By Stephanie Metzinger
Carefully hauling ladders from tree to tree, ninja-like workers skillfully scale up and down the tallest of palm trees to cut down bagged bundles with a machete-sized curved knife. These laddermen, called Palmeros, are the magic behind the harvest of the illustrious honey-flavored Medjool and Deglet Noor dates.
“A lot of people think of agriculture as an unskilled, low-wage job. That’s not the case here,” said Albert Keck, President of Hadley Date Gardens, in a recent social media video on date harvesting. “Being a Palmero requires a lot of strength and skill and also awareness of safety. On top of that, they have to do a quality job to bring in a quality crop. It takes a unique individual who is very strong with a strong work ethic, and I consider that all very skilled.”
He continued: “These workers are all very skilled and they earn very good wages.”
Palmeros are representative of the type of knowledge, precision and skill farmworkers possess across all crop types. For example, in Orange Cove, farmworkers use clippers as a second pair of hands to quickly harvest easy-peel mandarins. They move from tree to tree, oftentimes harvesting so quickly that you will only see a glimmer of the orange-colored fruit fall through the leaves. In Salinas, crews of workers move together as one traversing the fields, swiftly cutting heads of romaine faster than one can count.
By providing entry-level and skilled jobs for immigrants seeking to take the first step on the “American Economic Ladder,” the agriculture industry plays a positive role in the lives of migrant families and immigrant communities. Immigrants travel from Mexico and other countries looking for higher-paying opportunities that will allow them to utilize their skills while building a secure future for their families; agriculture provides that pathway for success. In addition to jobs, agricultural employers also offer a range of employee benefits to their farmworkers, including health coverage, paid time off (PTO) and company-paid retirement plans.
The gateway to success for these loyal, dedicated farmworker food heroes does not just stop at fringe benefits and job possibilities. Farmers are dedicated to advancing the professional and personal development of their workers and prioritize growth opportunities among their workforce.
Stories of career progression for field workers are commonplace among Western Growers membership. Below are just a few examples of real advancements made by real farmworkers.
(Editor’s Note: Some quotes were translated from Spanish to English.)
Anibal Escobar | Talley Farms
Working in the field allowed Anibal Escobar to pay for his education and graduate from college. Now he serves as Director of Compliance and Ground Operation Manager for Talley Farms, overseeing the farm’s food safety and employee safety programs.
“I immigrated to the United States in 1997 when I was 14 years old. I started working in agriculture because all of my family worked in agriculture,” Escobar said. “Working in the fields gave me the opportunity to finish my school because I paid for my education by working in the fields. I worked for the Napa crew for five years while I was in college. I am very grateful to Talley Farms who gave me the opportunity to start my career here. Now I oversee food safety, employee safety and other aspects for the company.”
Benita Ruiz | Mulholland Citrus
A 25-year Mulholland Citrus veteran, Benita Ruiz was promoted to Crew Lead/Nursery Manager 10 years ago.
“We decided to promote from within because Benita was really the perfect person. She had all the expertise and leadership skills we were looking for,” said Heather Mulholland, Chief Operating Officer at Mulholland Citrus.
Since being placed in charge of her crew, Ruiz has gained the respect of her team and has excelled beyond expectations.
“I had to gain the respect of a lot of people because they were not used to a woman giving them orders. At the beginning it was difficult, but over the years I have been gaining the respect of my co-workers. Now we have created a great team. I feel very happy and grateful to be working here at this job and that I have been given the opportunity to perform this work,” Ruiz said.
Alfredo Lopez | Bowles Farming Company, Inc.
Since starting at Bowles Farming Company as a tractor driver in 2001, Alfredo Lopez’s career growth has mirrored the company’s growth. As the company expanded to more crops and explored new technologies, Lopez advanced from mechanic to foreman—dabbling in everything from welding to testing new equipment and technology. He is now the Equipment Operation Supervisor.
“I came to this company in March 2001, and I began working on the tractor. During that time, this company only grew cotton and alfalfa, so there were not many job opportunities. But the company was growing and there were some people here who gave me more opportunities like Cannon (Michael) and the family. They have a lot of respect for their workers,” Lopez said. “When they released new technology, there were more opportunities for people, and that’s when they offered me the chance to help with their tractors. As each day passes, I want to learn more and do the best possible job. All the people around here feel very protected and grateful that the company is growing,”
Angel Gutierrez | Church Brothers Farms
Angel Gutierrez started off driving trucks in the field for Church Brothers Farms, and, throughout the years, has been offered numerous growth opportunities within the company. More than 10 years later, he now runs the entire trucking and maintenance program for the farm.
“Church Brothers has shown me that they care about me by listening to my ideas. They listen to me, and they acknowledge everything we do. This family-owned company has shown me that I am part of their family by letting me grow with them,” Gutierrez said.