Boycott Driscoll’s Protest at Watsonville Strawberry Festival

[ Michael Garcia of the Watsonville Brown Berets speaks with five people about the Driscoll’s Boycott in Strawberry Lane at the Watsonville Strawberry Festival on August 6, 2016. ]

On August 6 and 7, 2016, local activists engaged thousands of people at the 22nd Annual Watsonville Strawberry Festival to raise awareness about the Driscoll’s Boycott and the harsh realities of farmworkers who pick the precious berries. The Boycott Driscoll’s movement is led by, and in solidarity with, farmworkers in San Quintín, México and Washington state fighting for union contracts.

Demonstrators, including the Watsonville Brown Berets, handed out thousands of flyers for Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), an independent union formed by farmworkers in Washington state in July 2013. FUJ has over 450 members and holds elections as well as democratically run business meetings. FUJ maintains a website, Boycott Sakuma Berries, which is the best resource online for information in English about the ongoing labor struggle.

Activists also arrived with newly created signs and banners. A banner declaring “No More Blood Berries” was displayed from the third-story of the Lettunich Building on Saturday and from the roof of the Mansion House on Sunday while shouting, “Boycott Driscoll’s” and “No More Blood Berries.” The buildings are the most iconic structures in downtown Watsonville and stand as subtle reminders of the apple growing, packing, and export industry in the Pájaro Valley. Both buildings are Santa Cruz County Historical Trust Landmarks on Main Street and overlook the Watsonville Strawberry Festival.

A historical marker for the Lettunich Building reads:

Once hailed as the most elegant hotel south of San Francisco, the Mansion House in Watsonville, built in 1871, was considered past its prime in 1910. Owners Mateo and M. N. Lettunich, orchardists who also operated the Pájaro Valley’s largest fruit packing business, moved the hotel in 1914 and hired James Patterson of San José to build a new structure which was to be known as the Lettunich Building.

Then called a “skyscraper”, the structure was built of steel and reinforced concrete with twenty-seven offices on the three upper floors which were reached by electric elevator. Built in a record six months, the new Lettunich Building boasted electricity, steam heat and water throughout as well as the celebrated Cutter Patent Mail Chute. The exterior of the building, of concrete and enameled terra cotta, featured an ornament over the entrance made of fruits of the Pájaro Valley.

Banking had its beginning in the building with the Fruit Growers National Bank as a tenant in 1919. Fruit Growers sold to Liberty Bank in 1927 and that in turn became the Bank of Italy which later became the Bank of America. Bank of America remained until 1969 when it was relocated to Main and Fifth Streets. The Lettunich Building remains a central part of downtown Watsonville.

For more historical context, the following description of Mateo Lettunich comes from a two-volume set of hardcover books published in 1925:

On his return to the United States in 1892 he came direct to Watsonville, for as early as 1888 he had become interested, with his cousin, in the possibilities of fruit buying and fruit packing in Santa Cruz county.

It was not long therefore before these ambitious young men were the first to ship apples by the carload and, thanks to the impetus given them by their old neighbors, they shipped the first car of bellflower apples from this section, which has since become so famous for its apples. From a modest beginning they have gradually become the largest shippers and packers and growers of apples in this locality and now Mateo Lettunich is the owner of the celebrated Del Monte fruit ranch at Aromas, is one of the owners of the Lettunich building in Watsonville, the principal office building in that city and also has other large property interests in and about the city. He was one of the organizers of the Fruit Growers Bank of which he is still a director.

Pulling Up Apple Trees for Strawberries and Raspberries

On October 10, 1910, a weeklong festival began in Watsonville known as the Apple Annual which was promoted as “An Apple Show Where Apples Grow.” A sign over Main Street declared Watsonville as “The Apple City.” The event only lasted for a few years in Watsonville, and ran a couple more times in San Francisco.

Fast forward to the 1980’s, and farmers were knocking down apple trees and planting berries at a fast rate. The rapid expansion of strawberries and raspberries in the Pájaro Valley has continued into the 21st century.

The environmental and health impacts of strawberry production are tremendous in the Monterey Bay area and many other regions where berries are grown.

The Environmental Working Group reports, “Strawberry growers use jaw-dropping volumes of poisonous gases – some developed for chemical warfare but now banned by the Geneva Conventions – to sterilize their fields before planting, killing every pest, weed and other living thing in the soil.”

The Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health has determined that living near agricultural pesticides during pregnancy is linked to lower IQ points for Salinas Valley children. According to the findings, “Pregnant women living within one kilometer (0.62 miles) of fields where certain pesticides are applied have children who show a measurable decrease in IQ and verbal comprehension skills by the time they are seven years old.”

A New York Times article from April 2014, California’s Thirsting Farmland states, “In the last decade, California farmers have turned increasingly to high-value crops like berries and nuts, which are in great demand. But these crops generally take more water to grow, which is one factor in California’s drought.”

Change in acres harvested in California from 2003 – 2012

Source: California Department of Food and Agriculture. Graphic: The New York Times.
Source: California Department of Food and Agriculture. Graphic: The New York Times.

The same New York Times article quotes Brian Lockwood, senior hydrologist at the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency. Lockwood pointed to the strawberry fields that have largely displaced the apple orchards and said, “Apples need about a half acre-foot of water per acre, whereas strawberries take two or more acre-feet,” He continued, “You can’t blame growers for seeking better-paying crops, but it has quadrupled water use per acre.”

The detrimental examples cited above are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to health and environmental impacts of berry production. Despite these well documented facts, the City of Watsonville and local non-profit organizations bend over backwards to promote the strawberry industry while turning a blind eye to it’s exploitation of workers, communities, and the environment.

Watsonville Strawberry Festival

A report by Watsonville Parks & Community Services on the 2014 Watsonville Strawberry Festival [PDF] is helpful for understanding the purpose, budget, and strategic plan of the annual event held on the first weekend of August “in the downtown area surrounding the City Plaza including Main Street, Peck Street, Union Street, Maple Avenue and E. Beach Street. The event features live entertainment, Strawberry Lane, a family oriented carnival, non-profit information booths, and food, commercial and arts & crafts vendors.”

The purpose of the Festival is to:

  • showcase Downtown Watsonville in a positive light and attract people to the downtown who might not otherwise come visit Downtown Watsonville;
  • recognize the strawberry industry;
  • honor and celebrate the cultural heritage of those who work in the strawberry industry, especially those who harvest the crop;
  • provide non-profit organizations with the opportunity to raise funds;
  • give non-profit organizations a venue to advertise their services.

The Watsonville Strawberry Festival is an event for the community. The event is well attended by community residents and tourist alike. The event strengthens City image by showcasing downtown Watsonville in a positive light. Moreover, the event promotes economic development by bringing people downtown and exposing local business to potential new clients. During a questionnaire conducted at the festival, 89% of those surveyed reported they would return to the event next year. Above all, the Watsonville Strawberry Festival makes Watsonville an ideal place to live work and play.

Strawberry Lane of Exploitation

Solidarity Sometimes: Non-Profit Organizations and their relationship with Farmworkers and the Strawberry Industry

The Watsonville Strawberry Festival states, “Strawberry Lane provides non-profit organizations with the perfect opportunity to raise funds through the sale of strawberry themed foods. Not only is this a great opportunity for organizations to fundraise, but it is also a great way to promote the agency and the valuable services they provide to the community.”

The world’s largest berry distributors, including Driscoll’s, Andrew and Williamson, California Giant, and Naturipe, donate strawberries to the Strawberry Festival for local non-profit organizations who in turn sell flats of strawberries for $10 as well as different foods and drinks made with strawberries.

El Pájaro Community Development Corporation is a non-profit organization which does a lot of positive work in the community, and also has a large role in the festival.

As described by their website, “El Pájaro Community Development Corporation promotes the development of micro-businesses by helping low-income minority entrepreneurs in the counties of Santa Cruz, San Benito, and Monterey. We assist in the creation of economic opportunities in minority communities with limited resources, by providing instruction, bilingual/bicultural business training, business incubation, professional consulting and coaching. Our programs and partnerships help micro-entrepreneurs succeed economically.”

El Pájaro CDC is perhaps best known for their Commercial Kitchen Incubator which provides space to dozens of small entrepreneurial businesses, some of which are owned and operated by Latino families.

On Sunday, August 7 at the Watsonville Strawberry Festival, the Executive Director requested that a demonstrator not sit on a bale of hay in front of El Pájaro CDC’s booth in Strawberry Lane. At that time, there were two available bales and the organization was completely sold out of strawberries, though more were coming later in the day.

The person immediately got off the bale, while another demonstrator raised concerns about El Pájaro CDC benefiting from the sale of Driscoll’s strawberries.

The Executive Director replied, “Listen, I support you, but I don’t care who gives us the strawberries.” The justification being that the non-profit organization does important work in the community to support farmworkers.

Just like the Oxnard Strawberry Festival, the Watsonville Strawberry Festival is built upon the exploitation of farmworkers. However paradoxically, it is also a rare celebration for farmworkers and their families in the heart of downtown Watsonville.

Children ride the Cyclone at the Watsonville Strawberry Festival on August 6, 2016.
Children ride the Cyclone at the Watsonville Strawberry Festival on August 6, 2016.

Some influential people within the City would prefer for the Festival to be moved from the easily accessible and open downtown to the gated off Santa Cruz County Fair Grounds located four miles away from downtown. This would change the demographic, likely include an admission fee, and conveniently shutout pesky protesters, such as those outreaching for the Driscoll’s Boycott.

When society treats farmworkers with full respect, professional dignity, and wages on a par with company executives, there will truly be a reason to celebrate.

In the meantime, the Driscoll’s Boycott continues until labor contracts are negotiated between Driscoll’s growers and the independent farmworker unions in both Washington state and San Quintín, México who harvest the lucrative berries.

Previous coverage of the boycott Driscoll’s movement: