The clock would strike 5 a.m., and in no time, my father would turn on the room light. “Time to go to work,” he would say.
This is how I spent my summer vacation in the late 1970s in my early teens.
While all my classmates prepared to go on extended family summer trips, fishing, camping, rafting, there I was, beginning my day at 6 a.m., working in the agricultural fields of the Salinas Valley.
The summers were a family affair, as my siblings and parents were right beside me. We all picked strawberries, cucumbers, garlic, and other vegetables
The work included making sure the fields were free of weeds and it meant moving 15-foot aluminum sprinkler pipes to water the field.
It was sun-up to sundown.
It was 6 days a week.
It was hot.
It was miserable.
I hated it.
I was embarrassed by it, because I was one of them. A farmworker.
So I ran from those fields as soon as I was out of high school and went to college. But looking back, I think farm work was the best job I ever had.
It was a lesson on life I received at an early age and it taught me to appreciate what I have today.
It taught me to give back whenever I could.
It taught me to be humble.
So when my managers asked me to produce a report on “a day in the life of a farm worker,” it was a no brainer.
I know the life. In many ways, I still am that worker in the fields.
Now in 2010 I returned to the fields as a reporter. The morning began at 5 a.m. in a Chinese Cabbage field in Gilroy, California
, the manager at Uesugi Farms welcomed us to spend a day with his workers.
"I've done it," said Aiello. "Let's just say I'm glad I won't have to do it any more, hopefully. It's really tough. These guys are here at the break of dawn. They work their asses off every day."
It was still dark, and in the distance we could see the silhouettes of the workers, marching from their cars through the field, to the conveyor belt that awaited them.
One worker sharpened his 12-inch knife he’d use to harvest the cabbage, also known as Napa Cabbage.
It was dawn, as the conveyor belt operator raised two flags on the highest point of the machine, The Stars and Stripes, and “El Tricolor”, the red white and green of Mexico
"They're proud of both countries," said Aiello. "They decided to bring a couple flags a while back, and put them up."
At 5:30, their long day began, bent over, gingerly cutting the cabbage from its root, and placing it on the conveyor belt, which slowly moved at the speed of the workers.
Another worker boxes the cabbage, while yet another stapled the box to prepare it for shipping.
"Because we need to," said Cortez, in English. "We need money. We need work. Work is low in other areas, so we gotta do what we can."
Cortez is a former carpenter, but when the economy soured, his construction industry tanked, and the Gilroy High School graduate was left with few options.
"It's not something I'd like to do," said Cortez. "But it's something we have to do."
Then there’s Pedro Aparicio
. It’s been two years since he hugged his family. Aparicio left Mexico because he needed to support his wife and 4 children back home. In Spanish, Aparicio said it's part of the things in life you have to do to survive.
They spent four hours bent over, until their break arrived. Then it was back to the grind.
All- the-while, music blared from a radio atop the conveyor belt.
The music seemed to lighten the mood, and allowed them to sing along to get their minds away from the hard work, the heat, and the backache.
"It's alright," said Cortez of his back. "It's sore, but you get used to it."
Supporters say immigrants do the jobs that no Americans want to do and in the case of farm work, they may be on target.
Just ask Aiello. "Even the last three or four years,' said Aiello. "The recession we've been in, I haven't seen too many white people coming to my office looking for applications for this kind of work."
Aiello is pushing for immigration reform. Not amnesty, but a guest worker program so he can help keep his big industry moving.
"A good stable workforce is key to what we do. And key to everybody's livelihood if they want to continue to eat," said Aiello.
California is the largest agricultural state in the country, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.
The 450,000 farm workers across the state help bring in more than $36 billion in revenue every year. And the California Agricultural Statistics Service reports there are also 650,000 auxiliary jobs that rely on farm work, from truck drivers to warehouse workers. There are also marketing and exporting jobs that rely on the work of farm laborers.
Back at Uesugi Farms, after their half hour lunch at 10:30 a.m., the workers are halfway to filling the order for the day.
It’ll be another five hours of backbreaking work.
Our pictures help tell the story of a job that not many can, or want to do.
They also show the beautiful greenery of agriculture.
But what the camera can't transmit, is the sweat under the workers hats, the ache in their backs or the dust in their eyes.
Published at 9:13 AM PDT on Jun 21, 2010