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Fields of Dreams

Strawberries took the Chávez family in one generation from picking fruit to owning orchards

By José Fernando López

STORY TOOLS

In 1955, Luis Chávez, a member of a large family from Jalisco, Mexico, arrived in the United States as part of the Bracero program, which was initially created to resolve the lack of U.S. manpower generated by World War II.
The 20-year-old Chávez had never gone to school and didn’t have a penny when he got to the United States. But he knew a lot about working on a farm and didn’t fear hard work. For 16 years, he had diverse jobs until he was able to save enough to purchase an acre of land and start planting strawberries.

Little by little and working two shifts, he managed to expand his business with help from his family, and convert it into a sustainable enterprise. His is one of nearly 500 families in California—who are mostly of Mexican origin—that produce almost 90 percent of all the strawberries consumed in America (with a market value of close to $2 billion annually). The California coast is considered one of the best places in the world to grow strawberries because the temperature remains between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit all year round. “All the days are warm and sunny, the nights cool and fresh, with fog, and the moderate temperatures mix ideally with the sandy soil creating the perfect cultivation conditions,” notes an industry promotional brochure.

Ambassadors
Now decades after Luis’ arrival, the Chávez family has become the California strawberry’s best advocate. George Chávez, who acts as operations director of L&G Farms (the name of the Chávez’s company includes the initials of the father and the son, Luis and George), and some of his five brothers frequently go on promotional tours for California’s strawberries under the auspices of the California Strawberry Commission. The “American Dream” and the exquisiteness of the fruit make an unbeatable couple.

George is a perfect example. Even though he received a formal education and graduated as an architect, George never lost contact with the land he has worked since he was a child.

“After school we used to go strawberry picking,” says George, who in the end decided to stay with the family company full time, as did three of his brothers. Only one sister was tempted by the city lights and today works in San Francisco. The rest remain in Valle de Santa María, in the central coast of California where his parents settled close to half a century ago, and where the extended family (including uncles and cousins) own nearly half of the land dedicated to growing strawberries.

“Some years we do okay, others not so well,” says George when asked about the business. “In general we manage to make enough to survive another year,” he says modestly.

Hard work
In fact, the crop not only has allowed them to develop professionally, but to save enough money to add more than 300 acres to their holdings and employ close to 300 people during picking season, something that makes them as proud as their work with the community.

The strawberry is not the only berry the Chávez’s grow, but it is the most important. “The people do not know of the benefits of the fruit,” says George, “that is why we make promotional tours to spread information and promote its consumption.”

According to George, there are 15 different strawberry varieties with high nutritional and dietary qualities. “You can even serve them with any food: deserts, salads, milkshakes, etc.”

It’s not enough, of course, to extol the nutritional virtues of the strawberries, because the fruit is much more than that. The strawberry camps have become a “field of dreams” for hundreds of immigrants—no matter how they came to the States—who find in it the seeds of future prosperity: the possibility of working hard to take care of their families and contribute, as does the Chávez family, to building a great nation.•

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