March 4, 2015

THE AMERICAN DREAM Latinos Flourish as California Strawberry Growers

According to a report by the California Strawberry Commission (CSC) published last year, just about two thirds of the strawberry growers in the Golden State are of Mexican descent.

In the past generation or two, many Mexican laborers have come to the United States looking for work and eventually ended up farming the land.  In fact, while there are also a good number of second and third generation Latino growers, the CSC report estimates that 25 percent of current Latino growers started as farmworkers.

The report—“Growing the American Dream: California Strawberry Farming’s Rich History of Immigrants & Opportunity”—discusses the rich history of the California strawberry industry and how it has provided opportunity for many immigrants.  “Perhaps more than any other crop, strawberries are defined by decades of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Mexico,” states the report.

In the first half of the last century, it was immigrants from Europe and Asia who began working the land and eventually created a rich history as U.S. growers.  Japanese-Americans have played a very significant role in the development of the California strawberry industry.  The report states that the first Japanese colony in North America was founded in 1869 outside of Sacramento, and by the 1940s Japanese immigrants had settled throughout California and proved to be capable farmers.  Of course, the unfortunate decision to send many Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II created a setback for that population, but they persevered throughout the rest of the 20th century.

“For nearly a century, California strawberry farming has provided a ladder to success for Japanese-American and other Asian families.  It has allowed generations to rise up from the fields to improve their lives, assimilate into American society and assume leadership roles in business, academia and government,” said A.G. Kawamura, a strawberry grower, former California Secretary of Food and Agriculture and longtime Western Growers member and director, in the report.

Today, workers from Mexico are following that same path.  Victor Ramirez is a third-generation strawberry farmer and was the 2014 CSC chairman of the board.  In the report he said, “California strawberry farmers embody the pursuit of the American Dream by growing a crop that lends itself to achieving that goal.  Their success plays out in their ability to grow 90 percent of the nation’s strawberries, supplying the nation with one of the most nutritious fruits in the market.”

According to the report, the path to ownership for immigrants is possible because of a number of unique characteristics inherent to strawberry farming which support an environment for small farmers to operate successful businesses.  These factors include lower barriers to entry, the ability to harvest a high-yield crop nearly year round on a small amount of land and heavy consumer demand.

Another grower from Mexico, Alfredo Ramirez, explained it this way:  “If you want to work hard, grow strawberries.  This is the only thing I know how to grow.  I’ve got the American Dream and I can’t ask for anything else.”

He came to the United States at the age of 18 to join his cousin in Los Angeles.  There he found work as a carpenter and cabinetmaker before moving northward to Redding, where he worked in a nursery that specialized in strawberry plants.   He became a naturalized American citizen in 2001 and now supervises the Canyon Nursery’s Manteca operations.  During peak season, the nursery swells to 350 workers who help raise 500 million strawberry plants annually.

In 1982, Alejandro Ramirez and his brother followed their father to California and sought work in the state’s strawberry fields. Ramirez fell in love and married a woman picking strawberries in his crew. Together, they started Alejandro Ramirez Farms.  In 2003, their business was expanding and they hired their first employee. Today, Ramirez is teaching the next generation how to farm.  Alejandro Jr.’s goal is to graduate from Hartnell College and California State University Fresno, and then make a career alongside his father as an agricultural engineer.  “It is a beautiful thing working with my dad.  I get to spend time with him.  He is a great boss and father,” said Alejandro Jr. in the CSC report.  “I am proud of him.  He has been a teacher to me and I fell in love with the farm life.”

Current CSC Chairman Edgar Terry’s family were also immigrants, but from a different part of the world.  “My great-grandfather Joseph emigrated from Portugal in 1890 and settled in Ventura County where generations of Terry family farming began.  Today, strawberry farming is my family’s livelihood and we continue to grow opportunities from the roots my great-grandfather established over 120 years ago.”

The California agriculture industry is rich with successful stories of immigrants who came to this country seeking the American Dream.  Mexico is only the latest country of many to serve as the source of this deep pool of talent.