Field Culture Unseen: The Green Bean

 

During my time as ProjectArt’s artist in residence at the Homestead Branch library I got an opportunity to engage with the local population of the area through teaching three art classes a week. The art classes were for children and attracted many families within the area. As a Homestead resident myself, this provided an opportunity to expand my perception of the local community, build relationships and deepen my understanding of the systems in place that govern the population’s lives.

 

Homestead has a growing abundance of suburban neighborhoods forming on former crop lands. As you travel the roads of Homestead in between these newly budding neighborhoods, there are still acres and acres of crop lands. Lands used to monocrop 1-2 products for big companies in the food industry. This monocropping technique is a sort of farmer-less process. Fields are owned by companies who contract out certain services. There is no specific farmer who walks the fields, inspects the plants and makes a decision as to what is needed. Instead, similar to the pharmaceutical business, chemicals are purchased and prescribed. Synthetic herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers are sprayed relentlessly.

 

One of the main crops that caught my attention this year was the green bean. South Florida is the largest green bean producer in the nation, with an estimated 33,000 acres dedicated to this legume. At harvest time many former school buses pass from the Florida Turnpike into the back streets of Homestead. These buses are carrying many people who come to pick beans. Driving by a field that is currently being picked is like witnessing a scene from the past. Many straw hats and colorful fabric wrapped heads dot the green fields. Women and men are carrying baskets and buckets of beans to fill a large truck. It is a beautiful sight but also loaded with conflict. Who are these people? Are they aware of the chemicals they are being exposed to? Are they being fairly compensated?

 

As an artist who utilizes ethnography to explore the world around me, I decided to approach a field that was currently being harvested. I took a field recorder and a camera. I walked into the field, my recorder was on and I could hear the sounds of the beans hitting the buckets in a rhythmic fashion before I could even see the hands of the workers. I exchanged hellos with people as I approached, everyone was friendly, until what I believe was the foreman approached me. He turned me away, told me no pictures, no video, told me to go back to the street. I persisted until another man approached, the field manager, the person who works for the actual field owner. He escorted me away from the picking and we stood to the side and I interviewed him. He explained that the majority of bean and squash pickers are Haitian, that they are brought by the buses, that they are compensated by weight, and was unclear about who was actually paid, alluding to the possibility that there was a third party contract.

 

The one thing I took away from the interview was a comment on the fact that the bean producers are having a difficult time finding hand pickers. The field manager explained that it is only the older generation of Haitian people who know how and are willing to do this work and that the younger generations are finding other jobs. He lamented that it is a fading technique and that soon machines would have to complete the harvest and that machines simply were not as efficient as the human hand, often leaving many beans broken or behind. His final comment in the interview was, “But for now it is okay, the only real threat is Trump sending them all back.”

 

I continued to trace the journey of the green bean. From the field, trucks are taken to a pack house. In the pack house the beans are dumped into a large holding area to then be fed onto a conveyor belt. At the center of the belt are many people who are picking the good beans off the belt and boxing them. There is an entire orchestrated process and choreography happening. Many hands picking, packing, boxing, forklifts criss crossing paths, machines spinning, fans blowing, gum chewing. At the back of the packing house the conveyor belt makes its exit, there is a line of trucks and trailers, this is where the “cull” is collected. Beans are poured out like a water fountain into the back of these trucks and trailers, they are the waste, the compost, the rejects. For my installation piece at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami I have brought together objects encountered as a result of my ethnographic journey. The video footage was taken when I approached the first bean field, I asked if I could take the video but choose to obscure faces to protect the people who are picking America’s iconic green bean.

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