It was with profound disbelief that I skimmed the rough draft of a story emailed to me by the photo editor of a environmental non-profit. The Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) in collaboration with The Nation magazine had asked me to shoot images to accompany a story on the use of toxic pesticides in the strawberry fields of Oxnard, California. As I scrolled through the document, my initial reaction was one of “there is no way this could be going on for so long.” But as I came to the end, I was merely left with the impression that the incredibly thorough, detailed and alarming story was indeed true.
For those of you who don’t know, Oxnard is where much of the state grows the deliciously sweet, fat and juicy strawberries before they are shipped all over the country. Here in Southern California, you’re simply driving blind if you don’t pass by at least a few roadside stands selling the fruit in gigantic flats for $12 or $13 dollars. Just take a drive on the 101 freeway through Camarillo and Oxnard and you’ll see fields and fields bustling with activity in the spring as workers literally run between the fields and nearby stations where they deposit their boxes of freshly picked fruit. Look closely enough, though, and you might see others running by the fields as well, and that’s where this story begins.
As it turns out, high schools like Rio Mesa High and Oxnard High are smack dab in the middle of these bountiful fields. And, though there are some organic fields mixed in, the vast majority of fields apparently use pesticides during the growing season. As former Oxnard High track team member Dayane Zuniga tells reporter Liza Gross, it was during her training sessions running the roads which surround the fields and the high school that she began to notice men in hazardous materials suits spraying the fields.
Having grown up in the agricultural community, she was used to strange odors like the ones she smelled, but she wondered why school administrators didn’t warn them about running when pesticides were being sprayed. She began to ask questions but received answers that didn’t seem to satisfy her. The same situation applied to others at Rio Mesa High School located several miles from Oxnard High and boxed in on all four sides by strawberry fields.
One day I was sent to see what I could find to help illustrate the story. As I pulled up to Rio Mesa High School along a public road, I saw that workers were working furiously to pick the fruit within yards of the school. No pesticides were seen being sprayed. I began to photograph from outside of the fenced-in field while standing on the road. As is often the case, I soon shared some laughs with the field workers, mostly migrants who awake before dawn and spend the day stooping, picking and running the fields. I’ve photographed many migrant workers, so I have a deep appreciation for their uncomplaining work ethic and general good naturedness. Within moments, however, and completely within my expectation, a foreman glided his pickup truck to a stop between me and the field. Polite but with a no nonsense demeanor, he inquired as to what I was doing.
“Photographing the workers picking strawberries,” I replied warmly.
“What for?” he asked.
“To go with a story on strawberries.”
“Does it have to do with pesticides?” the foreman responded.
“What pesticides? Is there something going on with pesticides?” I asked him back. Obviously, the foreman was well aware of the issue and chose to withhold a response.
Well, that seemed to be the end of it. He wasn’t in any way threatening, but his presence made it clear that I would be well advised to find another field to shoot. That worked fine for me as I had aerials to do and my appointment with the helicopter pilot was only a few minutes away.
Once I was in the air, then it really hit home. Although spraying was not occurring during my time shooting, I could only imagine what it would be like as I stared from about 500 feet above the Rio Mesa High School athletic complex and wondered how the students must feel when they’re practicing as chemicals drift with the breeze into their school only yards away.
To License or View A Gallery Of The Images: http://archive.toddbigelowphotography.com/gallery/Fields-of-Toxic-Pesticide-for-The-Nation/G0000CSc.ik_oALM