This story was produced by the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent nonprofit news organization.
Driving along Highway 101 through California’s Salinas Valley, it’s hard to miss the fact that you are traveling through one of the most bountiful farm belts in the country. No matter the time of year, it seems, green fields unfurl toward the mountains that flank the valley, and crews of workers are stooped in the act of picking. Some unique alchemy of air, soil and climate exists here to create a place where dozens of crops flourish, from artichokes to zucchini. Growers plant red and green lettuces side by side in rows so they can be picked and packaged directly as ready-mixed salads. Eighty percent of the country’s leafy greens come from the valley, thus its longtime nickname: “America’s Salad Bowl.”
For all the natural blessings, that bounty also depends on pesticides—more than 8 million pounds of them in 2011. Farmland is expensive here, which puts the farmers under constant pressure to keep increasing their yields. So they rely on an ever-evolving chemical arsenal to fight weeds, insects and diseases in order to grow the blemish-free produce that consumers want to buy. Pesticides are so deeply ingrained in the way agriculture is practiced here that people scarcely notice the noisy helicopters spraying the crops, or the warning signs—complete with skulls—posted in the fields after they’re treated.
Maria (she asked that her last name not be used) has been a farmworker in the valley for twenty-three years, since her parents moved the family from central Mexico in search of jobs. Her husband is also a farmworker. Now 38, Maria has worked in the fields picking produce, among other jobs. Even when she’s not working, she’s never far from the fields. They edge the roads she drives. There’s a vineyard a stone’s throw from her front door. Maria always knew she was in contact with pesticides; sometimes the smell burned her nose or left her with a headache. But she didn’t pay it much mind. Many farmworkers figure that poco veneno no mata—a little poison won’t kill you.
Then she started having children.
Baby Carla was prone to bouts where her chest got tight and she’d wheeze and gasp for air. The doctor diagnosed asthma. Carla’s attacks got so bad that some months she missed as many as twenty days of school, Maria told me through an interpreter.
Juan Carlos, born two years after Carla, developed asthma too, though his attacks were never as severe. Maria had other worries about him. He was a wriggly baby and then a mischievous toddler who couldn’t sit still. When Maria brought him toys, he’d destroy them in minutes. When she tried to put him in childcare, the center called her later that day and asked her to pick him up: Juan Carlos didn’t like to play with the other children. Sometimes when Maria spoke with him, he didn’t seem to understand; it seemed to her as if “he was on a different planet… as if he wasn’t present.” When he was 3, a doctor diagnosed Juan Carlos as having Asperger’s syndrome and “hyperactivity.”