ALDERDALE — Men sip Modelo and crack jokes in the shade, boys kick a ball around and women visit in lawn chairs. Men play league soccer in the background.
Instead of the carrots, garlic or wine grapes that this irrigated corner of the Horse Heaven Hills is known for, this particular plot of ground grows community.
“It’s fun to come out here and just visit with friends and family,” said Yesenia Ibarra, who has lived in the unincorporated farming neighborhood of Alderdale all 25 years of her life.
Once just a facility for workers of corporate farm Mercer Canyons, the field, called Mercer Meadows, has grown into the unofficial park of this unofficial town in Klickitat County.
“All the families who live out here come and see and distract themselves from work,” said Hector Estrada, 43, the founder of Mercer Canyon’s soccer team.
Rob Mercer, the president of the company, said his late father, Bud, built the soccer field 12 years ago for his employees, who are isolated in a cluster of about 40 houses an hour’s drive from the nearest town of Prosser.
Since then, the corporation has added awnings, restrooms and a softball diamond to the field. Games occur at least once a week. On many weekends, a cookout follows. Nearby K-8 Paterson school sometimes uses the field for activities.
“I guess it’s quite a popular soccer field,” Mercer said.
The Mercers have a reputation for investing in their employees and community. Over they years, they have built a three-hole golf course, a banquet grounds and a motorcycle track, all for workers. They also raise pheasants, setting aside wildlife habitat for the birds, and financed a renovation of a downtown Prosser theater.
The name Alderdale comes from the former Columbia River train stop flooded in 1968 by the backwaters of the John Day Dam. The Mercer family, which began irrigating at that time, used the water for a cornucopia of crops that thrive in the fertile soil and relatively warm weather. The company has been known to harvest carrots in December.
As the farm grew, the company began building homes for workers. Meanwhile, more farms and businesses set up shop in the area, providing their own worker housing in the community, which reclaimed the name Alderdale.
In 1999, Estrada and his cousin moved to the hamlet for work and asked the Mercers if they would sponsor a soccer team to compete against other adult recreational squads from the Lower Yakima Valley.
The first two years they played on a dusty lot behind somebody’s house. When the Mercers saw it, they carved out a section of irrigated ground along Alderdale Road, planted a spread of grass flanked by wine grapes and hay and lined it on three sides with poplar trees now tall enough to provide generous shade and wind protection.
Today, competing teams in the Lower Valley Soccer League consider it one of their favorite facilities in contrast to the worn-and-torn parks they usually frequent.
“It’s nice and in the shade,” said Estaban Diaz, a defender from Chaueto, a Granger team that visited on July 25.
It’s a hot, dry Thursday afternoon in the middle of a dusty carrot harvest. But it’s also a game day.
Mercer Canyons employees trickle into the shop from the fields, some as far away as Boardman, Ore., across the Columbia, to clock out at 5 p.m. beneath a laminated photo of last year’s team.
Estrada and his co-captain, Juan Carlos Alcantar, 28, gather a water cooler, a field-painting backpack sprayer and a first aid kit complete with a battery-powered defibrillator, all provided by Mercer Canyons. They prepare the field, about a half-mile away, then run to their nearby homes to change clothes.
The game is scheduled for 6, but players just start to show up about that time to stretch socks over shin guards and lace up their cleats.
Not all of them are Mercer employees. Some work for nearby companies, others drive from the cities that dot the Lower Valley. One even comes from Pasco. Long drives for good players is not unheard of in some of the competitive Mexican leagues.
Referee Juvenal Larios pulls up in his four-wheeler, sets up a folding chair in the shade and dons a jersey.
Officials are paid extra to referee Mercer’s games to compensate them for the commute. But Larios, though he lives in Yakima, manages a nearby orchard and often stays in Alderdale during the week. He blows his whistle once or twice to speed things up.
Shortly after 6:30, the game finally begins, but spectators arrive even later. Mercer fans stick close to the parking lot behind the south goal, while Chaueto, the opponent, sets up camp on the sideline near midfield.
Many Latino farm workers love soccer and rabidly follow professional teams from Mexico and Europe on Spanish-language television. But the action within the lines at Mercer Meadows is almost an afterthought to the activity outside.
A few boys sprawl in the shade and point out their older brothers, uncles and fathers in the game. They will play for this team some day, they said. Eventually, they get up to knock a ball around in a vacant stretch of lawn.
A handful of men drinks chilled bottles of beer near the trees. A group of women sets up a row of chairs behind Mercer’s goal and poke fun at their husbands drinking beer near the trees. Toddlers tumble on blankets spread out by their feet.
A few young men sit in the bed of a pickup, spending more time making fun of each other than watching the game in the distance.
“We were going to bring the horses but it’s too hot,” said Robert Arriaga, a 15-year-old Alderdale resident who sometimes plays when the squad is short-handed.
Arriaga, a Prosser High School student, hops up to purchase a soda and bag of chicharrones — seasoned pork rinds — from Patricia Estrada, Hector Estrada’s wife. She sells the snacks at home games from the trunk of her car to raise money for an upcoming school trip to Washington, D.C., for her son, a Paterson eighth-grader.
About 30 minutes into the game, midfielder Alejandro “Chino” Gomez, a former Mercer employee who now lives in Grandview, scores for the home team, drawing a polite applause. The squad makes it 2-0 early in the second half.
When the game ends, boys kick around on the goal as the players take down the nets and pick up litter.
Larios, the referee, visits the captain of each team to be paid entirely in $1 bills as every player pitches in his share. And he joins Gomez, Estrada and a few other Mercer players for a frosty Modelo.
As the sun sets and the players’ kids huddle around them, Estrada confesses the entire scene surpasses his hopes when he sheepishly asked his boss to sponsor a team 14 years ago.
“I didn’t expect this,” he said.
• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.