Tuesday, March 22, 2016
The profound planetary consequences of eating less meat
By Chris Mooney
A striking new study — but one that is bound to prove controversial — has provided a calculation of both the health benefits and the reductions in planetary greenhouse gases that might be achieved if the world shifted away from meat-based diets.
The results, while theoretical in nature, certainly make a strong case for treating the food system, and animal agriculture in particular, as a key part of the climate change issue. Namely, the researchers find that shifting diets toward eating more plant-based foods on a global scale could reduce between 6 and 10 percent of mortality — saving millions of lives and billions of dollars — even as it also cuts out 29 to 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions linked to food by the year 2050.
“Dietary change could have large health and environmental benefits,” says Marco Springmann, the lead author of the new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and a sustainability researcher at Oxford University (all four researchers involved in the work were from Oxford). But the study itself acknowledges that the research in some ways represents an idealized experiment, and changing food systems as dramatically as envisioned in the study would be a momentous task.
The researchers say it is “the first time, to our knowledge,” that health models and emissions models have been joined together in this way.
Much recent research has highlighted how agriculture, and especially eating meat, contributes to climate change. Ruminant animals, like cattle, belch methane into the air as part of their process of digestion. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, especially over short time frames of several decades — which is when the key decisions about mankind’s steps to address climate change will be made.
In addition, if tropical zones are deforested to make way for ranching, then animal agriculture can drive climate change in another way, since the planet’s forests are major storage areas for carbon that might otherwise end up in the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has recently charged that eating processed meats can be a risk factor for cancer, and a large body of health research points to the importance of consuming adequate fruits and vegetables in your diet to stave off a number of deleterious health outcomes.
Taking all of this as a premise, the new study uses a computerized model to examine four different dietary scenarios, for regions of the world and the planet as a whole, out to the year 2050. One is a standard “business as usual” outlook for our global diet, based on projections by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.
The second study scenario, by contrast, assumed a nation-by-nation implementation of a healthier diet in which people, on average, get adequate calories based on eating required amounts of fruits and vegetables, and consuming less meat and sugar (and not over-eating). That diet, says Springmann, consists of a “minimum 5 portions of fruit and veg, and half a portion of red meat per day.” It was based on expert assessments of a healthier diet and required energy intake by the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization.
In another scenario, the study also considered an even stronger dietary shift toward vegetarianism; and, finally, a shift of diets toward full veganism. In both of those diets, the food eaten was consistent with dietary guidance from the World Health Organization.
The research notes that these diets, as modeled in the study, are “not intended to be realizable dietary outcomes on a global level but are designed to explore the range of possible environmental and health outcomes of progressively excluding more animal-sourced foods from human diets.” It acknowledges that “large changes in the food system would be necessary to achieve” them and that, in truth, it is not expected that the world’s human population will get enough fruits and vegetables, or even food as a whole, over the first half of this century. (795 million people don’t get enough food in the world at present, according to the U.N. World Food Programme.)
Just to underscore this point, the healthy-eating diet alone would require 25 percent more fruits and vegetables consumed globally, and 56 percent less meat. The vegetarian and vegan diets require even larger shifts.
Springmann acknowledges that the changes that would be required — not just political or industrial, but cultural — would be massive. “We first want to show, is it actually worth thinking about it,” says Springmann. “And we show, yeah, it’s definitely worth thinking about it, and we hope with those numbers, we encourage more research and action to see how we get there.”
Certainly, the changes are striking — the healthy diet led to 5.1 million fewer global deaths per year in the model by 2050, from conditions like heart diseases, stroke, and cancer, especially in developing countries. The researchers said that more than half of the effect was from reductions in meat consumption (other factors included less over-eating). The other diets, in the model, saved even more lives.
At the same time, implementing these diets greatly cut greenhouse gas emissions from the food and agriculture sector. With the healthy diet that still contained some meat, global greenhouse gas emissions from the food sector only increased 7 percent by 2050, compared with an expectation of a 51 percent increase under business as usual. Again, the vegetarian and vegan diets had even sharper effects on emissions.
And as the study notes, “we did not account for the beneficial impacts of dietary change on land use through avoided deforestation,” meaning that the theoretical reductions in greenhouse gases could be even higher.
“We disagree with the premise of the study,” said Janet Riley, senior vice president for public affairs at the North American Meat Institute, by email, noting that the institute had not yet had the opportunity to review the research in detail.
“The authors suggest that somehow consensus exists that a diet that is lower in meat is healthier and we would argue that no such consensus exists. In fact, recent research is actually pointing to the health benefits of a balanced diet that includes meat in ensuring brain development in children, maintaining brain function later in live, preventing sarcopenia and anemia and so on,” Riley said.
Frank Mitloehner, a professor in the department of animal science at the University of California at Davis, pointed out that in the U.S., livestock related emissions only amount to 4.2 percent of the overall total. “Comparing the 4.2% GHG contribution from livestock to the 27% from the transportation sector, or the 31% from the energy sector in the United States, puts all contributors into perspective,” Mitloehner wrote in a document sent in response to a query about the new study.
But Mitloehner added that in other countries, the percentage of total emissions coming from livestock can be much higher.
Overall, the ability to cut emissions from the food sector could still be significant, because of the urgent quest, embraced by the nations of the world, to ramp down greenhouse gases quickly in the next few decades to avoid warming more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.
And as if that’s not enough, the research finds that these dietary shifts could reduce healthcare costs — in the U.S. more than any other nation, in fact.
“In terms of healthcare benefits, because the health expenditure is so large in the U.S., we find that the pure healthcare savings that would be associated with dietary shifts would be the largest actually of all countries,” says Springmann. By contrast, two-thirds of the actual health benefits of the dietary shifts would occur in developing nations, the research found.
Granted, any major shift of global diets would implicate huge changes in government policy and in industry — and might trigger some major resistance, not only from food producers, but also from individuals who, to put it bluntly, like to eat meat.
But Springmann says that over time, he thinks cultural change will push the world in this direction. “We already see a plateauing of meat consumption in higher income countries, like Europe,” he says. “So I wouldn’t say that the cultures now are prescribed to be the same cultures that we have in 2050.”
Chris Mooney reports on science and the environment.
Angry response means happy animal activists in dairy videos
By Jeff Jardine
Are California cows really happy?
The California Milk Advisory Board, some members of which are dairymen in Stanislaus County, suggests they are. Animal activists say they are not. The only guaranteed, 100 percent certainty is that these groups are not happy with each other.
Last month, members of an Illinois-based organization called SHARK (SHowing Animals Respect and Kindness) teamed with the Animal Legal Defense Fund to videotape cows at a dairy near Turlock. They’ve also protested outside of rodeos up and down the state. You’ve heard of the political activists MoveOn.org? These folks would be more like Moo-veOn.org.
The taunting and arguing that ensued during the February incidents could have passed for footage from a Donald Trump rally, sans the sucker punches.
Headed by SHARK President Steve Hindi, this clearly was not a stealth operation. Using elevated cameras and drones, they shot footage of dairy cows udder-deep in mud and whatever else is in the mud. They videotaped one cow limping along on an injured hoof. They shot video of some dead cattle. U.S. dairies average a mortality rate of about 9 percent, according to the Progressive Dairyman’s online industry publication. So it is not uncommon to see deceased animals awaiting arrival of the tallow truck.
Mostly, the activists succeeded in drawing the dairymen into verbal confrontations, which they videotaped and displayed in postings on YouTube. In one video, they were confronted by a burly dairyman who accused them of trespassing on private property when they shot their footage. He also claimed they cannot film private property, which indeed they can from public property. He played right into their hands and cameras perfectly. No paid actor could have done it so well.
They filmed Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputies who responded to calls from the dairymen, pulling over the activists and questioning them about trespassing. They filmed a red Jeep that drove off the pavement, in one instance barely missing one of the activists. The same vehicle pulled in front of another activist and spun its rear wheels, spewing dirt and gravel at the camera and the person holding it. The instigators became the victims, at least in Hindi’s udderly one-sided play-by-play account.
And they tried to draw sheriff’s deputies into the argument, accusing Deputy Steve Gerhart of being corrupt because he refused to immediately arrest the driver of the Jeep, whose face couldn’t be identified in the video.
“… the deputy from Stanislaus County refused to do anything,” SHARK’s news release stated.
Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson begged to differ when I talked with him Monday.
“They tried to bait our deputies, but (Hindi) sort of forgot to tell the viewers he had signed the citizen’s arrest document,” Christianson said. “They were pushing people’s buttons.”
A misdemeanor assault charge not witnessed by law enforcement must be filed as a citizen’s arrest, Christianson said. Gerhart later identified the driver of the Jeep as dairy hand Carlos Meirinho, who claimed he never intended to hurt anyone. Hindi filed the citizen’s arrest.
“Call me ignorant of the system,” Hindi countered on Monday. “They were able to look at the video clips and see for themselves. They gave us some forms to sign, and I signed them.”
The case is now with the District Attorney’s Office, which will decide whether to file criminal charges.
Hindi also filed a complaint criticizing Gerhart for not immediately reacting to demands that he question people at the dairy, and called Gerhart “corrupt.” That will merit an internal probe, Christianson said.
“But I have not found a policy that he violated,” the sheriff said. To the contrary, Christianson said Gerhart, Sgt. Frank Soria and the other deputies followed the department’s protocol when they didn’t engage the activists, refused to be drawn into arguments or retaliate in any way.
In fact, when the dairymen claimed the activists were taping from private property, Soria called Stanislaus County Public Works to confirm exactly where the public easement ends on Bradbury Road.
“He took a tape measure and measured 20 feet from the center line,” Christianson said. “They weren’t on private property.”
Jennifer Giambroni, the Milk Advisory Board’s director of communications, said the organization tries to prepare members for these kinds of events.
“California dairy industry groups have worked together to communicate with the farming community to be aware of their rights, to stay calm and to let law enforcement handle trespassers and other illegal activities,” she said. “While we understand that certain groups often deploy tactics designed to draw emotional responses to advance their cause, as an industry we don’t condone misbehavior or acts of intimidation. It’s important we all remember to show respect and restraint.”
The same would, or should, apply to the activists. Instead, the dairymen were mad at them. They feigned anger at the dairymen, who gave them the desired reactions.
And the cows probably looked at one another and thought, “And they worry about mad cow disease?”
Jeff Jardine: 209-578-2383, email@example.com, @JeffJardine57
Don’t believe that cheese is as addictive as drugs
By Karin Klein
Can we slay this nonsense once and for all? Cheese is not like crack.
No matter what you have read in even generally reputable publications, a study did not reveal that fermented dairy products are as addictive as drugs.
And I would never bother to say the obvious if the journalistic canard hadn’t just popped up again on Facebook, which provides endless opportunities to recycle old stuff, both deeply informative (ProPublica’s gripping police procedural about cops’ treatment of a serial rape case) and just plain wrong (the urban legend-busting site Snopes must be really busy since the advent of social media).
It’s not as though the Big Cheese Myth is destroying society. I doubt that parents have banned cheese from the house out of fear that their children will be stealing others’ toys to get their next baby Gouda fix.
But it’s a symbol of how science reporting is letting the public down when it comes to the many studies that purport to show us that one thing or another is good or bad for our health.
Usually, these studies are far from definitive and frequently, they’re not borne out by later studies. Remember how promising anti-inflammatory drugs looked for preventing Alzheimer’s disease, or the fuss made over the herbal supplement ginkgo biloba as a memory enhancer?
Both of those theories fell apart under the heat of years of randomized, gold-standard studies.
The original cheese study, published in the online journal PLOS ONE in February 2015, didn’t even examine actual eating patterns, which could be done by assigning people to eat a certain way, or at least by having them keep food diaries. It simply asked them to say which foods they found hard to stop eating.
The analysis was based on questions about limited numbers of foods that were posed to limited populations. But it was careful to put the phrases food addict or food addiction in quotes, or it referred to addictive-like behaviors. And in its findings, cheese wasn’t even singled out as a special culprit. Highly processed foods were, including pizza, as were highly fatty foods.
One website reported on the processed-food angle, but it also mentioned cheese, since that’s both high-fat and in pizza, a processed food. But the study was saying that pizza is processed to be high in fat and other ingredients that keep people wanting more. The website used the word addictive but also used such phrases as “may be” addictive and launched into an unfortunate side story about casein, a protein that can cause allergies, in cheese.
The story was then picked up on by others that brought up out of nowhere the notion that cheese was like crack cocaine, and that the study had singled out cheese as a problem food. They mixed the casein angle as though it were a vital ingredient, dropped the careful wording and misidentified where the original study was published, a mistake picked up in subsequent publications.
In other words, this was more like playing the childhood telephone game than real reporting. And things went viral from there. The public grows increasingly misinformed – and increasingly leery of science at the same time.
And don’t even get me started on how often journalists and the public mistake something that is correlated with a result with actually causing it.
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
El Niño didn’t bring the winter many wanted
By David Castellon
Despite predictions of winter coming in like Godzilla across California, the season didn’t have the claws and teeth that some forecasters expected.
Snow and rainfall was heavier than average this winter — which ended on Saturday — but not by much, a disappointment to some considering the season had a strong El Niño weather pattern.
That phenomenon, caused by warmer-than-average water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, has the potential to help generate a wet winter for much of California.
“Coming into this winter, we had pretty dire conditions. A lot of shallower wells were failing. Some got replaced and some didn’t. There were long waits for drilling [new wells],” said Paul Hendrix, general manger for the Tulare Irrigation District, which distributes surface water from the Friant-Kern Canal.
For the past two years, contracted recipients on the Friant-Kern water system received no allocations of surface water, Hendrix said. “All our farmers had to rely on their own wells.”
So it’s no surprise Hendrix and others who run farm and community water hoped this El Niño would generate monster storms.
But that didn’t quite happen.
“What we got was normal precipitation,” and a little bit more, said Steve Ottemoeller, water resources manager for the Friant Water Authority, which oversees the distribution of water from Millerton via Friant-Kern Canal.
“A lot of things have changed in the last few years, so what used to be considered a normal runoff will not result in a normal water supply — or what people consider a normal water supply from the Millerton Reservoir.”
Experts say the reasons range from soil and waterways across the state being so dry from the drought that large amounts of water are being absorbed into the ground — more than usual — and rehydrating it, so not as much ends up in lakes and waterways during the winter.
Add to that a large portion of water from Millerton will not be directed to farms and communities in Fresno, Tulare and Kern countries and instead will be directed to farmers to the west who partially surrendered their rights to that water so the Friant Dam could be built to create the lake in exchange for receiving water from the San Joaquin Delta.
But for the past two years, due to the drought and large amounts of Delta water being redirected under federal orders to protect wildlife, that system couldn’t meet these “exchange contractors’” contracted needs. As a result, they received about 300,000 acre feet of water from Millerton in 2014 and another 100,000 acre feet the following year.
A single acre foot of water would cover an acre one foot deep.
As result of all this, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Friday that Friant-Kern contractors will receive only 30 percent of their normal allotments of primary — “Class 1” — water. The overwhelming number of those recipients are agricultural operations, but the cities of Lindsay and Fresno get a portion of their community water by processing Friant-Kern surface water, as do the communities of Orange Cove and Terra Bella.
If not for obligation to give some Friant-Kern water to the exchange contractors this year, Ottemoeller said the Class 1 allotments to farmers and communities might be closer to 100 percent.
Still, he said, a 30-percent allotment is good news for farmers and residential customers who didn’t receive any Friant-Kern water the past two years.
And with Sierra-Nevada Mountain snowpack currently at 83 percent of average for this time of year, there’s a chance that the runoff could be heavier than expected, which could result in the Bureau releasing more than the currently-planned 30 percent allocations of Millerton water.
As for the secondary — “Class 2” — water allocations, they usually happen only if there is sufficient water remaining after the Class 1 allotments.
This year, that will be reversed, because of expectations for heavy runoff from the Sierra-Nevada snowpack this spring that could top the Friant Dam. The Bureau also announced Friday that 100,000 acre feet of water will be released from the reservoir by the end of April.
“[Water] districts will have to take their Class 2 water now, or it will be released as flood water,” even though this water is needed during the late spring and summer months to irrigate farms, Ottemoeller said.
He said the releases could begin today, and most of the water likely will be directed by the water districts into ponding basins and fields to percolate into the ground and help recharge aquifers below.
As such, Doyle said, “We are definitely still in a drought” and have to continue conserving water as was done before the winter.
“I think we all understood going in that one wet winter wasn’t going to fix the problem,” caused by years of drought, added Kevin McCusker, a spokesman for California Water Service Company, which operates the community water system for Visalia and parts of Goshen.
He noted that the average water level in Visalia wells is about 120 below the surface, pretty much the same level as last year.
Rice-growing experiment will cut water use but subtract from habitat
By Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow
California’s rice farmers pride themselves on environmental stewardship, saying their flooded fields provide habitat for millions of ducks and geese in an era when traditional marshlands have largely disappeared.
Now a giant Yolo County farm controlled by the family of Sacramento land baron Angelo K. Tsakopoulos will test whether it can grow rice with water measured in drops.
Conaway Ranch, a 17,000-acre farm in which the Tsakopoulos family acquired controlling interest in 2010, said Monday it will work with water-use experts from Israel to experiment with drip irrigation on a small portion of its rice fields. The project, aimed at reducing water usage, will start this spring on a 50- to 100-acre test plot.
“We believe this initiative represents the first use of drip irrigation in the U.S. for a rice crop,” said Kyriakos Tsakopoulos, the son of Angelo K. Tsakopoulos and president of ranch owner Conaway Preservation Group. “This effort could serve as a model for other farms and potentially save hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water in California if widely adopted.”
Rice is traditionally grown by flooding farm fields, and Sacramento Valley rice farmers have been hit hard by the drought. Experts estimate the 2015 rice crop was 30 percent smaller than usual because of water shortages.
The water savings from growing rice with drip irrigation could be substantial.
“If you move away from flood irrigation to subsurface drip irrigation, one can save up to 45 to 50 percent of the water, having the same crop,” said project consultant Eilon Adar, a hydrologist at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He said using less water also reduces the amount of pesticides and fertilizers that go into the soils.
Yet the possibility of Central Valley rice farmers switching to drip irrigation in droves is stirring concern among some farmers and environmentalists because of the importance rice fields play as surrogate habitat to replace the vast north-state wetlands that people have plowed or paved over.
“One of the benefits of those shallow flooded fields is wildlife habitat,” said Jim Morris, spokesman for the California Rice Commission. “Nearly 230 wildlife species depend on those fields for food and a resting place. That includes nearly 60 percent of the food consumed by the millions of ducks and geese that travel along the Pacific Flyway each fall and winter.”
Rice fields are also vital in spring, when the Tsakopoulos experiment will begin. This flooding provides habitat for black-necked stilts, ibises, egrets and other birds, as well as habitat for the endangered giant garter snake, said Meghan Hertel, an official with Audubon California.
“We’ve lost 90 to 95 percent of our wetland habitat, our riparian habitat and our floodplain habitat in the Central Valley … and rice is one of those crops that serves as surrogate habitat in multiple seasons,” she said. “You’ll find wildlife that use it year-round.”
Some in the environmental community said the Conaway Ranch experiment makes sense, even if it means there’s sometimes less water for birds.
Jonathan Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with the nonprofit Bay Institute in San Francisco, said the benefits to wildlife from flooded rice fields are unmistakable. But in critically dry years, with several fish species facing possible extinction, he said it might make sense to use drip irrigation and keep more cold water in the Sacramento River.
Rosenfield said water diversions to rice farms contributed to struggles facing the winter-run Chinook salmon, an endangered species of fish that spawns in the heat of the summer in a short stretch of river below Shasta Dam.
Last summer marked the second year in a row in which the Sacramento River got too hot, killing off almost an entire generation of juvenile fish.
“If drip irrigation in this pilot project is going to reduce demand on water and be able to keep rice farmers going and reduce impacts to critically endangered fish populations, then that sounds like a good thing,” Rosenfield said.
Project proponents said they won’t turn their backs on the need to maintain wildlife habitat.
“Any new successful technologies developed on Conaway Ranch are intended to be used in ways that balance water efficiency with wildlife conservation and responsible land stewardship,” Kyriakos Tsakopoulos said in an email to The Sacramento Bee.
Hertel of California Audubon said that Conaway Ranch has been a good neighbor to wildlife. For instance, she said there’s a conservation easement on the property to protect the tricolored blackbird, which is under consideration for listing as an endangered species.
Also participating in the project are Lundberg Family Farms, a prominent Butte County rice grower; and Netafim, an Israeli company that makes drip-irrigation systems. Israel is considered a leader in water conservation, and the partnership was announced at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in Washington, a meeting that otherwise is being dominated by speeches by Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and other presidential candidates.
In part because of Angelo K. Tsakopoulos’ reputation as an aggressive developer, his family’s purchase of Conaway Ranch was controversial from the beginning. Yolo County officials initially feared the family would take huge swaths of land out of agricultural production. Eventually, the deal went through under a carefully negotiated settlement with the county.
Tsakopoulos, who developed much of suburban Sacramento, agreed to support agricultural preservation and the county’s flood-control efforts (the ranch sits partly in the Yolo Bypass, the 59,000-acre tract that serves as a kind of relief valve for the Sacramento River). The county said it wouldn’t stand in the way of limited water and land sales.
Around the time it acquired control of Conaway Ranch, the family made a deal to sell 10,000 acre-feet of Sacramento River water annually, starting this year, to the cities of Davis and Woodland.
Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler, email@example.com
National Public Radio
In Florida, Strawberry Fields Are Not Forever
By Dan Charles
Take a look at the next box of strawberries you find in the store. Depending on where in the country you happen to be, it may have come from Florida. But it won’t for much longer.
Come with me to Plant City, the center of Florida’s strawberry industry. Meet Carlos Torres, a brawny man with a friendly smile, standing in the early morning sunlight beside a strawberry field. Behind him are long, green rows of ground-hugging berry plants. Dozens of men and women with hats and long sleeves to shield them from the sun move down those rows, picking berries and placing them carefully, red side up, into plastic clamshell boxes, ready for the supermarket. Nobody, and nothing, touches these berries again until someone brings them home from the store.
“It’s a lot of bending over all day long,” I say, watching the workers.
“All day long,” agrees Torres. “All day long. Hard on the back. My props to them. It ain’t easy. Not everybody can do it.”
Torres works for Foxy, a strawberry grower, and he’s a “crew leader.” He finds these workers and makes sure they’re here every day. But Torres also makes it clear to me that he’s on the side of the workers.
“My boss came and told me yesterday, ‘Carlos, right now you’re probably the only crew leader I know who’s got 60 or 70 people out here. Everybody else has 20, 30, 15.’ He says, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep doing it!’ ”
“So what’s your secret?” I ask Torres.
“Treat them good,” the crew leader replies. “You treat them real good, with respect and all, and they’ll stay with you, and work for you.”
This crop, and these workers, have shaped Plant City, the self-proclaimed “Winter Strawberry Capital of the World.” Thousands of workers gather here every winter to pick strawberries in huge fields that all lie within about 10 miles of the town.
Gary Wishnatzki’s grandfather moved here from New York City in 1929 to grow and ship strawberries. “In those years, there was no other source of winter strawberries,” says Wishnatzki, who now owns the family business, Wish Farms.
The Florida season started slowly this year; the weather was too hot. Now, finally, the plants are producing a flood of berries.
But here’s the strange part: Florida’s strawberry growers already are starting to shut down their bountiful harvest, spraying some fields with herbicides to kill off the plants.
One reason, explains Dustin Grooms, farm manager for Fancy Farms, is that there can be so many berries that farmers don’t have enough workers to pick them. The berries get overripe, and then they’re worthless. “There’s fields right now that they’ve terminated because they just couldn’t keep up,” he says.
But there’s another reason, too. California.
California has come to dominate the American strawberry business. That coastal climate is practically perfect for strawberries, offering a much longer growing season than Florida. And when California’s berries start to hit the market, as they usually do at this time of year, the price drops. At some point, Grooms says, it’s no longer profitable to pick these berries.
“There’s a magic number, what it takes to pick a strawberry [container],” he says. And when the price goes under that magic number, “there’s no need to flood the market with cheap berries.”
So right now, as it does every year, Plant City is shifting gears. Growers are thinking about their next crop. Maybe it will be squash, or melons.
And those thousands of strawberry pickers also are getting ready to move on.
I met several of these workers at their children’s preschool. It’s a special center for the children of migrant workers run by the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA).
The workers tell me they’ll try to find work nearby for a few months until the end of the school year. But compared to picking strawberries, each job won’t last as long. Some weeks, there may be no work at all.
Carmelo Zefarina says he’ll soon be planting watermelon and cantalopes. “Then we rest maybe a week or two. Then the blueberry picking begins, which lasts like two weeks, until May. And then we pick tomatoes. And then we head north.”
Lourdes Villanueva, a former farmworker, now director of farmworker advocacy for the RCMA, says this movement from job to job is like a dance, and you have to move in step with the crops. “If you don’t leave when you’re supposed to, everything’s already taken, so then you have to move farther up north, or to a different crop,” she says.
But they usually stick with work that they know. “Most of the workers specialize in certain things. Many people think that you just pick strawberries, you pick oranges, you pick whatever. No! They’re very different,” she says. “It takes some time to get accustomed to the new crop.”
When Villanueva was growing up, her family knocked on farmers’ doors to find work. But farms are bigger now, and workers typically deal with middlemen, like crew leaders, or they may follow independent labor contractors who take them from one job to the next.
Bernarda Chavez, her husband and their two children follow their labor contractor from Plant City to North Carolina, and on to Michigan.
And when the weather turns cold up north, they’ll be back here in Plant City, picking strawberries.