School calendar once followed Valley's rural rhythms

August 26, 2012 

The start of school from the 1960s: waiting for the bus on a hot September morning, a cloud of dust kicked up as the yellow bus pulls into our farm driveway. Us kids were both excited and depressed summer was over. But sometimes the bus was late, a week or two late. It all depended on the raisin harvest.

For generations, until the 1970s, rural school districts in the raisin growing areas surrounding Fresno scheduled the start of their school based on when the raisin crop would be picked. School administrators conferred with local farmers about the ripening grapes. Typically, school began after the Labor Day holiday, but it could be delayed by weeks. For us farm kids and farmworker families, it was a bittersweet time, postponed school allowed for more vacation but it also meant work out in the fields.

Why did raisins have such a huge impact? They were the major agricultural commodity grown in these small farm communities. They provided a huge economic benefit, both in wages and profits. In our communities, a raisin culture was married to family and community life, especially during harvest which involved tens of thousand farmers, farm workers and their respective families.

It begins with how a grape becomes a raisin. During the end of August and September, grapes sweeten and are picked. It's an extremely short and intense three- to four-week period, thousands of hands required to get the crop in.

Up to a few years ago, all the harvest work was done by hand. First, paper trays (before the 1950s, wooden trays were used) measuring about two feet wide and three feet long are laid on the freshly disked and scraped smooth, dry, parched earth between the grape rows. Then workers pick green grapes and spread them on the trays. Over the next four weeks, the grapes begin to cure and dry, gradually becoming sweet, dark raisins, naturally sun dried.

Farmers rush to pick, the longer you wait, the more exposed you are to late summer rains. It's a race to get the crop down on the ground -- and many, many hands are required. One acre of grapes will bear about two tons of raisins, or about 1,000 "trays." Farmers worry over every dark cloud in the sky. The entire crop is exposed and vulnerable.

A generation ago, school-aged youth were employed. Some were farm kids, we had no choice but to work. If we were lucky, we even got some pay.

For many of my farmworker classmates, they also didn't have a choice. Families needed the kids out in the fields, hard, hard work for low pay, but it was a job.

Farmworker families were faced with a difficult decision: allow kids to go to school or miss hundreds or thousands of dollars in lost wages. Or, schools could delay their start. Back then, rural communities were connected with agricultural rhythms and the economic demands facing both farmers and workers.

Of course, laws have changed since then. Children under 14 are not allowed to work in the fields. From 14-18, work permits must be issued and only with a special exemption can school be missed. These regulations were justified, for decades, children were abused and forced to do adult labor. (Note: Children of farmers are exempt from many of these regulations, a contradiction my own kids sometimes point out.)

However, while growing up on the farm, I also witnessed many farmworker families pooling their labor; picking grapes could be done efficiently by family members of all ages. Often the parents picked while children spread the grapes. A family unit could make good money in a day, much more than minimum wages for just the parents. The meaning of work was brutally taught and a work ethic was instilled; sometimes lessons were learned, others formulated a drive to get out of the fields, often through education.

Historically, education had an embedded ruralness. In the 1800s, schools were often open December to March and then mid-May to August. Children stayed home during spring planting and fall harvest times. (Long summer vacations were more of an invention of an urbanized nation, hot summer weather lead to escaping the heat with family outings.)

I advocate for a sense of place to be part of the new standards of education, especially in rural areas where schools play a fundamental role in framing lives; we lose something when schools are disconnected from where families live and work.

I do not advocate for children returning to the fields, but I do hope rural rhythms are part of a school calendar. A Valley farm community should feel and function differently than a big city school district.

It's foolish to want the start of school delayed according to the crops. But I believe in a placed education: where should matter. The structure of public education is still based on local. It's a personal linkage that does incorporate the uniqueness of where our youth are educated. Especially in rural areas, place should make a difference.

Award-winning author and organic farmer David Mas Masumoto of Del Rey writes about the San Joaquin Valley and its people. Send email to him at masmasumoto@gmail.com.

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