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Some are attracted to becoming growers by strawberry companies that traditionally cool, market, sell and ship the strawberries. Some of these companies also lease land to farmworkers or lend them money for operating costs, often at very high interest rates. In return, the farmworkers-turned-growers must sell their berries to the companies that sponsored them, often at below-market prices.
Many of the growers do not speak English and don’t understand their contracts until it’s too late.
Ramirez, who farms berries in Salinas, nearly lost his business after being financed by one such company.
His father grew strawberries in Mexico, but fell on hard times and smuggled Ramirez over the border so his son could help pay off the family’s debts.
In 1986 Ramirez qualified for amnesty as an agricultural worker. Employed by a large strawberry grower for over 12 years, he amassed different skills.
"I never settled for an easy job," Ramirez said. "When I cut weeds, I dreamed of harvesting strawberries. When I harvested, I dreamed of driving a tractor. I constantly asked my supervisors for new opportunities. I had the ambition to do something better."
With help from two brothers, who also worked in California, Ramirez started growing strawberries on a few acres in 1995. He was financed by a strawberry company, obligated to make payments and hand over his entire crop. He quickly fell into debt and had to borrow money from family, friends and the banks to stay afloat.
"The first few years were extremely difficult," he said. "I was fighting just to pay my rent."
Eventually he quit the company, started to grow berries for a large cooperative and paid off debts. His son, Alejandro Jr., is in college studying agriculture and plans to join his father in the berry business.
Latino growers say having roots in the same country and speaking the same language as their field workers helps.
"It’s a lot easier to relate to my workers," said Peter Navarro, whose father migrated from Mexico in the 1950’s and started growing berries on 10 acres. Navarro now grows on 140 acres in Watsonville.
"I know their living conditions in Mexico," Navarro said. "My father was also very poor. His humble beginnings always remind me to treat the workers well."
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