I took a trip with a friend last month to the Central California towns of Monterey and Salinas to attend the 29th annual Steinbeck Festival. Afterward, we drove 100 miles down the Salinas Valley, mostly on old River Road – the original El Camino Real – to visit the Paso Robles wine country.
Born in Salinas in 1902, John Steinbeck set some of his best-known stories along the massively fertile valley. During college breaks he lived and labored alongside migratory workers in the sugar-beet fields near Soledad, and their experiences inspired The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men – tales of fierce compassion for agricultural workers living on society's margins, struggling to overcome exploitation and brutality. Steinbeck was accused of being a communist agitator and "un-American" in the 1930s for daring to suggest that the dispossessed be treated with dignity; Grapes was burned in front of the Salinas public library. It wasn't until the 1960s that public opinion began to catch up with his thinking. In 1969, the year after he died, the same library was renamed after him.
Steinbeck loved the rugged, undeveloped beauty of the Santa Lucia coast range and its valleys. He traveled the River Road countless times. As we drove, we talked about what he might think of his home turf today. Some things haven't changed much: the green fields in neat rows sweeping up to the foothills, the looming mountains, the old barns and adobes and frame houses. He might be surprised to see winery tasting rooms springing up in former lettuce fields or to hear Highway 101 buzzing in the distance, but for the most part we guessed he'd feel right at home.
Near the Soledad mission we were jarred from our reverie by the sight of leafy greens growing along the highway, a bilingual skull-and-crossbones sign at the end of each row reading DANGER – POISON. According to the EPA, this particular sign is reserved for pesticides with "acute toxicity," including some that can kill humans through skin contact or inhalation. Someone down the line is going to eat that kale or spinach or radicchio, I thought, with no clue about its past. The heaviest exposure would be experienced by the workers who applied the poisons. (When another sign came along later that read "Organic Farm -- Do Not Spray" it was comforting, though gale-force winds made me hope that neighbors weren't applying anything with acute toxicity that day.)
As in Steinbeck's time, those most affected by unethical agricultural practices are the men and women who work long hours for less-than-subsistence wages planting and tending and harvesting crops. While conditions may have improved overall since the Great Depression, we're moving in the wrong direction when it comes to toxic exposure. Pesticides put workers' lives at risk, and when exposure leads to illness, basic health benefits are usually lacking.
Synthetic pesticides were just starting to be developed when Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath. Since then they've become big business, but their stranglehold can be broken. When consumers buy organic – including products containing cotton, the most heavily pesticide-treated crop – it reduces demand for the toxins that compromise the health of our land and its people.
When we as a society stop purchasing conventionally-grown products, the market for agricultural toxins will dry up and blow away like a tumbleweed along the River Road.
What could be more American than that?
-Sylvia, Sales Supervisor