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The Women Who Pick Your Food

Olga sings softly while working in the field, stooped over and stuffing onion plants into small holes that were made a few minutes earlier by a tractor. She places two or three plants in a hole, sweeps in a little dirt, takes a step, and does it again. It takes her about three hours to fill a row 1,400 feet long. For this, she earns $32. She usually plants two rows a day. Olga wears a red bandanna to protect herself from the dust and pesticides that are kicked up whenever a tractor or truck passes by. She is, it appears, the only one of about thirty workers who is worried about it.

Olga works on an onion farm in western New York, about an hour’s drive from Rochester. The soil here—rich, dark, and moist—is called muck and is perfect for growing onions. It’s late April, well past the normal time for planting onions, but an unusually wet spring has upset the schedule. Olga has been out in the cool damp weather for a couple of weeks, working eight to ten hours a day, six or seven days a week. When she’s not in the fields, she’s in a packing house sorting onions—a job she prefers. On a busy day, five thousand pounds of onions will roll down a conveyor belt every hour, as she and another woman try to find and toss out bad ones. She says working in the packing house is easier than working in the fields, but the work requires standing in one spot all day, leaving her with an aching back and swollen legs. “Almost all...

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About the Author

Joseph Sorrentino is a freelance writer and photographer.