It’s 100 degrees outside. Not a tree in sight. I’m standing at the end of a row of onions, ready to harvest. Brad, of SonRise Farms is explaining how the onions are harvested by hand. The night before the rows have been prepared. A roller has dug under the soil and sliced the roots free. Some of the onions are upended in the row, others are still half under the soil. Workers will descend on this field shortly, to hand cut the tops, removing the long green tendrils, at the proper length to ensure the tops close and dry ready for market. The worker will then trim the roots to the root ball we all have seen on onions ready to purchase in stores nationwide. He tell us the burlap bags, will be filled with approximately 90 pounds of onions, or 4 boxes of trimmed and cut onions. The workers are paid by the piece.
In my mind, I see a woman, 19-20 years old, 7 months pregnant, with a gunny sack or as we know it, a burlap sack belted around her middle. She’s working shoulder to shoulder with the others. Pulling her weight, as well as the son she’s carrying, down the rows harvesting onions. She’s done this work for years. Her husband works in the packing shed. Today, though, she’s in the field wither her fellow workers, cutting onions and filling sacks. She doesn’t have a box to fill, the sack drags between her legs and once filled is replaced with an empty one until the field is emptied of its bounty. No complaining is done. The day is hot, thank goodness for the breeze. She’s harvesting short-day onions. Short days are the onions grown when the days are shorter, winter onions. The air is teeming with the fragrance of onion. She loves the aroma; Not so much in the packing house, where the air is so thick with the smell you tear up, your eyes sting and the day seems to last forever. But here now, in the field, with a new baby wanting to kick his way through to the outside, she counts her blessings to be able to have the work. Even in this heat. Soon this baby will make his way into the world, he’ll be welcomed into the family with open arms. 1945 will be a year to remember. Work available and new babies. Life is good.
As Brad is explaining about how SonRise farms prepares a field, and sows it, then monitors it for 120-150 days prior to harvest, I can’t help but notice to my left the young men dressed in hoodies, long pants and gloves, pulling poles for irrigation. They’re removing the pipe in anticipation of the harvest. We’re standing there in the heat, dressed for sun, to beat the heat at its game. Or so we think. These young men could teach us a thing or two about dealing with working outdoors, daily, in this heat. Cover up, and allow your body to help keep you cool, or you won’t make it here.
Once the burlap bags are filled, they’re set side by side, for a time and allowed to sit in the sun to “cure” the onion. The burlap bag allows the air flow though and helps to keep the sun’s rays from burning the onions. Once the onions have cured, they’re scooped up and loaded in a truck to head to the plant. The drive to the plant is about a thirty minute drive here in the Antelope Valley. Onions are offloaded and begin their journey to market at the packing house. Today, as we’re visiting, the process ends in 50 pound sacks. You’ve seen them, the bright orange sacks at your grocer. SonRise onions are headed to your Safeway, Albertson’s, Vons, Pavillions and any number of other grocers nationwide. They’ll ship some to Australia and even to Mexico.
The average tenure of a SonRise farm worker is between 13-18 years. That speaks volumes. What even speaks more is that when tour the packing shed, Brandon Calandri speaks to each employee calling them by name. I ask how many employees are there in season, he replies that they employ an average of 600 people during the harvest and 125 year round. He calls over Sarah, and introduces us, Sarah was his first boss in the field. She taught him how to harvest onions, how to do it right. Calandri explains, that in order to make sure that they learn the business from the ground up, that where you start as a member of the Calandri family. You learn empathy for the workers, you know what an extra two hours of a packing or harvesting day will be like. You know these thing, and learn them so you understand the sacrifice people make to bring your crop to market.
SonRise Farms grows the finest onions money can buy. They are on of the largest onion growers in the nation. When you ask Brandon about the farm, he begins with the history. You see the forties were important years for the Calandri family too. Grandpa Calandri emigrated from Italy. He began working on a farm and farmed all kinds of fruits and vegetables for another grower for years. You can feel the passion as Brandon speaks. His grandfather decided in 1968 to begin growing onions exclusively. He was prudent, and used profits not only to provide for his family, but to also grow the farm. His son John followed in his footsteps. Working side by side they built a thriving onion operation. John’s son Brandon also joined the ranks of Calandri onion growers. It was an easy choice to make, considering the family values aspect of the life of a farmer. You work hard together, then in that small window of opportunity you play hard together. Brandon came up through the ranks just like the rest of the family. First working as a field worker learning the art of farming from his Dad and grand-dad. Brandon beams while talking about farming onions. John has stepped back a bit from day to day operations, allowing Brandon a chance to take the reins a bit more. But you know, farming gets in your blood, and you never really retire. We met John at the end of the day, the end of our tour. A fine man, who loves to talk about the business they’ve built. “We have the most reliable and hard working staff in the business” is the quote on John’s page at the SonRise Farm website.
The farm now boasts one of the finest packing sheds in all of California. I know packing sheds, and this one is A rated. It was beautiful. Clean! Oh my was it clean! And not just from regular clean-up activities by workers, no this packing shed was designed to keep dust and dirt outside. It is energy efficient and cool, not cold, but cool enough to work in comfortably. They pack hundreds of thousands pounds of onions during each harvest. The coldbox, a storage room at the packing shed, Brandon tells us can hold 360,000 50 pound sacks of onions. From harvest to store an onions life is approximately 6 months, sometimes fewer months due to demand.
They grow Red, Browns or Yellow, depending upon what you call them in your neck of the woods, and are also well versed in growing the most difficult onion to grow, Whites. They have added a nice sweet onion to the repertoire in recent years. Each variety has a quality standard unsurpassed at SonRise. They not only boast that fact but can back it up with fact sheets. They go the extra cost to have them tested and can tell you the hard work done by all has paid off by having only the best onions to sell and enjoy. Also, for those of you concerned, the packing shed at the Lancaster location is a certified Kosher shed.
All in all, I learned more about onions than most people care to know during my tour today. I learned onions are packed with vitamin C, are a great addition to any healthy diet. And can be eaten raw or cooked. Knowing this much care goes into the farm and the produce, makes me wonder if at $2.99 a pound retail, should it matter? Not one bit. I know for a fact the Calandri’s aren’t getting that money. Mosr farmers earn 3 to 3.5% on a crop. Retailers make a better margin, but if I can buy California grown, family owned produce and support 600 workers in the process, I’m going to do it. Heck, I’d do it at $4 a pound. We need to support family farmers. Especially California grown produce. They have more rules, more regulations and have to beg for water from the north just to get a crop in. It’s the least I can do to thank them for their hard work and commitment. In fact, noting this is my opinion only and not those of farmers, I find it a bit insulting when people are only willing to buy cheap produce yet support migrant workers. It’s like saying you love their product, but they aren’t worth paying top dollar for it. Think about it.
Back to that young woman in the field. That young woman is now 83 and a half. She still lives in the same town as the fields she used to work. Sometimes driving around seeing the farms gone and houses in their place reminds her of how long ago her young life was. She’s my mother-in-law. I care for her daily. The baby she was carrying was my brother-in-law. She’s survived him, her husband and most of her brothers and sisters. My husband? He’s still here. When she was pregnant with him 10 years later than her first, her belly was dragging on the ground as she budded roses. She chuckled about it recently when talking about it, “I’d pad my jeans with extra padding at the knees, to crawl in the mud to bud roses. They’d irrigate the field the evening before we’d be there. I be on my knees all day, but still come home smelling like a rose”. Farming. It gets in your blood.
I got the opportunity to tour Calandri/SonRise Farms through Kim Reddin ( @Onionista on twitter), and the National Onion Association. Thank you so much!