As Community Food Systems minors, students engage with community-based organizations to gain rich, hands-on experiences in the food system. This narrative is a reflection of Madeline Hanscom ‘22’s introduction to local food systems as a strawberry farm employee in high school.
It’s fairly difficult to get a job when you’re a sixteen year old girl with no previous work experience. So, I went where all of the other high school students went in my hometown — to the local strawberry farm.
Each morning I’d drive up to the front gate and the rosy-cheeked head farmer “John” would jubilantly ask how my morning was going, then tell me which field we’d be picking that day. I would drive over to the field in my battered dark green station wagon and park on the grass next to the strawberry truck, feet away from endless rows of strawberries. There, the job was simple: take out a flat of 8 empty strawberry quarts to the field, fill the flat full of strawberries, return the full flat to the strawberry truck, then grab another flat to fill.
You had to pinch the berries off at the stem; if you pulled the berry itself you’d leave fingerprints that would turn into rot in a day’s time. Sam, a 20-something-year-old strawberry-picking veteran, checked one quart in each flat to make sure all of the berries were high quality — entirely ripe, no fingerprints, no mold, no holes from pests. If she found any issues, she would check your whole flat and dock your pay for any mistakes. Every once in a while, John would come around to check if you were being thorough—picking all of the ripe berries from your row, and removing all of the moldy ones (throwing them in the hay-filled aisles). If he found that you didn’t pick the moldy berries out, he made you go back and re-pick your aisle. It was fair of him to do that because when the mold got too bad, the decrepit berries would melt between your fingers and produce a pungent, stifling cloud of sickly-sweet yeasty powder that filled your nostrils.
A few fields away, you would start to see U-Pick customers trickle in around 9:00 am. I, along with numerous other teenagers (and the occasional adult), would pick strawberries from 6:30 am until noon, working to load the strawberry truck with flats of glistening quarter-sized berries. Some days the berries were like the ones you got in the stores (you'd only need 10-15 berries to fill a quart) but those days were few and far between. I would squat to pick the berries in front of the rows, and stand to pick the berries in the back. When I got too tired of doing that, I would kneel, my knees pressing into prickly straw that inevitably left invisible cuts from my knees down to my ankles. Sometimes I’d even lay down, opting for the stinging hay over an aching back. I’d leave with Crocs full of straw and rotten strawberries, a sunburn, and the most toned thighs I’ve had in my life.
At the end of each day, we could take home a quart of strawberries for free. They were the sweetest strawberries you’ve ever tasted — I would freeze them and blend them with milk and the result was miles above strawberry ice cream.
Wednesdays you bring home an envelope with your name scrawled on it and the total number of quarts you picked. You were paid $0.60 per quart. I later learned that those quarts sold for $9.00 each.
I worked here for a few years, I’m not sure how many exactly, but I got to know John pretty well and my picking steadily improved each year. The first year I picked enough berries to make $7.50 an hour, the next year $12. At that point, I plateaued for a while. That is, until John decided that teenagers weren’t doing a good enough job.
In the middle of one of the whitest states in the country, the town next to mine was designated as a Somali refugee asylum. Around my third or fourth year of picking berries, John decided to hire a few Somali people who were interested in the work. I was surprised when they first showed up (completely out of the blue after the season had already begun) — two Somali mothers, and four or five children who couldn’t have been over eight years old. Surprised as I was, I got to work, still trying to push and make as much money per hour as possible. Before I even had half a flat done, I looked over and both of the mothers were carrying their (overflowing) flats to the strawberry truck, their dark purple dresses dragging in the straw as they went. I was genuinely baffled, since nobody before them (or since) had even come close to their pace. Instead of being upset, I decided to watch — they had to know something I didn’t.
I knelt in the hay, and looked over. Bent over the bushes, a Somali woman’s vibrant, intricately patterned scarf grazed the wet leaves of the strawberry plants. With her forearm, she pushed the runners aside to reveal the berries underneath, and pinched off four berries at once. The flat laid in front of her, and she plopped all of them into a quart. The thing is, she did this all in a matter of seconds. Like a simpleton, I’d been using one hand to push the runners aside, and the other to pick, effectively halving my productivity. Since I had enough muscle memory to pick mindlessly with my right hand, within a couple of days, I had matched their pace. From then on, I acted like it was a race, if they finished their flats before me, my determination heightened.
A week or so later, I showed up to the picking field. That day, we were picking in the field next to the U-Pick customers. The field itself looked plainer than usual—no vibrantly-colored scarves adorned the landscape. I didn’t think much of it, just that they decided not to work there anymore—but I knew it was hard for Somali people to find work in the community, so why would they just stop working there? Despite the curiosity I had, I set aside the thoughts swirling around in my head and I got to work.
Maine is the second whitest state in the United States. There, and especially in the towns neighboring the asylum, white residents don’t really accept people of color. One phrase that you’ll commonly hear in my hometown about the refugee population is that “they’re taking our jobs.” To hire any non-white non-local people is looked down upon by the community, and this dynamic has led many inclusive local businesses to decline.
When I left the farm that day, I happened to look in the rearview mirror. There, through the billowing trail of dust that followed me, I saw vibrant orange and blue scarves tucked away in the corner of the farm furthest from the U-Pick customers, dancing amongst the endless rows of strawberries. At the time, I thought they were perhaps so quick they could pick an entire field by themselves. In retrospect, I’m sure some “concerned” citizen spoke to John about the Somali workers the day prior. As a business that relied entirely on locals for income, he was forced to do something, whether he liked it or not.
From that day forward, they stayed separate, left alone to pick in the fields where they couldn't be seen. Out of sight, out of mind.
About the author
Madeline Hanscom ‘22 is a senior majoring in Human Development and minoring in both Community Food Systems (CFS) and Plant Science. Her interest in food has been ongoing ever since she watched the Food Network as a child. For her first jobs, she picked strawberries on a strawberry farm and worked as a Sous chef at a farm-to-table cafe in high school. Since her time at Cornell, Madeline has been increasingly drawn to food justice overall, and particularly social justice surrounding food access.
During her sophomore spring she began an independent research project (partnered with Edward Spang at UCDavis) investigating food waste perception and food loss during the pandemic. More recently, she participated in Anabel’s Grocery, a food justice oriented on-campus grocery store, and took numerous classes concerning unique approaches to reforming the food system and the inequities within it. For her CFS practicum, she worked with the Seed to Supper program, helping inform Master Gardeners throughout New York State about the importance of community gardening to mitigating social inequities and access to nutritional food.
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