This article is part of a series by J. Nathan Matias for a 500+ mile bicycle ride in June 2023 that is raising funds for Rising Voices, Global Voices’ endangered/Indigenous language program, and the Central California Environmental Justice Network. Donate to the initiative here.
What comes to mind when you imagine people doing life-saving science? People in lab coats? Complicated equipment? Last Saturday, in a room filled with farm workers from California's Central Valley, the essential gesture of science was of a community coming together and finding joy in the quest to survive extreme temperatures in the fields.
As I watched the laughs and smiles from my friend Ivan and our new friends at this community meeting, I reflected on how serious this meeting truly was. Ivan and I had just climbed thousands of feet on our bicycles, riding 70 miles from Sequoia National Park in scorching temperatures of around 95 F (36 C) to the headquarters of the Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN) in a business park outside the Fresno airport. We were covered in road dust, famished, and dehydrated, and when we sat down to dinner with a dozen farm workers, we were humbled to learn that the others in the room had experienced the same harsh temperatures all day.
Nayamin Martinez, director of CCEJN, one of the beneficiaries of our bicycle ride's fundraising efforts, explained that the farmworkers were community scientists, people who organize community-driven investigations of scientific questions by collecting data, testing theories, and using that data to create change. That evening’s topic: the dangers of exposure to extreme heat.
Heat’s deadly effects
Extreme heat is a common experience for farmworkers in California, with 20 days out of every year exceeding safe working temperatures—a number expected to increase to 54 by mid-century at current rates of climate change. According to a Public Broadcasting Service investigation, heat-related deaths among farm workers are common and undercounted, and federal standards on heat protections in the fields are still years away. California requires employers to provide water, rest, shade, and training, but the workers we spoke to said they often don't provide the basic protections. Across the hundreds of miles we rode through the fields of the Central Valley, we don't remember seeing a single shade tent. Unions argue that when farmers do provide shade, it's often a tiny umbrella or ineffective tarpaulin. None of the farms we contacted responded to our request for comment.
Over a dinner of lo mein and fresh apricots from the field, farm worker Eduviges shared her routine: wake up at 3am, make food for the kids, then drive, often several hours, to pick cherries, grape leaves, apricots, blueberries, or other fruit. Many of the parents we spoke with travel hours up and down California for work, and single mothers need to arrange childcare. Carmen, who is currently picking cherries in California, regularly moves between states during the growing season.
Starting in the early morning and often continuing through sundown, workers fill boxes and buckets with fruits and are paid by the container. Pay varies widely—one farmer might pay $7 for a 25-pound bucket while another might require a 35-pound bucket—so workers are constantly asking family for leads, checking social media, and even talking to strangers at the gas station to find new opportunities.
These uncertainties make it hard for farm workers to plan their finances. In 2018, a group at the University of California, Davis, estimated that workers earned roughly $20,000 a year on average, less than the minimum wage. A new California law requires that employers pay workers the minimum wage, including breaks, overtime, and sometimes travel time. But according to new research by the Community and Labor Center at the University of California, Merced, employers often ignore this law. When employers exclude work breaks from pay calculations, workers face pressure to take dangerous risks working in the hot sun.
As we ate dinner and shared stories, I was reminded of the lines about the heat in “The Migrant’s Song”, a 1960s Farmworker movement song composed by Peter Krug and performed by Chicano artists Agustín Lira and Danny Valdez:
Soon in the long rows the swift hands are toiling
In the day's growing heat, in the dusty rows boiling
The sun presses down like a hot heavy hand
At the backs of the laborers working the land
The song also expresses the hopes and joys that motivate people to work in the fields despite the conditions:
When there's crops in the field rows and grapes in the vineyards
When the limbs in the orchards bow down to the ground
There's food on the table, there's clothes for the children
There's singing and dancing and joy all around
“Nosotras somos chingonas,” said one of the women at the table, to a mix of laughs and appreciative nods at this reclaiming of a sexist slur to express pride in being “badass women.” But even badass women get heat stroke, which can cause catastrophic damage to the brain, heart, kidney, and muscles. Many farm workers struggle to access healthcare due to language barriers, lack of insurance, or fear of deportation. By the time people make it to the hospital it's sometimes too late.
Science and survival in the fields
Even as farm workers and advocacy organizations report failures, support enforcement, and push for change, people still need to be safe at work. That is the question that brought the “chingonas” of the Central Valley together that Saturday night in Fresno after a long day of work.
After dinner and introductions, Nayamin Martinez talked about the need for strategies and equipment to keep workers safe and cool while maintaining a high level of output. After reviewing the science, CCEJN had found some potential solutions for staying cool in the fields, from packable hats and heat-wicking neck gaiters to an intriguing-looking neck-fan that could run for hours on a battery. People also asked about the clothing that Ivan and I were wearing, especially our cooling sunblock arm and leg sleeves. They are by far the dorkiest item of clothing I own, but over the years they have saved me hundreds of dollars and protected me from heat-stroke—and possibly skin cancer—on long rides in the sun.
Will these products actually keep people safer? You are the lived-experience experts in your line of work, Nayamin told the group, and we want your reviews of these products. She distributed the items around the room and we tried them on. The result was part fashion show, part conversation about each product’s practicality: was it comfortable, was it durable, and, most importantly, would it help us keep cool? This summer, CCEJN will distribute hundreds of heat and wildfire “resilience kits” for farm workers in Madera, Fresno and Kern counties to test and report back on. The data from these tests will inform quarterly meetings between farmworkers and regulators on protections for worker health.
Doing science that matters
It's fair to ask what a university professor and endurance athlete could have in common with people who have navigated decades of challenging farm work under conditions that are often illegal. At dinner we bonded over stories about my Guatemalan father's migration to the US, our shared passion for indigenous language translation and advocacy, and the similarities between my and their own children’s experience of prejudice in the education system. We discussed the experience of living with asthma in one of the most polluted parts of the United States. We also share something even more fundamental: the physical reality of bodies surviving extended exertion in a world of dangerously rising temperatures.
As we exchanged cool clothing ideas and discussed the science of heat, I was reminded of one of the strangest machines I’d come across when writing my PhD chapter on the history of community science and activism. The sock-testing machine was one of the very first scientific instruments developed by Consumer Reports, a product-testing advocacy organization established in the 1930s, during an ecosystem collapse that sent hundreds of thousands of climate migrants into California's Central Valley a century ago. When my middle-class college students see the machine, their reaction is astonishment that anyone would need scientific testing on the durability of socks. But for displaced farmworkers in the 1930s who spent so much time on foot, data on durable, reliable clothing in an era of false advertising would have been life-changing.
Ninety years after the Dust Bowl, farmworkers in the Central Valley are continuing to lead this tradition of science to study, extend, and relieve the extremes of human endurance in hostile environments. By gathering for dinner to test ways of protecting themselves, the farmworker community scientists and organizers were developing workable solutions, growing relationships across the Central Valley, imagining health as a common policy challenge, and alerting powerful institutions about their needs. Working with CCEJN, they are translating these findings into daily practice and advocacy to improve their health and secure a future for their families.
(2022) Farmworker Health in California. UC Merced Community and Labor Center
Silber, N. I. (1985). Test and protest: The influence of Consumers Union. Homes & Meier Publishing Inc.
Valdez, D., Lira, A. (1967) “The Migrant's Song.” Broadside Ballads, Vol. 4: The Time Will Come and Other Songs from Broadside Magazine. Smithsonian Folkways.