Thursday, February 28, 2008

Industrialism in Post-Industrialism.

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A lemon at one of UC Irvine's dining commons is rooted at the Oxnard Lemon Company, a packing and distribution facility representing 4,000 acres in Ventura, Santa Barbara, Monterey, Tulare, Kern, Riverside, and San Diego counties. This morning, I drove nearly 400 miles among horrific Los Angeles traffic to a processing plant to better understand the food system that UC Irvine is integrated with.

Let's just say I will never drive through LA on a weekday, ever again. There were disgruntled sounds and exhaustible sighs expelling from my mouth throughout the trip. I preoccupied myself with music, the news, and "exercises" in the car (don't ask me...), but it seemed like every time I hit the brakes, I wanted to take the next exit and head back to Orange County. I stuck through it.

Upon arrival, I had instantaneous sensory images of the past - lemon grove orchards, selling lemonade at the neighborhood corner, and diluting the freshly-squeezed lemon juice in water with my mother. This time, however, the same smells and images were now associated with a 10-acre processing plant. My nose didn't match up with my eyes. There was a hint of chlorine in the air. The sun struck down on me a little hotter and stickier than usual.

A lemon is grown, picked, washed, transported to the packing the company's processing plant, rinsed in water and chlorine, clipped, rinsed in a heat tank, applied with first coating of wax brushed, separated by color, stored, rinsed again, applied with fungicide, applied with a second coating of wax, dried, separated by size, labeled, packaged, stored, and shipped to UC Irvine, where it is then stored, cut, squeezed, cut, or eaten, and thrown away into a landfill.

That's nearly two dozen processes one lemon must go through to get to a student's digestive system. I could just buy a lemon at Tanaka Farms one mile away from campus and eat it right then and there.

I was led on a tour by an amiable Frank Diaz, superintendent of the facility. He's given tours like today's to thousands of people, especially young high school students in Ventura County. He's been in the business for thirty-four years, as was his parents and family.

Much of their business is in the summer, with the peak season from early spring to early autumn. Their operations are able to produce 1,000 boxes an hour, 16 hours a day. Boxes range from 30 to 250 lemons, depending on demand. Lemons are separated and graded by color and by size. Most are 2nd grade (yellow-green and medium size), while the "hardiest" and "most prized, as Diaz explains, are 1st grade (yellow and large). UC Irvine receives 2nd grade lemons. Thirty to forty trucks come in daily to pick up the pristine and waxed food product.

A lot of their external items like cardboard boxes, stickers on the lemons, and graders (Sunkist machines that separate the lemons by color and size) are out-sourced by other companies. Their undesired lemons are either sent to other companies to use as oils or local cattle ranchers who use it for their lands.

In the near future, Diaz hopes to change to stainless steel machines, as they are "cleaner" and "more aesthetically pleasing". Paint has thinned on the metal throughout the years, and it hasn't been cost-effective for the plant to paint every so often. Diaz's eyes lightened in wonder as he began describing improvements for automation and less need for physical labor. He describes, "the largest cost is labor", and having more efficient machines would solve it.

There are grand external challenges like constant transportation issues and labor disputes. In the hub of Ventura County, transporting lemons in Southern California is an everyday strain in itself. Management is constantly stretched with union battles and employee strikes. The ability to organize and unionize is out of question, as hours are long and the word is tiresome. Mostly Hispanic and uneducated, employees are ostensibly trapped in the bottom level of an established hierarchy here in America, an employee later described while on lunch after my tour. Regardless, these people work hard. Their ethics are focused. Unfortunately, opportunities to progress are just not available.

Asked what motivates him to do what he does, Diaz finds optimism in the company. He knows that it "makes a good quality product compared to other lemon production companies". He is fortunate to have good job security, benefits, and a fortunate standard of living. "It is the only thing I know how to do", Diaz expels. Seemingly, I found that it to be the truth. He "worked up the ladder", so to speak, from general floor to machine operator to machine supervisor, and now to plant superintendent.

When I asked how he felt about being part of the food system for UC Irvine students, he finds "pride in providing a good quality product". He tells his employees to "treat it [the lemon] like it's [their's]".

I drove back to UC Irvine in silence. How could one treat it like it's their's? Most importantly, how can an imaginable dream be an inexorable reality? All I could think about was, "This is happening all throughout the nation and the world". I don't think I'll be able to eat a lemon at UC Irvine after encountering what I just went through.

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