumented, according to a federal survey.

The South Coast perspective

The legacy of Cesar Chavez lives on in our great state of California. Farmworkers contribute significantly to California’s economy, and California is the top farming state in the US. Our minimum wage is one of the three highest in the country at $10.50 per hour, with plans for it to rise to $15 per hour by 2022. California is one of few states that provide some overtime pay for farmworkers, currently after 10 hours of work per day. There was also a law passed in 2016 that will bring that threshold down to 8 hours of work, finally beginning to level the playing field for farmworkers.

Critics of these policies argue that agriculture should have its own rules because of its seasonal nature. The person who loses the most in that scenario is the frontline farmworker. Any increased labor cost to the farmer needs to be built into the cost of food. The onus must be shared by a society that needs to be willing to pay prices that reflect the true cost of food production.

Here on the South Coast, all workers are making at least minimum wage, and some farms give raises to workers after employing them for 6 months or a year. Workers are almost all paid by the hour, avoiding “pay by piece” issues that often arise when workers are instead paid by how much they harvest. Unfortunately, even though many workers have had the same jobs for 5, 10 or 15 years, they still earn only the minimum wage. The economics of our food system are complex. It is not as easy as asking farmers to raise wages. To do so, they also need to raise their prices, meaning their buyers may find someone else to buy from, which can put the entire business at risk, including the farmworkers’ jobs.

Housing remains an enormous challenge here on the South Coast. Farmworker wages cannot keep up with the exorbitant cost of rent in the Bay Area. Unable to afford market rent, many workers and their families live in crowded conditions with little or no access to necessities such as laundry facilities or public transportation.


Puente has its roots in supporting farmworkers and we continue that work today, almost 20 years later.  Puente’s role has grown and evolved in this community, but farmworkers and their families still make up the backbone of the South Coast and hence remain at the core of our work.  Our oldest program, La Sala, still provides a hot meal and social space for farmworkers twice each week. Additionally, our bike repair program focuses on getting farmworkers reliable transportation without having to deal with the costs associated with a car.

Our hope is that our community can be one where farmworkers and their families cannot only survive, but also thrive and flourish – despite the challenges and pressures exerted upon them by antiquated federal laws.

What can I do?

At the very least, say thank you! Farm labor is probably one of the most thankless and invisible work. Find an opportunity to connect with farmworkers and farmers in your community and make it clear you appreciate their efforts. Find out more about where your food comes from and support your local farmers market. Inform yourself about the challenges faced by farmworkers by watching films like Food Chains or Harvest of Dignity. Another very simple way to support farmworkers is to donate to Puente.

On April 4 at 7pm, join us in recognizing Farmworker Awareness Week with the screening of the film The Other Side of Immigration in the multi-purpose room of Pescadero Elementary, with a discussion to follow. 

Puente farmers’ market reaches peak deliciousness – and attendance

At Puente’s farmers’ market last week, the only thing you couldn’t eat was on the back of a bicycle, getting mixed in a pedal-powered blender.

“Usually we make smoothies with it, but I thought, why not make paper pulp?” said Mona Urbina. The Youth Program Coordinator for Pie Ranch hit upon the imaginative idea when she was looking around for a fun and enriching way to engage children at Puente’s weekly farmers’ market, Pescadero Grown. So Urbina made “seed bombs” with the kids seated around a picnic bench. After taking turns pedaling the blender, the children took the paper pulp to a cloth-lined strainer and mixed in some seeds. Then they squeezed and strained water out from the admixture and pressed it into a rubber ice cube tray of heart shaped molds. They also made round ones out of compost and clay, adding water and the seeds of cosmos flowers.

Mona Urbina shows off the blender bike at the market.

Mona Urbina shows off the blender bike at the market.

“Can I pour the water?” asked Samara, 4, while her mother Allegra Turner shopped for strawberries, chard and other produce to bring home for her family.

“We’re here at least once a month. I’m really into fresh produce, and this is super fresh. The kids’ crafts are really great, too,” said the La Honda mom, inclining toward Samara and her friend, who ran off to play with the beanbag toss after they finished their flower experiment.

The children left the market with the delicate seed bombs clutched in their small palms and instructions from Urbina. “We’re going to let this dry, and when it rains, we’re going to throw it out into a field. The sun will help it grow into a flower plant,” she told them.

Children making seed bombs together.

Children making seed bombs together.

The message was no accident. To visit the Pescadero Farmers’ Market is to make the connection with nature that consumers skate over at supermarkets, and to do so in a community setting.

It’s not just any honey for sale – it’s State Street Honey and the owner, Todd Parsons, is on hand to describe the process of raising his own queen bees. Due to excellent sales at the Pescadero market this year and a few other retailers, he has almost sold out.

Everything has a story. The Early Girl tomatoes – they’re the result of dry farming, which concentrates all the sweetness of the fruit with a minimum of watering. Two Pescadero farms, Blue House and Fly Girl, have perfected the technique, and their farmers describe it as you reach a bright red tomato, pleasing to the eye and sticky to the touch.

In addition to its seasonal offering and CSA, Pie Ranch leads children’s activities once a month at the Pescadero market, always inspired by its mission of food education and food justice. The Half Moon Bay library comes twice a month with art and science projects for the kids. And Puente recruits volunteers who have ideas for fun and stimulating group activities, like screen-printing.

Now in its fifth summer, Puente’s farmers’ market is at the halfway point in a bountiful season that has spanned everything from apples, leeks, summer squash, heirloom tomatoes and Brussels sprouts to sunflowers, dahlias, potatoes, locally caught fish, and grass-fed beef from local producers Markegard Family Grass-Fed and LeftCoast GrassFed. Up next in the weeks to come: peak eggplant, peppers and melons, yielding to a fall harvest of parsnips and sweet potatoes.

“This season has been great for us so far. Our tomatoes and Padrones have been booming. Some things come into season later here on the coast, like melons, which we’ll have soon,” explained Kaila Clark, marketeer for Fly Girl Farm.

Puente founded the Pescadero Grown! Farmers’ Market as a nonprofit venture with three central goals: to boost food sales for local farmers; to get fresh, affordable, healthy food onto the plates of local residents, including low-income ones; and to establish a community crossroads for people of white and Latino backgrounds to mingle, bring their kids, dance to live music, and learn about important social services available through Puente and its nonprofit partners.

The market’s principal funders are San Mateo County, TomKat Charitable Trust, and the Peninsula Open Space Trust.

It is the sort of place you might run into your high school teacher choosing a bundle of kale or bringing their bicycle for a fix-it appointment at Puente’s Bike Booth, one of the market’s most popular attractions.

Every, Rosemarie, and Liz are a few of the people who support bike repair at the market.

Every, Rosemarie, and Liz are a few of the people who support bike repair at the market.

Market Manager Charana Binford surveyed a late August market with a satisfied expression.

“I’m so happy with how the market turned out this year,” she said. “It feels more and more like a communal area to enjoy. And toward the later hours you see kids coming and running around and climbing the trees and playing with the hula hoops.”

It’s tremendously appealing, and it has found its audience. The word for this year’s market has been “more”: more music, more vendors (including one who sells handmade driftwood art), more kids’ activities, and more shoppers than ever buying from local farmers.

“There was one day in July where we had 500 people come through here in one afternoon,” marveled Binford. “That was a record.”

An especially good sign: a record number of qualifying shoppers are also using Puente’s discount Pescadero Tokens program to double their food purchases, now worth up to $20 for every $20 they want to spend, according to Binford.

Charlea Binford assists a member of the community with receiving Pescadero Grown Tokens.

Charlea Binford assists a member of the community with receiving Pescadero Grown Tokens.

“I have more people than ever coming to use the tokens consistently,” she confirmed. The market is the only place in Pescadero where shoppers can use nutrition discount programs like WIC and CalFresh.

And it may be the only farmers’ market with a stand set up by a dental practice. Dirk Alvarado, Executive Director of Sonrisas Community Dental Center in Half Moon Bay, handed out toothbrushes, floss and other goodies to shoppers and children while reminding them to take care of their teeth. The nonprofit dental clinic has partnered with Puente to serve local farm workers and their families.

“People have a natural fear of the dentist, and we’re here to make that less scary,” said Alvarado.

Even the beats were mellow: a mix of hip-hop and oldies, curated by local DJ Anti Dope. Farmageddon owner Chuck Harper caught the vibe. “It’s good here. We try to help out. It’s not all about making money – otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. It’s more about hanging out and being a part of the community,” he said.

Catch Pescadero Grown on Thursdays from 3-7 p.m. at the Pescadero Country Store, 251 Stage Road. As per tradition, this year’s market will end on a high note October 29 with a Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration that includes a community altar. For details, visit


A farm worker’s story: Lina Martinez

NOTE: Puente is writing about the lives of female farm workers for National Farmworker Awareness Week. This is the second of two stories.

Lina Martinez learned about America from the front door of a t-shirt shop in Fishermen’s Wharf. The 22-year-old crossed the border on foot, alone, in 1991 with the help of a coyote. A week later, she was in San Francisco, hawking t-shirts to tourists.


Lina Martinez with dino kale

Her job was to get people to come into the store, to sell merchandise, and to make change. But she didn’t know a word of English. And she didn’t understand U.S. currency.

“They told me: people unfold the shirts, you fold them. You’ve got to learn English. Learn the colors. You have to learn to say, ‘Three shirts for $9.99!’” recounts Martinez, laughing.

It was uncomfortable, to be sure. But Lina Martinez isn’t known for backing down.

“I called my boyfriend and said, ‘I need to learn numbers.’ I only knew 1 to 10 in English. Little by little I learned… and after a while, I could do anything!” she grins.

Martinez’s first American job at the t-shirt shop netted her $20 a day in under-the-table wages, plus $5 for lunch. She slept on a couch in the house of the man who owned the store.

Needless to say, the job didn’t last long. But by the time she found her first South Coast farm job, at Westland Nursery, and moved to Pescadero, Martinez knew her way around parts of the Bay Area. She had a cousin living on the South Coast. She knew her numbers. And her boyfriend, a man she had met in Mexico, stayed by her side.

Try to imagine moving to a new country one day without fanfare – literally, walking in with only the clothes on your back. The third child in a family of 11, Martinez knew her parents were stretched thin. She started earning money at 16, cooking for another family and cleaning houses.

One day, after a friend of hers took a chance and moved to California, Martinez decided to do the same. She left her village, Teojomulco, and made the six-hour trip to the city of Oaxaca, where she hired a coyote to get her through the border to America.

Martinez, now a 46-year-old mother of three, has a comfortable quality in her jean jacket, with a wide smile and laugh lines around the eyes. She has plenty of “long stories” to tell, and tells them with exuberance. She loves to talk about her job at Fifth Crow Farm, where she helps grow organic produce. She also plants and harvests flowers and raises grass-fed chickens. Her days are filled with broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, fennel, onions, leeks, radishes… and chaotic chicken coops, which she cleans (she also washes their eggs).

“I like to harvest dino kale,” says Martinez, referring to a particular variety of kale. “It’s my favorite. It’s really easy to get the leaves and make bunches. I’m always saying, ‘I want to harvest the dino kale!’” She gives a merry laugh.

Transplanting crops from the greenhouse to the field is the hardest task – a slow job, which involves putting delicate starts into the ground on hands and knees. It can take hours, she says.

“It hurts your legs a lot. It’s hard. But I like it, it’s fun,” she grins.

Martinez’s positive outlook seems extraordinary considering the struggles she has faced since moving to California. Her boyfriend died a year after she started work at Westland Nursery. She had two sons, but their fathers weren’t keen to support her. She got a great job at a mushroom farm owned by the Campbell Soup Company, which paid $10.75 an hour, more than she’d ever earned up to that point. But then the mushroom farm closed down.

Another time, Martinez was cleaning cabins at a forested retreat center outside Pescadero when a table fell on her and cut her leg open. She could hardly walk for bleeding, but her bosses didn’t take her to the doctor; they just took her to their house and gave her some pain medication. She missed a lot of farm work after that. She pulls up her pant leg to show the long scar on her ankle.

Martinez has also endured four dangerous border crossings. The most recent one, about four years ago, was terribly frightening. With the border fence locked up much tighter than it used to be, Martinez had to go by sea in a motorboat crammed with 22 people. They left Tijuana at 9 p.m. and fought the waves in the dark for seven hours to get to safe landing on the California coast. People were sick and wet and scared.

“For me, that was terrible,” she laughs, shaking her head.

Every farm worker has stories of hardships. As a single mother, Martinez carried a whole other obligation. She left more than one job because it conflicted with her parenting duties. She also took on a side job cleaning the Pescadero Community Church once a week, for extra income. And somewhere in there, she managed to take ESL classes at Puente.

“My dad is really proud of me. I raised my kids by myself. There’s a saying: ‘If you’re going to do something, take the bull by the horns.’ That’s what I’ve done,” she says.

Things turned around when Martinez started working at Fifth Crow. She also met a man who fathered her youngest child, a daughter, who is now three; he lives with her and supports the family. Her two sons, 16 and 13, both want to go to college.

Martinez now has legal status to live and work in the U.S., having been granted a visa. Later this year she will apply for permanent residency.

If you had told her, at 22, that her future would unfold the way it has, Martinez would have laughed at you.

“I never did think my life would be like this. But I’ve been able to do a lot of things,” she says. “The hard knocks are really what make you stronger.”

Please consider supporting our local farm workers with a gift to Puente to help us meet their needs. Click here for more information. You can also take action on behalf of farm workers by clicking here.