SALINAS, Calif. — Alejandro Ramirez was 15 when he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border to work alongside his father and brother in California's strawberry fields.
He spent 12 years toiling for a large grower, living with his wife and child in a garage, learning everything from pulling weeds to planting to driving a tractor. Now, Ramirez is a U.S. citizen who employs about 80 workers — all of them fellow Latinos — and grows his own strawberries on more than 100 acres in Salinas, one of California's key berry growing regions.
"This is my pride," Ramirez said on a recent afternoon, gazing over the rolling fields filled with neat rows of plants. "Twenty years ago, I had nothing. The strawberry is my life."
And not just his. Strawberries have given Latinos more ownership opportunities than any other major crop. Latinos now comprise two-thirds of strawberry growers in California, where 90 percent of the nation's strawberries are grown. Most growers of other major crops are white.
For the $2.3 billion strawberry industry, it's the second time a minority group has emerged from the fields in such a profound way. Japanese immigrants took over the industry as they grew in numbers after the turn of the 20th century.
Like the Japanese, many Latino growers are former pickers or the children of field workers who worked their way up to rent or own land.
Because strawberries can be grown on small plots nearly year-round and can yield more fruit and revenue per acre than most other agricultural crops, it's easier for immigrants to get into the business, said Hal Johnson, who has developed varieties of strawberries since 1955 for California's largest berry shipper-growers.
"There's hardly ever been a crop where an average picker who is aggressive and works hard can become a grower," Johnson said. "If he (a strawberry picker) is a hustler and brings along other pickers, he can develop his own little empire."
Before World War II, Japanese immigrants grew more than 90 percent of California's strawberries. But plant and soil diseases depleted their profits and the war brought the industry to a near-halt when Japanese growers were forced into internment camps by the U.S. government.
After the war, as pesticides helped eliminate diseases and researchers like Johnson came up with improved varieties, California's strawberry industry boomed. More recently, increased consumer demand for fresh fruit and organics led to farmers expanding the berry acreage.
Many of the post-war growers were Hispanic braceros, agricultural laborers who arrived under government contract, and other migrant Mexican workers, Johnson said.
"They saw the potential and grabbed on as hard as they could," he said.
Francisco Ponce migrated to California from Mexico in the 1950s to harvest grapes and vegetables. He soon began growing strawberries as a sharecropper on four acres in Watsonville.
His son, Rogelio Ponce Sr., grew up among the berries and later worked for a large grower, climbing the ranks to manager. Twenty years ago, he sold the family home and with a partner started growing strawberries on 25 acres.
Now his two sons, Rogelio Ponce Jr. and Steven Ponce — both college-educated — work alongside their father. The family farms 80 acres of conventional and 20 acres of organic strawberries, as well as 50 acres of raspberries on land where their mother's father, a bracero, once worked as a supervisor in an apple orchard.
The sons also head a strawberry partnership, where they grow an additional 90 acres of berries. Between the two companies, the Ponces employ over 300 workers. The family sells its berries to one of California's largest shipper-growers.
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