Friday, September 16, 2011

Tanimura & Antle Part 2: Workers & Safety

Sadly I seem to have lost the photos to this post!!!

Field Workers

In Part 1 of my visit to Tanimura & Antle I described the family history and how the business has spanned over three generations. But it's much more than those two families. They consider their entire workforce part of the family.

Brian Antle's title is Harvest Manager. He has direct contact with many of the field workers that are out harvesting the produce every day. He knows almost all of his workers by name and everything about their families as well. Many of them have continued to work Tanimura & Antle (T&A) fields for over a decade.

A T&A field worker is guaranteed a minimum wage of $9.20/hour, but their paycheck is really calculated on how much is harvested in a day. Each harvest team's wages are based on team effort. It all amounts to how much their team pulls in a 'per piece' calculation based on the number of boxes filled. Because of this, field workers often specialize in a particular produce. You won't find a lettuce worker harvesting onions and vice versa. They have gotten a rhythm and technique down for picking their particular vegetable. Brian said that a lettuce harvester would be in danger of slicing a finger off if he suddenly switched to a cauliflower field. In reality, then, the teams are often making closer to $14-18 an hour.

There's more benefits as well. They get health, vision, and dental care, free daycare, and even a 401k plan. When the harvest moves to Huron, California or Yuma, Arizona, the entire operation moves. That means about 200 semis full of farm equipment move. About 10% of the California workers will make the trip to work the other fields as well and they are given a per diem while they are there.

freshly packed boxes loaded to semis
This brought up the conversation about the rate of unemployment in the country and the arguments regarding importing workers from Mexico on seasonal/temporary visas. Brian said he'd happily reduce his housing and transport cost of seasonal Mexican workers if only Americans would apply for the jobs. Yuma's unemployment is at 18-20% and yet no resident ever applies for the field worker jobs there. It made me wonder why. Construction and landscaping are laborious jobs and people are willing to take those but not field work with great benefits?

Food Safety

Time definitely flies because it seems only yesterday that there was the big spinach contamination scare. You might recall a few years ago when there was found to be E Coli contamination of spinach and huge amounts of recalls. The cause was due to the spinach fields being right next to cattle pasture and contaminants from the pasture had leeched over to the spinach field.

This caused a HUGE response by the agricultural industry to change things to protect their image and their bottom line. After all, if one truck's worth of produce is worth $25-70k, then an entire field could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

All of the T&A fields we saw were on flat lands in the valley surrounded by mostly roads and commercial properties. Millions of dollars have been spent by farmers to erect fencing along fields that might be up against hillside where wildlife (deer, etc.) could cross over. Every precaution is taken to prevent any kind of animal (and as many birds as possible) from entering the fields. Even we humans had to don hair covering while out in them.

Let's say a coyote manages to get in the field, or a stray cow. Someone will go out and follow the tracks of the animal and mark the path it took with flags. That entire swath is now unharvestable. Sometimes an animal's path may zig zag across the field and all that produce is now off limits.

notice their coverings and gloves
If you watched the harvesting film I posted in Part 1, you will see that the farm workers are completely covered up and wear gloves. I was surprised at how the produce was packaged from dirt to clamshell in just seconds and throw in the fact that it's never touched by bare human hands.

yellow tag tells date, field, team
All produce is labeled for easy tracking. For the iceberg lettuce, for example, each bagged head has a clip just like the one you find on bread bags. That clip indicates the field, date, and team that bagged it.

For the packaged Artisan lettuces, each clam shell is sealed shut with tape and the box is clearly labeled with the same field, date, team information. Bar coding and scanning guns are used throughout the process.

Should something come up, the specific area of a field can be quickly identified and the data sent countrywide for stores to check their shelves. This way they don't have to throw out an entire shipment if they were able to pinpoint a specific field location and pull that produce immediately.

The harvest equipment is sanitized daily either at the shop or via mobile sanitation units.

To end these posts from T&A is another short video. Here I asked Brian how he suggests you store your lettuce when you get home.


Thank you, Brian and Tanimura & Antle, for the informative tour, tasty lunch, and generous goodie bag of produce. I've been eating a lot of salad this week!

Thanks to for the opportunity to learn more about CA farming.

Up next: Naturipe and the future of strawberries

For other Farm-to-Fork style stories like this one, click here: Farm-to-Fork

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