Filed by Brett Clark
I met Ray Tidwell on a daily assignment, but I had been doing research on temporary work visas that allow workers to come to the United States for a few weeks or months at a time. I wanted to find a farm owner who used this program, but I did not know where to begin until I was assigned to go to Tidwell’s Berry Farm in April.
As Ray Tidwell showed the reporter and me around the farm, I asked him if he had ever used the H-2A temporary work visa to bring workers from Mexico to work on his farm for a season. He told me that he used the program many years and that he was actually expecting the workers later that month. He agreed to let me come back when the workers arrived to do a story on the program.
A few weeks later I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and drove to the Rhea County farm. Emily Tidwell, Ray’s wife, was expecting me at 6:45 a.m. to take photos of the workers as they began their day walking to the fields and picking strawberries all morning.
Emily introduced me to some of the workers and guided me to the field where they would be picking that morning. Their work began at about 7 a.m. and by 8 a.m. it felt like the field was a sauna. The morning was humid and hot, but there they were bent over picking strawberries and running back and forth through the fields and joking with Ray as he checked the quality of the berries.
I learned a lot about the workers that day from Ray and Emily. Two of the workers had been coming all six years that the Tidwells had used the guest worker program. Many others had been coming for four or five years. It was humbling to me that these guys jump at the chance to come do a job that so few Americans apparently are unwilling to do.
As part of the program the Tidwells are required to advertise the positions locally before they can bring the workers from Mexico. Ray said that on the rare occasion they do find someone locally to pick berries they rarely last a whole day before quitting. The Mexican workers are in the fields seven days a week, not by force, but by choice, because the more berries they pick the more money they earn.
At the end of the season I went back to see the workers clearing the fields to prepare for the planting in the fall.
The day was scalding. When they had cleared the fields of plastic and irrigation tape I rode in the back of a truck that Ray drove around the field while the workers threw the bundles of plastic into the back. It almost seemed as though this was not very hard labor, but rather a game they were playing for fun. I know the work had to be grueling, but their positive attitudes made me realize how lucky they consider themselves to have the opportunity to do this work if only for a few weeks a year.
The evening before the workers left I attended a party Ray and Emily threw for everyone who works at the farm during strawberry season. They played Spanish music and grilled meat and tortillas. Strawberry season had drawn to a close and it seemed to me that the workers were a little sad to be leaving the next day. Many of them missed their families and were glad to be going home, but they all seemed to have a strong affection for the berry farm. Many who were there for the first time this year said they hope they get the opportunity to come back for strawberry season next year.
The next day the men waited outside with their luggage for a shuttle to pick them up so they could take a bus back to Nueva Leon, Mexico. Emily came by to say goodbye.
The project was a learning experience because while many immigrants come to the United States illegally this was a group of men who come legally for a few weeks a year, and then return home to their families at the end of the season. They are not trying to build a life here. Many do not want to stay, but while they are here they make the most of the experience.
E-mail Brett Clark at email@example.com