The Scramble to Pluck 24 Billion Cherries in Eight Weeks

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It was nearing dinner time, and Israel was in the kitchen of a rented house with his wife, Guadalupe, who was cooking tortillas on a hot plate, and their 18-year-old daughter, Nayeli, who was stretching tired arms. Israel and Nayeli woke up at 2:30 that morning so that they could drive an hour and 20 minutes to a cherry orchard near the Oregon border, arriving well before the sun crested the hills to begin 10 hours of picking. They had done the same every day for 10 days, and would do the same the next day, and again and again, for weeks, until Israel’s eyes started to droop as he drove. Each morning, Guadalupe would be up even earlier. When schools and day care centers were open, she would join her husband in the fields, but with them closed, the cost of a babysitter for the younger children would negate most of her day’s wages. Still, she got up every day to make fresh tortillas to pack for her husband and daughter’s lunches. Nayeli, she teased, didn’t like the store-bought kind.

The family was worried about getting sick — other than work, they went out only to pick up food, and a large bottle of hand sanitizer took pride of place in the middle of the plastic-covered kitchen table — but they were also ineligible for stimulus checks or unemployment benefits. There had been no question that those who were able to do so would keep working. There was no question for many people living and working in the valley, with its orchards and vineyards and fruit-packing houses and dairies and meatpacking plants. The virus first spread in more populous and affluent Seattle, on the other side of the mountains, but a lockdown there brought cases down quickly. Here, in Yakima County, the curve of the virus never really flattened; outbreaks spread in meatpacking plants, which the Trump administration prohibited from closing, and the warehouses where workers pack fruit for shipment and sale. (Workers at seven packing houses went on strike to demand more safety precautions and hazard pay, and at least one of the strikers, David Cruz, died of the virus.) In June, cases were rising faster than anywhere else in the state: Though the county was home to just over 3 percent of Washington’s population, it would by the next month have 20 percent of its cases. “If you stay home,” Israel said, “there is no money for rent.”

Israel and Guadalupe are both from Michoacán, one of the poorest states in Mexico. They used to live in New Mexico, then California, then Oregon. Israel worked in restaurants and construction until jobs disappeared in the 2008 recession and friends told him there was opportunity in the fields of Washington. By driving long distances, he can find work most of the year: trimming, thinning, trellising, harvesting. But he wouldn’t call it opportunity, exactly. Because of the pressure to work quickly, both he and Guadalupe had been injured falling from ladders and now lived with chronic pain: Israel in his shoulder, Guadalupe in her back. “Supposedly it was better here,” he said, “but it’s not. There’s more work for less money.”

Israel was still wearing his work clothes — he was careful not to wash them with his children’s clothes, because of the pesticides, which burned his throat — and there was cherry juice smashed into his pants. He’d brought home a large bucket of the fruit that he and Nayeli picked that day, a dark red variety called Coral, which was a nice kind to pick because the cherries are large and fill buckets a bit faster. For each bucket they filled, climbing up and down a ladder they carried from tree to tree, they earned about $3.75. Cherry work is sometimes compared to a casino: If the trees are full and there are few split cherries to pick around, the money can be unusually high for fieldwork, leading people to travel from California and elsewhere just for cherry season. But, Israel said, if trees “don’t have much, you’re just walking around for hours.” Today had been a good day. Not counting the three hours of driving or the cost of gas, he and Nayeli estimated that they each averaged $20 an hour. “You have to go very quickly to earn that,” Israel said.

Earlier, wanting to show how hard it was to stretch that money, Guadalupe gave me a tour of the house, the best they could find within their budget. “First, here,” she said, pointing down at rough cement as I stepped through the front door, “there is no floor.” Israel had pulled up the carpet, so full of rat excrement that the children were getting sick. He’d made other repairs, too, but there was much more that needed fixing: a leaking roof, with mold visible in the ceilings and windows; no working electricity in the back of the house; a shower, kitchen sink and toilet that all drained directly into a puddle in the yard. It cost a thousand dollars a month, plus utilities, and the landlady, who wanted to move into the house herself, was threatening to have the sheriff evict them. Guadalupe concluded the tour in the unlit back hallway. “We are essential, but we are in the shadows,” she said. “No one sees us.”

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