Friday, December 18, 2009

Lorenzo's Story

At 4:30 p.m., the sun dipped below the hillside, I started to wrap things up, putting away tools, covering up supplies (in case of rain), and scanning the blueberries to make sure I hadn’t left any plants exposed after a day of replanting.

In fact, I was re-bagging plants that needed care. The root balls hadn’t been properly loosened when they were initially placed into 5-gallon grow-bags in September. We hope the plants will thrive in these bags for the next year or two and produce good harvests.

For that to happen, however, the plants need a good start.

I noticed that recently many of the plants in the north end of the field, the ones most recently transplanted, appeared anemic, with yellow-green spindly growth, and unhealthy yellow leaves.

Elsewhere, the blueberries show the stout reddish growth of new canes that will support a good harvest in the spring. The healthier plants had been transplanted in May, were given the right start and had matured nicely into what we hope will be sturdy steady producers.

The difference between the healthy plants and the less healthy ones makes an unsettling contrast. Vibrant red against sickly yellow.

The difference could best be explained by the possibility that the roots of the weaker plants, never properly loosened, were tangled and root-bound.

Earlier today, I started pulling selections of the yellowish plants from their bags and, as I suspected, the root balls had never been loosened. Each was a tight, fuzzy red, 1-gallon square knot of roots.

“Shit!” I groaned, looking out over several hundred plants on the north side of the field, realizing that nearly all of them were similarly spindly, yellow, and in need of help.

I got angry with Lorenzo, whose job it was to massage the root balls and make sure they were properly loosened before placing them into the grow bags. I had shown him how. Maybe he forgot. Then, I got angry with myself for not watching him more closely.

I brought Lorenzo over to see the sad-looking plant and explained the problem. I held the ingrown root ball in my hand. “No bueno,” I said.

Steven, the owner of the blueberries, showed up shortly after and we went on a tour of the field. He got irritated. “Wasn’t it General Patton who said he didn’t like paying for the same real estate twice? What am I supposed to do, pay these guys to do the job over again?”

I couldn’t think what to say, “Another example of how a job done with care saves time in the end.”

Steven turned away and went looking for Lorenzo. “Let’s get it done,” he said over his shoulder. “Lorenzo! Hey, Lorenzo!” He gave Lorenzo an earful about blueberries, good growth versus bad growth, and doing the job right.

“OK?” he asked after the short lecture. “Let’s do it right.”

I was certain that Lorenzo must have thought that I ratted him out. I felt bad. It was as much my fault as it was his for not keeping a better eye on him.

I had shown him how to loosen the root ball and open the roots for transplanting. But I guess he had other ideas. So, there’s close to 200 or more plants that need to be re-bagged.

I’m hoping it won’t be too late; that we’ll get them treated in time to develop more roots and new healthy growth in the spring.

I’m not thrilled about pulling all those plants; it’s job security, if nothing else. Yet, each day it gets more critical to bring life back into their system, to put good color into next season’s new growth.

I’ll need Lorenzo’s help to get it done. I’m worried that he won’t do it right. I think about enlisting the support of his son, who has an easier time understanding me.

I like Lorenzo and he seems to like me. We talk but hardly understand each other, although, as time passes, I’m beginning to understand him more.

I don’t know why I never learned to speak Spanish, which is just as bad as not learning to speak English. In California, you really need to know both.

Lorenzo and his crew had already strolled up the dirt road, between the creek and orange grove, past the packinghouse, and across the loading area to their home to rest for the evening.

I didn’t expect to see them again until morning.

As the clouds turned pink, the sun dropped quickly, and the wind took on a chill in the long shadow of the hillside. Time to go home. I started for my truck when Lorenzo returned.

“You want a coke?” he asked pulling a can from his sweatshirt?

“Sure, Lorenzo. Thanks.”

He held up a half-full plastic bottle with an apple juice label and smiled, “This is my whiskey.”

Lorenzo likes to drink. I sat on the flat surface of a heavy duty Thermos lunch container; he took a seat on an upturned 5-gallon bucket.

He never offered the whiskey. “You like to smoke?” He reached into his sweatshirt once more and pulled out a box of cigarettes.

“No, not those, Lorenzo. Thanks anyway.”

“I only smoke when I drink,” he offered. “Cerveza, tequila.”

Lorenzo isn’t supposed to drink. He’s got diabetes. He nips from his apple-labeled whisky bottle, puffs his cigarette.

I think of breaking out the mota, but decide to wait for a better time, when I don’t need to be on the road.

He tells me he started working on the farm when he was 15. Back then he carried heavy pipe used to irrigate the field, three times in the day and three times at night. Lorenzo raises his arms over his head as if holding up a huge barbell.

The going was tough, he explained, pointing to his knees, raising them as if pulling his feet out of muck. His knees are too damaged to play soccer any more.

“How old are you now, Lorenzo?”


He looks much older. When I first met Lorenzo, I thought he was in his 60s. He has four children, two who speak proficient English and are attending the local junior college, and a preschooler and a fifth grader.

When the two older children were toddlers, he says, about 20 years ago, he worked 12-hour shifts driving a produce truck during harvest, making four deliveries every day, except Saturdays, two deliveries, and Sundays, just one delivery.

The farmer ran a crew of about 30 hands, he tells me, some who worked in the field harvesting peppers and squash, and others who kept the packinghouse busy.

Now, it’s much more quiet, he mourns. Not enough work.

“What happened to the peppers and squash?” I ask.

“No price,” Lorenzo says. The farmer can’t sell them.

He can’t work the way he did when he was younger, Lorenzo says. The hard work took a lot out of him, he admits. He drank a lot. The diabetes has forced him to cut back. He shouldn’t drink at all.

Working the fields all his life, he got only as far as third grade, he says. He doesn’t seem to mind. Tomorrow, he’s setting aside a couple of hours to prep 400 pounds of meat for a Mexican coming of age celebration at the Veterans Hall where a host of young people will dance and flirt and feast.

He says he’s lucky to have the work provided by the blueberries. Otherwise, at the farm at least, it’ll be a few months before he’s busy again.

It’s hard to imagine going that long without work. I’m not much different from Lorenzo. I’m lucky to have something too. §

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