The Fresno grower remembers when the raisin harvest came before school

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A tray of freshly picked grapes dries on a Dinuba paper tray.  Writer David Masumoto recalls families harvesting raisins together.

A tray of freshly picked grapes dries on a Dinuba paper tray. Writer David Masumoto recalls families harvesting raisins together.

Fresno Bee file

I know for most of us, school started in August. But I’m old and I remember going to school in rural areas was a moving target. For those of us in southern Fresno County, it all depended on when the raisins were harvested.

Yes, raisins definitely at the start of school. If the grapes were sweet we would start harvesting towards the end of August and school could start right after Labor Day. But in some years when the grapes were slowly ripening, it might be mid-September for back to school. In a way, education was all about being “local,” so even the school calendar incorporated a sense of place. The families of the farmers and farm workers were directly tied to the rural harvest rhythm. There was no separation between the economic power of agricultural crops and the importance of schools and education in our families.

My family firmly believed in the value of education. My wife Marcy was a member of the Sanger School Board and is currently a member of the Fresno County School Board. If this were in the 1960s she would be monitoring the weather and work and keeping an eye on when raisins were to be picked. Can you imagine the complex communication strategies to let teachers, administrators, parents and students know when back to school started?

(Remember, not everyone had a phone at home. I remember we used “party lines” where our phone was connected to other participants – they could overhear other conversations and had to wait for their calls to end were to make your call. It certainly built a feeling for neighbors!)

You might think an educator would disagree — should a farmer’s grape harvest be more important than school? But the opposite could be true. Bringing families to the fields for a few weeks represented a crucial opportunity for advancement and income. Picking raisins was a process that whole families could do together. Ask any old-timer and they’ll have bittersweet memories of a job the whole family could participate in and a division of labor that included children — parents often picked the green grapes, another child distributed the berries on a paper tray, while a younger sibling spread out the trays in front of the picking team.

Child labor laws now limit the age of children working in the fields. Unfortunately, I’m sure there have been instances of exploitation and forced labor that were exploitative and not right. But many families understood the value of hard work and the opportunity to make a few extra bucks during this crucial harvest time.

As a farmer’s child, we didn’t have to obey labor laws—we were employees and employers. So going raisin-picking wasn’t against the law. Also, you wanted to join in and help them when your parents went to work at sunrise. I’m not sure how much I contributed, I often got distracted by lizards or cobwebs. I can remember taking breaks and lying under a vine and looking through a canopy of leaves at the blue sky. And every once in a while a wasp’s nest in a vine would make us flee and run away – and then laugh when we weren’t stung.

It was hard, dusty work. But since we were paid by the number of trays we picked, many were able to hustle and make good money.

Today I wonder how work is evaluated. Too often we ignore the way our food is harvested and how families struggle economically. In a way, the grape harvest became a life lesson on how to get off the fields and a motivation to go to school. Education became the ticket for many to leave the world of farm work. For some, picking raisins that add to a basic college fund for some kids — start at a community college, and if things worked out, you’ve progressed to a four-year institution. It was our valley’s version of a 529 college savings plan.

Due to the late start of the school year in September, the end of the school year in June was also extended. This became a life lesson for all of us, a moment when farming and education systems were part of the same community fabric. Both counted.

But by the time my kids started school, that tradition was long gone. I think they were glad not to have to stay home and pick raisins. (Although they could sometimes work weekends and after school).

I like to appreciate how family, work and education belong together: they were part of our daily farm life rhythm. Of course, educators like my wife, Marcy, and the school boards and administrators of the day struggled to popularize the word back then. No mobile phones. No texting. Word of mouth only. And dust everywhere. And the sweet scent of grapes drying to raisins.

David “Mas” Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and the author of several books including Epitaph for a Peach. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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David Mas Masumoto

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