I just walked into a grocery store and looked at the price of a bunch of cilantro. It was 59¢. If you went into a fancier grocery store maybe it would be $1.29, give or take. After spending several long days harvesting said bunches of cilantro, I can state with confidence that neither price point represents the true value of cilantro.
The first thing to know about picking cilantro is that it’s real work. Not work in the sense of 9 to 5 (it actually starts at 7:30am and ends when it ends). It’s work in the sense that it requires a lot of effort and prolonged physical exertion. It requires constant movement. It requires crouching in the same position all day long. It requires lifting hundreds of heavy boxes onto a trailer. All day, every day. Let me just say you sleep well at night afterwards.
For me the hardest thing was the kneeling all day long. My knees got stiff and every time I stood up I felt like a baby giraffe standing up for the first time.
The second thing to know about picking cilantro is that it’s long work. The days are long. We started before sunrise and ended when enough trailers had been loaded, which was after sunset. We’ve all experienced long days of work like that. But it’s not just long days — the moments are long too. You’re doing the same repetitive motions over and over again hundreds of times each hour and thousands of times each day. There’s no differentiation from one moment to another, so they all blend into each other and become one long moment that stretches on for hours. It’s like when someone sees a car accident and everything is in slow motion, except that the slow motion replay gets repeated thousands of time each day. Then you show up for the same slow motion replays again the next day.
With all those hours of bent knees and hunched back and all of that repetitive motion, it’s an unbelievable physical and emotional relief to change things up. Walking back to the start of your row to get more boxes or taking your turn loading fully packed boxes onto the trailer becomes a joy.
If you look at a field of cilantro, it’s probably the size of a few football fields, which isn’t that big in the grand scheme of things. You could walk the perimeter of it in a few minutes.
On that walk you might comment on the smell of the cilantro. When the workers are in the field cutting the cilantro, the smell is everywhere. I came home reeking of it. When I came home the first day my neighbor immediately knew what I’d been up to. I still get hit by a wall of it when I open my car door. So I found it a bit humorous when on more than one occasion cyclists commented “I love the smell of harvest!” as they pedaled past us hunched over in our rows.
Several people told me that they hoped I didn’t like cilantro because I’d probably be disgusted by even the thought of cilantro after a full day of smelling it. It wasn’t just the smell, though. When you cut a particularly plump cluster of cilantro, it sprays some cilantro juices and you can actually taste it.
Fortunately, I still like cilantro. It was touch and go for a few days, but I still like it.
But those few acres represent a tremendous amount of work. I worked on a crew of roughly 15 guys and, as I mentioned, we worked long days. On my first day I assumed that we’d make short work of all the cilantro in that field. My estimation was incorrect. We returned day after day (including Saturdays) and slowly inched our way through it. The field wasn’t completely harvested by my last day there.
Needless to say, there was plenty of work to be done. In fact, we were busy all day, every day. But it was a different kind of busyness. When I think of being busy with work, I think of being pulled in several different directions, my focus constantly shifting from one thing to another. This wasn’t like that because our focus was on exactly one thing: picking more cilantro. There weren’t any emails, any meetings, any phone calls, or any distractions the entire day.
We were busy not because we had a million different things to do; we were busy because we had one thing to do a million of times.
Whereas the more common form of busyness causes stress and anxiety and a feeling of being frazzled, this kind of busyness was oddly refreshing for me. My focus was on one thing. It was boring after the first 15 minutes, but it was also meditative and I even occasionally found myself in a kind of zen state while doing it. It’s nice to always have something to do.
It was refreshing to be working outside in nature. I saw and heard a lot of hawks. It made me feel a bit more at peace and I found myself becoming a bit more observant. I started noticing the subtle changes in the texture of the soil and in the shade of green of the cilantro — things I never would have noticed otherwise.
There’s also something oddly satisfying about seeing the fruits of your labor physically manifested before your eyes. Most of us don’t have jobs like that anymore. But it’s nice to look back at a row of cleared cilantro or a stack of packed cilantro boxes and know that all of that happened because of you. All that effort and hard work manifested something of value.
Next time I’m going to spend some time thinking about the efficiency that allows for 59¢ cilantro. But that doesn’t change the fact that the value of a bunch of cilantro is a whole lot more than a small pile of loose change. It represents countless hours of never-ending, boring, back-breaking work.
I often see bumper stickers and slogans that say things like “if you ate today, thank a farmer.” Farmers do good, honorable work and we should thank them. But when we picture a farmer, we probably don’t think of the men and women who are working on their knees doing the same thing over and over again from dawn to dusk. It’s important to thank them too. They’re doing real work and probably don’t get thanked as often.