The Los Angeles Times has a standout story today—one of the best pieces I’ve read in a long, long time.
It’s a literary look by Mike Anton at the miserable lives of grape pickers in the Coachella Valley. The reporting is excellent, the writing is as good as it gets, and the topic is critical—the dark side of the labor system and the food supply.
Here’s the lede:
An hour before dawn in the camp of last resort. Dozens of men and a few women are asleep in the beds of pickup trucks, in the back seats of cars or on flattened cardboard boxes in the dirt behind the Toro Loco market. The air is cool, but the terrible sun is close at hand.
Martin Zavala is wrapped in a blanket, his head resting on a Scooby-Doo pillow, a pack of Marlboros under his neck. Thieves prowl at night and will snatch what is not secured. Drunks and meth-addled tweakers tease the dozing grape pickers, poking them with knives or guns. Zavala, his brother and four friends positioned their vehicles to form a protective perimeter — modern-day covered wagons on a wild frontier.
How often do you see writing like this in a newspaper?
Her head is covered with two bandannas and a cap, a spectral mask to protect her from dust and pesticides. She ducks under the leafy canopy and snips off a cluster of green grapes. She works quickly but carefully, cradling the bunch in her palm and scanning the berries. She snips off those that are shriveled, scarred or split. She snips those that are too small, misshapen or the wrong color.
She grabs the stem with slender fingers and flips the bunch over, mindful not to over-handle the delicate fruit. Snip, snip, snip. Then she places the cluster in a box at her feet and darts back under the canopy to get another.
“Animo,” says a foreman passing by. “Animo.” Show energy.
I could quote every paragraph of this story. It’s that good.
Many homeowners in Mecca cram tenants into spare bedrooms, backyard sheds and crumbling mobile homes. Many of these rentals don’t have running water, electricity, toilets or air conditioning.
In one warren of misery, a dozen men share what was once a garage. The aqua-green walls are filthy, the kitchen is caked with grease and the bathroom appears to be held together by mildew. But most of the beds are made and a few are stacked with folded, freshly laundered clothes.
The living room and kitchen are illuminated by a single bare bulb. The swamp cooler broke, and although it’s stuffy and hot, it’s probably for the best considering the jury-rigged wiring. Plastic bags filled with food hang from nails in a ceiling beam.
“There’s a lot of cockroaches,” says tenant Carlos Ramirez. “At night, it’s a party for them.”
This is the high cost of cheap food. The LAT reports that the farmhands’ wages of $8 or $9 an hour are lower in real dollars than they were forty years ago when Cesar Chavez organized the fields. And working conditions are abysmal. Regulations designed to protect workers are hardly enforced:
Heat killed five farmworkers in California last year, including a 17-year-old pregnant Mexican girl who collapsed after working nine hours in a Lodi vineyard without shade and little water. Dozens of others were hospitalized.
State law requires employers to provide water and shade and for employees and supervisors to be trained in heat-illness prevention. Nearly four out of 10 work sites inspected in California last year weren’t in compliance.
This is all happening in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Imagine what conditions are like in Mexico or the other impoverished countries that supply our cheap fruits and vegetables. And, while we’re at it, go ahead and think of the sweatshop laborers in China and the like that sew our clothes and put together our electronics.
Go read this whole thing. Then re-read it. And might as well tack it up on the bulletin board to remind ourselves what we got into journalism for and how it ought to be done.Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.