Commentary: American Dream flourishes in state’s strawberry fields


Issue Date: July 16, 2014
By Lorena Chavez
Lorena Chavez
The high yield, year-round harvest and strong demand for strawberries can sustain a family on a small parcel of land. The California Strawberry Commission says those factors and others have made the crop attractive to generations of immigrant farmers.
Photo/ California Strawberry Commission

For thousands of immigrants to California, the path to the American Dream literally winds its way through the state's strawberry fields. Perhaps more than any other crop, strawberries are defined by decades of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Mexico.

A report issued earlier this month by the California Strawberry Commission, titled "Growing the American Dream: California Strawberry Farming's Rich History of Immigrants & Opportunity," illustrates how many new Americans find that strawberries are a viable ladder to success.

According to the report—which can be found on the Strawberry Commission website at www.californiastrawberries.com—a diverse community of 400 family farmers dominates the state's strawberry production, which accounts for nearly 90 percent of all the strawberries grown in the United States.

Sixty-five percent of these farmers are Latinos, a quarter of whom worked their way up from field workers to supervisors and eventually owners of their own farms. Another 20 percent are Asian Americans, primarily Japanese and, most recently, Laotians. The remaining 15 percent are comprised of European Americans, with some tracing their ancestry to Gold Rush pioneers.

The story of my father, Luis Chavez, illustrates this immigrant experience. He came to the United States from a small, rural town in Jalisco, Mexico. Born in 1934, he was raised in a home with no electricity or running water. He hasn't attended a single day of school in his entire life. His family grew corn and beans to survive.

With no money in his pockets, he arrived in California in search of a better life in 1955, as part of the Bracero program. Like generations of immigrants, my father realized that the key to success was hard work. He first worked in a dairy, covering double shifts for 16 years until the family could scrape up enough money to lease an acre to plant strawberries.

While still working their regular jobs, my parents would get up at 4 a.m. every day to tend their plot, slowly building their business. Gradually, they expanded to become L&G Farms. My siblings and I now work side by side with my father to farm 300 acres in Santa Maria, where we employ several hundred people.

This story is not uncommon. But why are so many immigrants drawn to strawberry farming?

Due to their high yield, year-round harvesting and strong consumer demand, strawberries are able to sustain a family on a relatively small parcel of land. The barriers to entry are also favorable to immigrant farmers, because they can afford to lease and not buy their farmland.

With our deep and longstanding immigrant tradition, California strawberry farmers have been highly vocal in advocating for immigration reform. Certainly, we are concerned about the need for a pool of workers to harvest our crops. But more importantly, we share a desire to make sure that future generations of immigrants have the opportunity for the upward mobility that strawberries have provided for our family.

Along with other California strawberry farmers, and even Silicon Valley executives, I have made several trips to Capitol Hill to tell Congress about the critical need for meaningful immigration reform.

While recent election results have stalled efforts, immigration reform should not be postponed indefinitely. And it definitely should not be a partisan matter.

On one of our trips to Capitol Hill, one of my colleagues, a first-generation Mexican-American farmer from Salinas, eagerly sought out a statue of President Ronald Reagan, his hero, who granted amnesty to millions of immigrants. This simple act paved the way for my colleague to become an American citizen, gradually working his way to become a strawberry farmer employing nearly 100 workers. Another American Dream realized.

The commission's report provides a strong reminder about the sacrifice, pride and contributions made by this nation's immigrants throughout our history.

It also underscores the fact that immigration reform is as American as, well, strawberries.

(Lorena Chavez is a second-generation strawberry farmer from Santa Maria and secretary/treasurer of the California Strawberry Commission.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.