This post is sponsored by the California Farm Water Coalition.
I have a real soft spot for farmers. I've shared a bit about it before: a kind neighbor changed my life by sharing insights into lessons he learned from hours spent stooped over investigating green beans. “The little things are the big things,” he once told me, pointing out a dark spot on a leaf that indicated a festering insect issue in one of his crops. He later carved my name into a pumpkin and let me watch as it grew into a raised, lasting impression. I honed an eye for detail after that, and I learned to listen.
I learned to listen to the farmers.
My sister died two months ago, and the first business trip I braved after her death was a farm trip. It seemed fitting. I got to travel to Salinas with a friend of mine, a fellow blogger who is no stranger to hardship. I like people like that. I wanted to be surrounded by people like that after Chanel died. So we went together to the green fields to listen to the men talk about how water and labor shortages are stifling agriculture in our once-lush state. We expected the usual fascinating, tragic, and inspiring stories that manage to stand out markedly from each other in their individuality amidst a common theme of bureaucratic nightmares obstructing progress.
And then something strange happened.
Women showed up.
I'm not saying that the farm industry is some sort of patriarchy, but there's been a certain trend among the dozens of farm tours I've taken part in over the years. It's a male-dominated industry, by and large. I have more photos like this – with women on the sidelines – than I can count.
So I was surprised when one of the main people who came to speak to us at Tanimura & Antle about PlantTape's impact on the industry was a woman. She told us about the dwindling viable lettuce crops in this area, the former “salad bowl of the world.” She showcased cutting-edge technology that the farmers use to fight mounting costs and a plummeting labor force.
European technology was borrowed, eventually bought and leveraged to grow from a capability of 20 acres per year to 3800 acres per year planted by a machine that replaces 17-20 people and plants twice as fast as that crew would, individually planting seedlings that have been perfectly grown in a greenhouse environment in long tape strips. Some may bemoan the replacement of humans with automation, but the industry has been furthered as a result and standards raised as a whole. Skilled labor is still needed for the harvest, and in order to attract those people the company provides housing, child care, paid further education opportunities, ownership and employment as opposed to contractor positions so they get medical, 401K and retirement benefits. With all that, they still can't bring in enough qualified people.
At lunch, I sat across from a woman flanked on either side by two male counterparts. I pointedly asked about her experience as a female working in the farming industry. “Women in agriculture” was the commonly-used term, she told me, and the concept is on the rise as workplace norms are shattered throughout businesses everywhere.
At a strawberry farm nearby, the (female) manager who led us on the tour talked about breastfeeding support for working moms. A subject previously regarded primarily as a “woman issue” in fields (and, let's face it, board rooms) across the country is now graciously seen as a “workforce issue.”
I looked at the dozens upon dozens of strawberry boxes rapidly filling nearby, and took note of the stickers on each. “Every sticker is an individual person,” the manager told me. “We can track each box so that if quality issues ever arise, it can be pinpointed to the very person who picked it.”
In that moment, the very humanity of those strawberries struck me.
What's personal is political.
What's political, I'm realizing, is personal as well.
Amidst earnest conversations about politics and labor shortages, services and access and immigration…I'm not sure that women in the labor force was meant to be the focus of my blog post here. But I'm not sure that it wasn't.
“The little things are the big things,” echoed in my head. The details matter. Overall themes and trends make up the cadence of an industry, and this one is clearly swinging in a new direction. We ended the day at the infamous Taylor Farms, a brand that has experienced such massive growth in the last few years that its own internal systems have dramatically outpaced change in the industry as it keeps up with demand at Starbucks, Chipotle, Burger King, private label chop salads, power meals, stir fry kits and more.
Auto-harvesters that cut produce with high-powered water streams have reduced crew size by 50% with triple the results, freeing up ability to use worker skill more for quality assessment and further development.
As hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce flew past me on conveyor belts, I couldn't help but notice the women tending to the giant machines.
The little things are the big things.
And we should all learn to listen.
In this season of life, for me, that's a lesson worth taking to heart.