“I see the system as very broken”: A Pescadero farm worker’s story


When Pedro first arrived to the United States in 1983, he worked picking tomatoes in fields near Chula Vista, California. In those days, conditions for farm workers were different and Pedro lived for months, along with other farm workers, on the banks of a creek under a roof made out of a blue tarp, often in harsh weather. This was the first of many work trips to this country.

Why did he leave Mexico? 

Pedro is originally from the Mexican State called Guanajuato. He saw no future in agriculture and began work sewing in a nearby town. He tried many jobs in Mexico including laying pipeline near Guatemala. When he got married he realized he couldn’t provide for his family and came back to the United States, this time near Fresno. Pedro was picking olives, oranges, and grapes, among other crops. Like many farm workers in those years, he followed the harvest. This time, he was living in a car.

On one of his last trips, he arrived in Pescadero, California because some friends and brothers-in-law lived here. That year, he learned that an amnesty had passed and that he qualified to get a work permit. For several years, he’d go to Mexico to visit his family for a few months and come back to work the rest of the year. “I was also sending money home every time I got paid. I was always very responsible with my family duties,” Pedro says.

“The life of farm workers is the hardest job and the worst-paid.”

Pedro witnessed many hardships during his life as a farm worker: farm workers got dehydrated and simply collapsed in the fields, job sites lacked bathrooms, drinking water and rest times. One time, a girl fell from her place sleeping on a tractor from exhaustion. The tractor driver didn’t see her and she was killed.

“Things are way better now,” he adds. Pedro muses about Cesar Chavez and his contributions to that reality. “It made me feel joyful to know that he was out there advocating for us.”


A better life, with big trade-offs

Eventually, Pedro became the night shift driver at the farm where he has labored for more than 10 years. Still, he often holds second jobs, as well. Pedro knows California’s agriculture is very important for the United States and the world but he says, “People buy produce and they have no idea about the hands that harvested it. I would like people to know how hard is to get the produce to their table.”

Pedro became a citizen about five years ago. However, he has not found a way to get legal residency for his wife, who lives here with him. “It is very depressing for her. I see her suffer, even cry, especially when there is a holiday in her native Mexico town and she cannot go and visit her family. Now, I can go and I take my daughters that were born here, but she has to stay behind every year.”

Immigration reform on the horizon?

The constant stress of living in the U.S. without documents is an issue that affects millions in our country. Among them are farm and agricultural workers who are doing jobs that the majority of Americans would never dream of doing.

“My family lives better now,” says Pedro. But, “I see the system as very broken.”

Pedro’s views are widely shared by farm and ranch owners, who are equally frustrated by how immigration laws stymie their labor needs.

A recent editorial by the California Farm Bureau Federation echoes Pedro’s assessment: “Sending roughly 1.3 million agricultural workers back to their home countries is not realistic and will only lead to labor supply shortages in farming.”

The latest comprehensive immigration reform bill advanced a step in late May, passing a crucial vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. As it is currently written, the bill would offer provisional legal residency for current undocumented immigrants.

Pedro is watching the debate with great interest. For him, it all boils down to a few basic facts.

“Farmers need the labor force and most U.S. citizens will not take those jobs,” he says. “We need the jobs. That’s life.”


Originally published as part of a series of stories for National Farmworker Awareness WeekNames have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Access to land and housing top concerns for South Coast food producers

Driving down the San Mateo County coast in springtime, motorists are likely to admire the verdant row crops and fields of grazing cattle that dot the roadside vistas near Pescadero. Few people know the South Coast’s sad little secret: finding land to farm and live on is so expensive that the lifestyle itself is in peril.

That’s what South Coast farmers and ranchers told Puente in response to a recent South Coast Agriculture Survey. Puente sought to identify ways it could help sustain food production and support a farm-based economy, the most important industry on the coast.

More than 50% of farmers in the area are first-time food producers, according to the survey. They quickly discover the struggle to hold on to valuable farmland. Property values reflect the greater Silicon Valley market, pushing land values into the range of $3 million for just a few acres of ranchland real estate. Buying is out of the question, so some operations lease their land from private owners or open space preservation groups like Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District or Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST).

But finding an affordable, long-term lease is one of the biggest challenges on the coast. Of 43 survey respondents (out of 120 surveyed), 75 percent said leases are not long-term enough, which acts as a disincentive to stay and invest in the land.

“How can we pass along our ranching opportunity to our kids? We need longevity. After all the work we’ve put in, we’d like to pass the lease on to our kids,” says Doniga Markegard, who owns Markegard Family Grass-Fed with her husband, Erik. Markegard conducted the agriculture survey for Puente and says many farming and ranching families have the same concerns.

The family raises grass-fed beef, lamb, pastured pork and free-range chicken eggs on a 3,000-acre rolling coastal range above San Gregorio. They rent the land, and the house, from POST. But the lease is short-term. Other farmers fear the land they lease may be sold.

This is where Puente has identified one of the biggest opportunities to help build relationships. Overwhelmingly, the agricultural community responded to the survey by asking Puente to help keep farming alive on the South Coast – a process Puente kicked off at its weekly Pescadero Grown! farmer’s markets. Now local food producers are looking to Puente to help with other challenges, such as the fact that rental housing is so expensive that it makes it impossible for farmers to live on their own land.

“The connection that Puente makes between food, farmers and farm workers is essential to the survival of the economy on the South Coast,” says Puente Executive Director Kerry Lobel. “The Farmer’s Market is the biggest step so far, but only the first one.”

Puente put local farmers on the map last year – literally – by creating the area’s first Foodshed Map, thanks to Doniga Markegard. Puente connects farmers with farm workers looking for jobs. It helps bridge the language gap between managers and workers with its Spanish classes for English speakers, a program popular with the agriculture community. And bilingual Puente youth are on hand at farmer’s markets to help Spanish-speaking customers speak to vendors.

Going forward, Puente sees a new role for itself to help form mutually beneficial relationships between landowners and the agricultural community. Puente is thinking about hosting a land-linking mixer and will encourage open space agencies like POST to extend long-term leases to tenants.

San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley’s office, which includes the South Coast, is hard at work trying to make it easier for farmers and ranchers to build farm labor housing on their own land by addressing sticky permit issues and problems like the need for new septic tanks.

Horsley also wants to repair deterioriating farm worker housing, which often dates back to the 1960s or earlier. He has asked the Housing Department to set aside money for a low-interest loan program to give owners an incentive to update their housing stock.

Pescadero’s fertile fields won’t be enough to retain food producers if people are worried about housing and land succession, says Horsley.

“How do we get a new generation to take over and make sure the land stays in row crops and agriculture?” he asks.


To learn more about Pescadero Grown! and Puente’s connection with local farmers, visit www.pescaderogrown.org.


New water quality rules affect Pescadero farmers

pescadero farm

Four South Coast farms – Ano Nuevo Flower Growers, Muzzi Ranch, Marchi’s Central Farm and Cascade Ranch – will have to monitor their fertilizer use and report nitrate levels in groundwater to state officials under an agriculture order adopted by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board in March.

The new rules mark the first time a California water quality agency has required farmers to prevent nitrate contamination of groundwater and surrounding creeks and rivers, based on the fertilizer they use to grow crops. The Central Coast region, which stretches from the southern tip of San Mateo County down to Santa Barbara, has some of the most nitrate-polluted groundwater in the state. And two rivers, the Salinas and the Santa Maria, are severely toxic to fish and other wildlife because they are used as pesticide drains.

A major report from UC Davis recently found that over 10 percent, or more than 250,000 people, living in California’s richest farming regions are at risk of getting sick from drinking well water contaminated with nitrates. The main culprits are fertilizer and cow manure, sources of nitrogen that break down into nitrates and enter the groundwater. Nitrate poisoning can lead to blue baby syndrome and has been linked to some cancers.

“We have been putting nitrates into groundwater for over 50 years at an increasing rate and if we removed all the sources tomorrow, the nitrate that’s already in groundwater will affect drinking water wells for decades,” report co-author Thomas Harter told KQED.

Pescadero got a taste of the statewide nitrate crisis in 2010 when San Mateo County Environmental Health officials discovered that families living in two farm worker housing camps were drinking dangerously high levels of nitrates.

“Every time I raise the nitrates issue people say, ‘Is it still a problem?’ People are ignorant of what’s happened around here with pesticides and nitrates,” says Puente Executive Director Kerry Lobel.

Now four local farms will be governed by the new rules from the Central Coast Water Board. (The rest of the land in San Mateo County is under the jurisdiction of the Bay Area Regional Water Board, which has no groundwater protection rules.) Of the four farms, three are newly classified as “moderate risk” for nitrates and pesticide problems. Cascade Ranch is classified as “low risk.”

The “moderate risk” farms will start testing their groundwater and sending the results to water officials, explains Angela Schroeter, Program Manager for the Agricultural Regulatory Program within the Central Coast Regional Water Board. “If the farmer is in higher-risk area for nitrate contamination, they are going to have to tell us which practices they are doing [to reduce the problem], like cover crops,” Schroeter explains. “The Water Board will be able to say, ‘Are they sufficient?’ The second question is, do we know whether they’re effective?”

To answer that question, farmers will now be required to report which crops they’re growing and how much fertilizer they’re using to grow them. Certain crops typically add more nitrogen to groundwater, especially if they’re being over-fertilized.

Joe Muzzi says his farm, Muzzi Ranch, has been testing fields for years to make sure they’re getting just enough fertilizer, phosphorous and other ingredients.

“We’re not fertilizing as much as they do in the Salinas valley, or spraying as much as they do,” he says. “We have a good crop rotation program and that’s a solution.”

Muzzi Ranch grows Brussels sprouts, leaks and fava beans. Muzzi does not typically report his crops and fertilizer usage to the state, but may have to do so now. Muzzi also provides labor housing to his employees, and the county tests their drinking water once a year for nitrate and other pollutants. Now he may have to do some additional testing himself.

Getting your water tested

Living in a rural area like the South Coast means that any household on a private well may be consuming nitrate-contaminated water without knowing it. Nitrates are colorless and odorless, and cannot be removed by boiling the water. State water officials encourage all domestic well owners to test their water each year; details are here. A nitrate test can cost as little as $15 per sample.

To learn more about the Central Coast 2012 Agricultural Order, visit http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/centralcoast/.