Think of your “normal” day. When you wake up in the morning, do you have a good idea of what you will be doing? Do you have a schedule you try to keep? Is your life at least somewhat predictable?
The community we come from has, at least, the illusion of predictability. Whether it is school, work, sports, or other activities, our schedules might change but we can anticipate what we will be doing and what we will be required of us. I have a good idea of where I will be each day and how the day might unfold when it starts. My calendar lives on my phone and I plan things for days and months ahead. Unforeseen things certainly happen and life often shows us that we don’t have as much control as we think, but at least we tend to operate from a place of predictability.
The farmworking community in the Skagit Valley lives with a great deal of unpredictability. A change in the weather might mean not having work any given day. A sick family member might mean that the whole family doesn’t go to work in the fields (families often work together – parents and children as young as 12 – in order to bring in enough money for the family to live on). Workers often don’t know what field they will be picking in or the type of picking they will do (e.g., berries for market which pay better, or berries for canning or juicing which pay much lower) until the afternoon before. We experienced some of the unpredictability of life here today.
We were supposed to be working with the Paz family again this afternoon picking berries for market. When we arrived in the field at 1pm, the workers had just finished filling the order for the day, meaning there was no more work to be done. Yesterday, they didn’t get finished with work until 8pm (a 14 hour day). Today, they were done at 1pm.
The initial reaction of our group was gratitude. Picking berries for long periods of time is hard, oftentimes boring and tedious, and it was sunny and hot. But the gratitude quickly changed into disappointment as we weren’t able to spend time with and learn from the Paz family. As much as we don’t like (farmworkers don’t either...they would rather be doing other things), we longed to be in relationship. And we missed out on deepening our relationships today.
So we spent the afternoon getting a little bit of rest (as I imagine the farmworkers who were through with work early did as well), preparing for our time telling Bible stories with kids from the community at Resurreccion tomorrow afternoon, and taking an unplanned trip to Deception Pass state park. The downtime was an unexpected gift, but we really wish we had been in the fields.
Before the unpredictability of the day unfolded, we had visited Sakuma Brothers Farms – the largest berry producer in the Skagit Valley. If you have ever eaten Häagen-Dazs strawberry ice cream, you have likely eaten Sakuma Bros. strawberries as they are one of one a few suppliers used in the recipe. Sakuma Bros. has been in the news a lot over the last several years as they have been the target of demonstrations, protests, and strikes aiming at improving the wages, and working/living conditions of farmworkers in the Skagit Valley. We spent some time with Ryan Sakuma, a third-generation owner of the farm (the farm is also owned by his uncles, all second-generation owners). Ryan shared with us about the history of their farm (as Japanese Americans, they almost lost the farm during the internment of Japanese Americans), how their company has expanded from simply growing produce to packing a large variety of produce grown all around the country (they were packing frozen edamame while we were there), and a lot about the complexities of farming. Sakuma grows and/or packs produce that is shipped all over the world, especially to Asian markets. He told us that the Japanese have such high standards for produce that a clamshell containing three blueberries (three…not three pounds) was selling for $50 a few years ago!
We ended our time by looking in one of the housing units available to Sakuma workers who live more than 60 miles away from the farm (many of the workers picking here during the season are “migrant” workers, meaning they travel around the country throughout the year following the different picking seasons. Other workers, like the Paz family, live here year-round, working as much as they can during the picking season and then very little during the winter). After our tour of the Skagit Valley yesterday and seeing the houses that were occupied by up to 20 families, we didn’t know what to expect. We also had seen the camp across the river from our campsite that had been closed two years ago because of unsafe and unsanitary conditions. But we were pleasantly surprised with the housing at Sakuma Bros. It is small, it is basic, but it is livable with a small refrigerator, a gas burner for cooking, and two bunk beds (with one bunk empty for storage). Three people, each allotted 70 sq./ft. per regulations occupy units like these. They also have double units for families up to six people. Just a few years ago, seven people would have occupied the single units, and 14 people occupying the doubles. Things are changing for the better for farmworkers in the Skagit Valley.
Our group with Ryan Sakuma at Sakuma Bros.
Tomorrow is our last full day here in the Skagit Valley. We’ll be working at a new farm with a different member of Resurreccion in the morning, and spending time with kids from the community at Resurreccion in the afternoon.
Your prayers for the people who live and work here in the Skagit Valley are welcomed tonight – for continued progress in working and living conditions, for reconciliation between peoples, and for strength and courage for those who work seven days a week to bring produce to our tables.