A Lesson Learned: Harvesting Green Beans
It is about that time of the year when farmers are beginning to harvest their crops. Everyday there is less and less corn in the valley. Big trucks park themselves near the farms and unload workers. They start early in the morning when everything is still wet from the rains the night before and work until about midday–just about when it’s getting too hot. They cut the corn stalks, remove the cobs and fill giant, back breaking sacks. When the field has been leveled, they let the bulls and cows go to work. They eat whatever is left in the field leaving only empty rows of dirt.
In my case, we harvest green beans. My family does not grow any corn. I am secretly grateful or that because the thought of wrestling stalks of corn and hoisting bags of cobs that weigh more than me sounds exhausting. Cute little green beans are more my jam. Or any food/veggie that comfortably fits in my hands like the peaches, I enjoyed harvesting the peaches.
By this time of the year, the green beans are in full form. The plants come up to about my knees. It felt like they came out of nowhere. In fact, they came in so quickly, that I had a hard time finding the chacra because the previously empty crop lines were now full of green beans. I was definitely disorientated considering this was my first harvest. I finally made it down to the farm and managed to find a path that crushed minimal amounts of beans. This is a common theme for me in Peru—walking and trying not to hit or bump into things. Many things in my community—such as doors, cars, roofs and chairs—were definitely not built with a 6’2 gringo in mind. That’s including the crop lines.
I arrived and my family was already there. This is another common theme. Despite the fact that I think I wake up early, my family is already up and going. The kids are playing, dad is off to work, mom is washing clothes and grandma is cooking something. In this case, I arrived late because I didn’t want to rush through my morning routine. As of lately it goes like this: I wake up and meander down to breakfast. After that, I return back to my room to make tea or coffee, sometimes both. While I do that, I watch the news—and by news I mean old Vice documentaries. After that, I practice yoga. At that point I am ready to go.
So anyway, I’m late to the family farm. As I arrive the sun immediately comes out. Therefore, I am immediately overdressed. Thoughts of my mom (my actual mom) scolding me about not wearing sunscreen pop into my ahead. Coincidently, my host-mom makes a gringo joke about how I am going to burn. She also makes sure to tell me it’s my fault that the sun came out. As this is happening, everyone takes out their hats, soaks them in water and continues to work. They hand me a bucket and point to a line of green beans that I am supposed to work. I’m off to the races.
As I got to working I quickly figured out a few things:
- I am way too big to harvest green beans. Originally I thought the small size and light weight would be a good thing. I was wrong. My height just means I am farther from the ground and have to bend over more. Sure I can hold a lot of beans in my hands, but damn my back hurt. I eventually remedied this situation by sitting on the bucket I was supposed to be filling. This helped relieve some pressure in my back and legs. It also compensated for the fact that I can’t squat down very well. My heels always pop up, placing all the weight in my toes. So I would sit on the bucket, fill both hands with beans and then empty them through the hole between my legs.
- I am way to slow when I harvest green beans. My host-family would put in laps while I was still working on my row. They pick with both hands, command control of the plants and have no mercy—everything goes in the bucket. Me on the other hand, well, I am slow. I don’t position myself correctly, and I examine every bean. The big ones are exciting. And I like to pop open the ones I think have pests in them. I didn’t develop the double hand technique until about an hour into the harvest. When I did though, I did begin to keep up. I also was way too delicate with the plants. The best way is to grab hold, pull it to the side to expose the beans and start yanking. Not calmly part the leaves and look for the beans as if I am braiding someone’s hair. Eventually I got this strategy down also. A few times though, I went too rough and completely tore the plant from the ground.
- Kids are always kids, even when harvesting green beans. As I made my way through my rows, my host brother made sure to let me know it was a competition. He wanted to see who could pick faster and who could fill their buckets quicker. When I got too close to his row, he would make sure to correct me. Meanwhile, my baby host-sister was highly distracting. She was constantly calling my name and the names of her siblings. She would pick beans and throw them at her brother. She also loved crawling into the old sacks of fertilizers we were using to transport the beans and try and walk. She fell over multiple times, always laughing. Having the kids around was a nice break from the monotony of picking beans. When I got bored, I could make jokes with them, steal my brother’s beans, and pretend to use the really curly beans as cell phones.
- Harvesting green beans is a family affair. The more hands, the better. In our case, the only person missing was my host-dad. To take his place though, were some members of the extended family. They work year round on the farm, helping to plant and harvest. When my host-mom or grandma go to sell the crops, they get cut into the profit. In total there was about 10 of us. The experience seemed to be gendered also. There were only 2 men, myself and another. The rest were women. Strong, hard working and efficient Andean women. This seems to be the trend for other harvests as well. Except for corn. Corn seems to be a man thing. Probably because of the stereotypes about masculinity and harder, heavier and rougher physical labor. This stereotype manifested in the green bean harvest also. When the buckets were full and ready to be transferred to the sacks, it was always a man who did the lifting. Otherwise, the woman presence was powerful and intimidating.
- Lastly, being a dog during the green bean harvest is the life you want to live. The family dogs would just follow us through the rows and find shade beneath the plants. They slept and tried to eat the flies that would fly around their faces. If they got in the way of the harvest though, damn would grandma get pissed.
This is a really fun story, Teddy! I think people forget how back-breaking this type of labor is. It reminds me of the strawberry farms as you go past Camarillo on the way to Santa Barbara. Do you remember those? You’d see a swath of people hunched over – I never envied them. But the family and community aspect seems to make this an enjoyable experience for you and everyone involved. Happy to hear it! Talk soon brother.
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Oh yes Drake, you are correct indeed. All of the food we eat is imbued with that type of labor. Invisible and tasteless, We take it for granted pretty much every time. I feel fortunate to experience the other side of the commodity chain. With that being said though, I acknowledge fully that my work on the farms here is minimal. I help when I can but it’s by no means on the everyday scale and intensity that is exhibited by family and community members day in and day out. Thanks for reading brother. Much love.