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Monday, September 20, 2010

Strawberry Picking

When I was in the third grade we moved to Arkansas where I grew up into adulthood.  We lived on a farm and though we didn’t move around we did the same type of work usually associated with the term “migrant workers”.  In fact we often worked in the fields right beside migrant workers who came to our area during the early spring growing and autumn harvest seasons.  My family had no way to make a living other than farm labor. 

After a long winter with no work because of the season and no money except what little was still left from the autumn season which was usually nearly nothing, the first work any of us could find in the spring was strawberry picking.  There were several farms within a couple of miles of where we lived at that time which had 20 to 30 acre patches of strawberries.  So we picked strawberries each spring to get some money for food and necessities. We were paid $.05 per quart to pick them.  A quart box for picking strawberries was a small, paper thin wooden box with a wire rim on top.  They were equivalent in size to the green plastic ones you can buy in the grocery store today. The farmer provided quart containers and carriers with handles that would hold 10 to 12 quart boxes. Most pickers would take 4 to 6 carriers and drop them on the row they were going to pick berries from as they walked to the other end of the field.

I hated this work with a passion! I was tall even at that early age so I had to bend over from the waist and stay bent over or kneel down in a squat to pick the berries which grow close to the ground.  The berry plants grew out into the middle between the rows so you couldn’t pick from your knees without crushing the plants and unripe growing berries. You also had to walk very carefully to keep from stepping on the plants as you walked up and down the rows.  It was often necessary to slide your foot under the plants that had grown out into the center just to have a place to stand or step. You would get in trouble and often yelled at by the farmer if you damaged the plants or ripening berries while walking through the berry patch. You also got in trouble if you were caught eating berries. The farmers we worked for would fire you if they caught you eating the berries! Perhaps that is why I don’t really care for strawberries even today.  

If we worked very hard, and the berries were good, we could pick 100 quarts or a little more a day. That was five dollars for a ten hour work day.  To be able to do that we had to stay bent over picking without any rest breaks except for lunch time.  After just a little while your back would feel like it was breaking and your head would start to swim, but all you could do was stretch a little and go back to picking. I guess we would have starved if we hadn’t picked strawberries but I think I would have been willing to become a little thinner and pick fewer strawberries.

How do you think the strawberries you buy at the market today get picked? There are no automated strawberry pickers.  There are people today who are still living and working very much like I did when I was eight years old and the work is no less back breaking. I have seen TV stories of the berry patches in California today and they have wider rows with growth control fabric so the berries don’t grow into the middle of the rows now. At least you can kneel and pick today.  

The house I lived in at that time was not much but most of us today wouldn’t even store our riding lawnmowers in the shacks some of these people live in today, if they have even a shack. Many of them sleep in abandoned buildings, old cars or if they have a car of their own they sleep in it, often the entire fmily.  You can take it from me; today my family and I would have to be a situation that was near starvation before I would willing go back to those days. I don’t want to pick strawberries. Good old days, I don’t think so!

Every human deserves a descent place to lie down to sleep at night. They deserve to have safe clean work environments. They deserve enough pay to live on and take care of their children.  Little children eight years old should not have to work as hard as the adults in the family just for the family to survive. 

Ok I will get off of my soap box and end this by saying “I hope you have a very enjoyable dinner; with strawberry shortcake for desert.


  1. Magnificent writing. You are able to bring a story to life - I feel I'm there with the aching back, hearing the angry farmer and knowing the injustice of it all. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  2. Byron, I also picked strawberries, usually around Lake City, Arkansas. We did eat them while we picked though. Your story puts me back in time...sigh.

    Pauline Evans

  3. We picked strawberries, and blueberries too, and cut grapes in their season. We cute Polk, picked up walnuts, and then had to do all the chores on our tiny farm after returning home. This sure brings back a lot of memories!