by Spec MacQuayde, February 25, 2016
Snow flurries blow through our region these days, breezes gusting from the northwest. Most folks complain about the winter weather, but the writer in me savors this time of year. I loaf without guilt and listen to birds outside our thin single pane windows. Millions of blue-gray sandhill cranes drift in flocks audible from miles away, louder than the train laying on its horn through the town of Verona. My neighbors' guinea hens have moved to our place, and they cackle incessantly. Roosters crow, hens cluck the egg-laying riff, and the various species of songbirds tweet their tunes.
I'm hoping to start tomatoes, peppers, and brassicas soon in the back bedroom where I convert a bunk bed to a series of shelves only to pop the seeds before they go to the greenhouse. The past years I've only done a few hundred of each, enough to cover our own use and the small CSA, but this season we are going to sell starts out front the house in the spring months. I think some of my neighbors have the same idea.
Always knew this would happen," the other farmers say. "You can't get that big, that fast."
By far the largest retailer of vegetable starts as well as wholesale growers of melons and other produce in our valley if not the whole region, my former employers [dubbed "Grizzly and Bambi" in 2011 pieces in this publication] have declared bankruptcy and skipped the scene.
The relatively young couple — high school sweethearts in their mid-40s now, had created an empire that included winter produce crops in Florida. They supplied vegetables to Wal-Mart, and in the last few years built not only an industrial packing facility with docks for dozens of tractor-trailers but a veritable concrete prison for the busloads of Mexican men who labored day and night. The packing facility operated 24/7 in the harvest season. The place seemed overwhelmingly ambitious when I took a job in the spring of 2011 as sort of the head field master in charge of whipping the slaves, modeled after the even larger produce farms in Florida, Georgia, and Texas of previous centuries.
I guess my friend, "Uncle Huck," who convinced Grizzly and Bambi to offer me the position of overseer gave these folks the impression that since I'd been growing vegetables for more than a decade in California I'd naturally been in charge of gangs of Mexican field workers, when in reality I'd piddled around on this little hippie escape farm in the Mendocino hills where passive-aggressive intellectual people have a hard time telling others what to do or taking orders. In the greenhouse months of early spring 2011 — before the busses brought the workers up from their fields in Florida and Georgia, I got to know Grizzly — the massive Germanic Viking with blonde curls and Bambi — the plump, voluptuous hen, almost too intimately. I'd never met anyone who worked so hard. Grizzly ventured out to the greenhouses at like 4am to hand-water all the plants even though he'd installed automatic systems that worked just fine — only because Bambi claimed he did a better job than the sprinklers. Getting to know them as we worked in silence — the two had no sense of humor and didn't believe in music, only listening to positive thinking tapes, I remembered why high school sweethearts always made me nauseous.
"So you get up at 4 every morning because Bambi says you do a better job? You do this every day?"
"Yeah!" he replied, a wild, almost heroic look in his eyes as he drove ahead. "Go! Go! GO!"
Gradually Grizzly and Bambi lectured me about the employees who would soon be arriving from down south. "Mexicans are good people. You can't trust them, though."
Servicing their tractors, changing oil & fuel filters, cleaning the cabs, I discovered binoculars behind the seats.
"The Mexicans loaf when you ain't around," said Grizzly, who also despised birds and trees because of the Food Safety regulations. "Sometimes I wonder why God created birds."
As the planting season rolled into gear, my son — then 14 — joined me with crews of dozens of Mexican dudes who rode a white prison bus from field to field, working 12 to 18 hours per day with no overtime, no opportunity for these guys to get laid or purchase a six pack of cervesa. Somehow they always had weed, though, and no doubt Grizzly and company spied through binoculars on us passing a joint behind the six-man, three-row transplanter. Every day I witnessed civil rights abuses and started reporting on them in the AVA, composing the articles on Sunday mornings when they let me have a few hours off for church. Eventually Grizzly and Bambi fired me because I pointed out the workers were all handling melon transplants freshly sprayed by me with the fungicide Bravo in direct violation of Monsanto's warning label on the bags. That was the main reason, though what they told me was that they'd discovered I hadn't actually gone to church on the Sundays when I'd asked for a few hours off.
The next few seasons Grizzly and Bambi's operation grew exponentially. Their own land was exhausted after too many seasons of back-to-back melons so they offered astounding prices to lease farm ground as far as 60 miles away. At the time none of locals really knew all the details, that they'd tried to convert Florida swampland into vegetable production, that they were leasing soil in Georgia. It amazed the other farmers that these guys were planting huge melon fields so far from their washing and loading facility, with the obvious problem of hauling them behind tractors. Eventually the Indiana State Police had to intervene after several loads of melons overturned on Highway 50, operated by guys who had no driver's license, but what really tipped the scales on their operation occurred in the middle of watermelon harvest when a group of Mexican men finally got together and reported to some government officials that they'd been seriously stiffed on paychecks repeatedly.
Grizzly and Bambi owed several million bucks to a multitude of local businesses when they finally declared bankruptcy. They held the auction on a Wednesday in mid-January, and some of us local produce farmers got excited, thinking we'd get a steal on useful items like T-posts for tomatoes, of which I knew they had about a million.
"They barely advertised in the local papers. Weather's supposed to be crappy. Who's gonna show?" we all said. Those people had every contraption known to be used for produce production except hoes. They had like eight yellow school busses, along with the white prison bus, dozens of brand-new tractors not only in Indiana but Georgia and Florida, three-bed plastic mulch layers and transplanters with seats for 6 workers on the back, all sorts of cultivators and wire hoops for row-covers, about eight greenhouses — they had everything under the sun except hoes. Grizzly and Bambi didn't believe in music, birds, trees, beer, or hoes. I swear to God this multi-million dollar produce operation was totally void of hoes. The three months I worked there, I searched but found none. Rather, they'd pay crews of six dozen Mexican dudes to crawl on all fours for twelve hours a day, pulling weeds by hand in the June sun.
Turned out Grizzly and Bambi, or maybe the banks who'd taken over, had advertised on-line, and vegetable growers showed up from Texas, Georgia, Florida, and Michigan. The bidding had already started for the more expensive items. Armed with only a few grand in cash, I decided the whole deal was a waste of time but stuck around for a minute, watching the bidding on that three-bed transplanter I used to run with the crew of six Mexican dudes riding at my mercy. It had two water tanks that each held several hundred gallons, and with the six guys riding on the back the front tires of the tractor would get air-born when the tanks were full. I had to steer with the right and left brakes, the lives of these guys not in my hands but depending on the dexterity of my feet, feeling like I was guiding an airplane. The implement actually looked like it had wings, with these corrugated steel shelves on top to hold all the flats of melon starts, and some grower purchased it finally for nearly twenty grand.
After that massive transplanting machine, the auctioneer announced that the next bidding would be done by the lot. The auctioneer's helpers, wearing the same purple sweatshirts and baseball caps bearing his logo, escorted a group of six Mexican dudes out to the edge of the docks where tractor trailers were loaded, sort of like a stage.
"What the hell is this?" I asked a farmer standing beside me.
"Six-gangs," he said with a southern drawl that stood out even in our region.
The bidding started at twenty. "Who'll give me twenty one? Twenty one, twenty-one, twenty-one, now twenty-one five right there number — what's that? Six-one-five. Twenty two, now…"
Twenty-two what? I wondered. Twenty-two cents per pound? Surely it wasn't twenty-two dollars for the whole package. I didn't want to ask the southern gentleman next to me, not wanting to sound ignorant.
The fellows on the auction block smiled nervously, as if on a job interview.
I wanted to bid, for the hell of it, but still had no idea what exactly was going on. The southern gentleman next to me raised his hand at twenty-four, stayed in until twenty-seven and bowed out, so I asked him. "Is that like twenty-eight grand? Or by the pound? What are you bidding on?"
"I wouldn't go a nickel over thirty," said the fellow, shaking his head and sipping some lukewarm instant coffee from a Styrofoam cup. "Those Texas growers must be doing better than us in Georgia."
Thirty-what? I still wondered, as the first six-gang went for thirty-one. Rather, I tried a different line of questioning as my new acquaintance refrained from bidding on the next group. Gradually I got the picture that the Mexican dudes were not being purchased by the pound, and it was only the rights to their labor that the big farms were bidding on. "Sort of like football players in the NFL only they don't get paid as much?" I asked.
The southern gentleman kind of ignored me after that, and I decided to go back home, wondering what the hell I would do with a six gang if I bid on one. They'd be more productive than traveling hippies, I thought, but how would you know what their personalities were before you bid on them? Did the six guys get along? Did they choose to be lumped in that particular group, or were they just divided up arbitrarily?