As she has for the past score of winters, 67-year-old Minnie Price has settled once again into the rhythms of the growing seasons on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
She sits on an upturned bushel basket beside a conveyor belt, her gloved hands automatically pulling off old leaves and new blossoms from strawberry plants. Cleaning the small dormant plants of dirt, preparing thousands of strawberry plants for shipping to farmers in the East and Midwest, who will harvest their fruit in midsummer.
Price is one of 25 men and women, some of them kerchiefed and sweatered, many of them over 50, working quietly in the cool, concrete warehouse. "I don't mind the work really. After a while you do it without thinking," Price said. "I guess as long as they bring in the plants I can make money."
The money is not that much - $6.60 for every 1,000 plants she "picks," and she can do 3,500 to 4,000 plants on a "good" day. But it is the money that draws her, for as her hands pluck mechanically at the plants, thoughts of bills run through her head - bills she must pay to keep her house, her telephone, her life in order in the nearby small town of Allen where she lives.
Price has been working in the warehouse since last December when the plants first began coming in. Strawberry plants send out runners that root and produce new plants, and it is these new plants harvested in the winter and spring that are cleaned, picked and packed by Price and her coworkers for shipping.
In the nearby fields Annie Mae Blunt and Lillie Doughty, their heads bound in brightly colored skull caps against the wind and dust, deal with another part of the strawberry plant growing cycle. They sit perched on the back of a potato picker turned strawberry planter, waiting for "tractor man" Joe Homes to begin his journey down the waiting furrow.
The two women sit with six others in a long row on the vehicle, boxes full of tiny strawberry plants in front of them. They laugh, gossip, tell stories smoke a cigarette or two as they feed the small wheel in front of them that deposits the plants into the ground.
Within an hour they have planted 10,000 plants. They are paid $2.65 an hour, the minimum wage.
Blunt, Doughty and Price are among the several hundred people who work for James Brittingham, 74, one of the largest growers and shippers of strawberry plants on the East Coast. He has kept his workers busy all winter plowing his fields, preparing strawberry plants for shipping, and since last month, planting new crops for all harvest. In an area where seasonal work an migrant labor is the rule, county agricultural officials say the three strawberry operations there provide needed winter employment.
Brittingham has been in the strawberry planting business for 33 years. "My father used to sell bulk strawberry at auction," he said. "Buyers would line up 1/2 mile down the road to get into that auction every year, it was so popular.
"But that got to be too much trouble and you had to get labor to pick the strawberries every season. So we started growing them just for plants. We started small," Brittingham said, "but we've expanded every year."
At a time when many farmers are striking for better prices and threatening to sell their farms. Brittingham put more strawberry plants into the ground each year. "We've got 12 or 13 farms, I can't remember which. This spring we have already sold 11 million plants."
Brittingham is proud of his farming operation.His workers, too, expecially those who have been with him the longest, say they are "proud" of their work.
"Boss" Blunt talks of the farm as if it were her own, telling of her plans to spend this summer "getting these women out in the field to pick weeds and cut blossoms."
These women, whose only alternative to farming is domestic work, say they are "not excited" about going into the fields to pick this summer.
"Look. this is hard work," said Blunt, "But somebody's got to do it.
"The only thing that bothers us is the wind." she added. "The cold, well, you just have to expect that." CAPTION: Picture 1, Farm owner James Brittingham, surveys acres of strawberry plantings.; Picture 2, As tractor rumbles across field, women put plants in the furrows at a rate of 10,000 plants an hour.; Picture 3, Bundled in a parka, worker plants strawberry. She is paid minimum wage, $2.65 an hour., Photos by James Parcell - The Washington Post; Picture 4, Thousands of strawberry plants are cleaned, sorted by workers at this canveyor belt, before shipment to farms across the country. They will be harvested in midsummer., Photo by James A. Parcell - The Washington Post; Picture 5, Workers load strawberry plants for the planters.;Picture 6, and a man with a hoe follows to check furrows.; Picture 7, Planters fill more furrows, leaving behind empty crates.