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Fourth International, July 1942


C. Charles

The Crisis in Agriculture


From Fourth International, vol.3 No.7, July 1942, pp.204-208.
Transcribed, Edited & Formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for the ETOL.


III. Conditions of the Agricultural Worker

Driven from the land, the ex-farmer can no longer find a place as an independent farmer or tenant or (if we except the present war boom) in urban industry. He either joins the 3,000,000 subsistence farmers – a mellifluous term for peasants – or becomes a migratory farm worker.

What are the living conditions of the million and a half agricultural migratory wage workers and the three-quarters of a million remaining hired hands? To answer this, it is necessary to say a few words about the technical conditions of farm work.

Farming is now characterized by a high degree of mechanization in preparing the soil for the seed and in sowing. The need for labor in these phases of the work is comparatively small. Contrariwise, harvesting, outside of the combine harvester in wheat [1] and the corn picker, is as yet but little mechanized and hand labor is the rule. The need of labor is relatively very great for a few days or weeks of the year during reaping time. To be able to earn a living the agricultural worker must follow the harvest as the crops mature at different times in various parts of the country. Hundreds and thousands of miles are covered in the annual wanderings. Labor is intensely migratory.

Formerly farm labor was marked by a variety of different tasks from keeping books, curing live stock and meteorological forecasts to cleaning manure out of stables. Now a farm worker is a specialist: an orange picker, an apple picker, a lettuce trimmer, a cotton picker, an asparagus cutter, a beet worker, a milker, a tractor operator. As in urban industry, the development of capitalism on the land has meant division and subdivision and specialization of labor, usually accompanied by intense monotony and drudgery.

The tempo of work in the field has been speeded up. This is caused sometimes by natural conditions, such as the need for harvesting certain crops within very brief periods, but it may also be due to market conditions, as every grower hopes to take advantage of the market when the prices are favorable. Mechanization has also aided in transforming agriculture from a leisurely occupation to toil of the same intensity as is found in the factory where work is organized on the Taylor or Bedeaux systems.

Carey McWilliams states in Ill Fares the Land:

“The efficiency experts complain that the former harvest hands have ‘horse habits’ and cannot be adjusted to machine work. The typical harvest hand, they say, even shows a deplorable tendency ... to stop every now and then and take a smoke. It is as though from force of habit he wants to give the machine a rest. The remaining farm hands are, nowadays, really machinists. Many of them do not reside on the farm but are members of special custom-work combine crews that contract to harvest wheat from Oklahoma to Kansas. With floodlights turned on the fields, they work day and night and the harvest is completed in a matter of hours. With the smaller combines mounted on rubber tires and the larger combines being transported by truck, combine crews move from state to state, from area to area, In a brief period of time.”

Why Minority Groups Were Employed

If we leave aside the hired hand, the first wage workers employed on large-scale farm enterprises as modern proletarians were members of various minority races. In California it began with the American Indian, then the Chinese and Japanese, later the Filipino and Hindu and last of all, immediately prior to the dust-bowl migrants, the Mexican.

In the Southwest (and also in the beet fields of the northern states) capitalist farming was originally, and remains, in spite of the competition of white workers, based on the Mexicans. In other parts of the country Negro farm workers played and play an important role, while in the eastern states European immigrants formerly supplied a part of the labor supply.

Agricultural capital has always preferred workers of minority races and groupings, oppressed, without civil rights, and as a result more easily terrorized. Such workers would find it difficult to get decent wages and hours, and would be too fearful to organize.

Dr. George Clements of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce stated on October 15, 1935:

“We on the land have always recognized that California agricultural labor requirements made impossible to those people employed the full efforts of American citizenship and the possibility of partaking in our normal standards of living.”

The number of Mexicans in California increased from 71,062 in 1900 to 683,681 three decades later.

On December 18, 1936, Dr. Clements declared:

“The 175,000 Mexicans who from 1917 to 1930 met the agricultural labor requirements ... were adaptable labor ... tractable labor. Can we expect these new white transient citizens to fill their place? The white transients are not tractable labor. Being American citizens, they are going to demand the so-called American standard of living.”

“The Mexican has put Texas on the map agriculturally,” asserted the Literary Digest in 1930, repeating what had been said more elegantly by the Century in its January 1926 issue: “His labors are the basis of that pyramid of economic prosperity which the Southwest so proudly displays.”

A Texan, testifying before the House Committee on Immigration declared:

“Mr. Chairman, here is the whole situation in a nutshell.

“... In order to allow landlords now to make a profit off their farms, they want to get the cheapest labor they can find, and if they get Mexican labor, it enables them to make a profit. That is the way it is along the border, and I imagine that is the way it is anywhere else.”

One bank official told a representative of the Texas State Employment Service:

“Give the Negro barely enough to eat to keep him strong, and just enough clothes to hide his nakedness, otherwise he will develop the big head and get the idea he is anybody’s equal.”

Besides the Mexicans and Negroes, American Indian’s are used in regions close to reservations. Filipino labor, at one time much more important than at present, still remains in agriculture.

The basis of profits for the farm capitalists is the labor of the farm worker. The cheapest labor – from which the greatest profit can be extracted – is the labor of racially and nationally oppressed groups.

The secretary of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce feared that the white migrants would not prove as docile as the Mexican workers. The strikes of the united American and Mexican workers that swept through California agriculture like a cleansing storm proved him correct in his premonition as to the intractability of the American workers and wrong regarding the continued subservience of the Mexicans. But in the first years of the arrival of the dust-bowl migrants their hunger was so great that it was the Mexican workers who were threatened, in cases of recalcitrance, by the warning: “We’ll bring in more Okies.”

The new draftees in the army of the agricultural migrants, although white and born in the United States, suffer a loss of civic rights. They cannot vote because of residential requirements. They are eligible to relief only to the amount and when it suits the county relief commissioners who in rural areas are generally growers or their representatives. They are considered as inferiors and suffer from what amounts to a variety of “Jim Crowism.”

The third of the important sources of today’s farm labor is the hired hand. Before 1929 it was still assumed that the hired hand was in that status only for a period before passing on to independent farming, possibly via a stage of tenancy. The relation with the employer was much closer to that of master and apprentice than capitalist and wage worker. The hired hand formerly was considered nearly as one of the family and, legend has it, married one of the farmer’s daughters. But the old relationship disappeared together with farming as a “way of life.” The owners of the farm corporations do not even know the names of their workers, much less consider them as eligible sons-in-law. The hired hand graduates not to his own farm but into the hosts of migratory laborers, while the 750,000 hired hands who remain on single-employee farms no longer enjoy the same conditions nor wages as formerly.

Incomes of Agricultural Workers

According to the Year Book of the Department of Agriculture the probability is that the full time earnings of agricultural workers including perquisites, average under $400 a year for the country as a whole. The daily wages in 1940 were lower than in 1931, while they sank from $1.61 in 1937 to $1.59 in 1940.

In his testimony before the Temporary National Economic Committee, Dr. Carl Taylor estimated the annual average earnings per worker were $185 in tobacco; $206 in grain crops; $265 in truck crops in New jersey; $308 in corn (Illinois and Iowa) and $340 in sugar beets.

In the southern states, net cash earnings only occasionally exceed $100 a year, and if goods for home use and perquisites are included, the total is seldom more than $150.

In the Yakima Valley in the Pacific Northwest, hop pickers and apple “knockers” average per family about $254 a year. In 1936 half the families earned less than $200. (The distinction should be noticed throughout this section between individual earnings and family earnings.)

In Arizona, Indian cotton pickers in 1940 earned an average of 50 to 60 cents a day per person, with the daily average earnings per family being about $2.50. Entire Mexican families’ averages do not exceed $250 a year, with Mexican workers in season earning about $6.00 a week.

In Austin, Texas, “one employer is paying his farm hands 75 cents a day ... another farmer in the county is paying 80 cents a day.” “On all the big farms the workers who draw $1.00 a day return a generous portion of it to the landlord at the plantation commissary ... paying from 15 to 25 per cent more for an item than they would pay for the same article in town. Many Central Texas families have not earned more than an average of five cents a day per member of the family from farm work during the last twelve months.” These statements are from reports to the Tolan Committee, and refer to white cotton pickers.

The Texas State Employment Service estimates that in 1938 workers in cotton could not make more than $37.50 per season of six months. In 1940 it was found in one county that the average income per person was $2.53 a week. In other regions it was established that weekly incomes per person were $1.60. An official told the Tolan Committee that “we found able-bodied men working ten hours a day and receiving as low as 20 cents for an entire day or 2 cents an hour.”

The Mexican workers fare slightly better. Their wages average between 75 cents and $1 a day during the season.

It is estimated that there are 400,000 cotton pickers in Texas, of whom approximately 300,000 are Mexican, 60,000 white, and 40,000 Negro.

The displaced croppers and tenants fare as badly in other Texas crops as in cotton. Here are some examples: digging onions in Dimmitt county – 60 cents a day; spinach – $2.50 to $4 a week; pecan pickers average $6 a week.

The Everglades region of Florida produces enormous yields of carrots, beans, peas and tomatoes from its recently reclaimed muck lands. The labor is mainly Negro. In a detailed study of annual earnings of sample families of wage workers it was found:

“Half of all the workers studied received an annual income of $307 or less ... This income includes all cash derived from employment in the Lake Okechobee area and elsewhere, plus value of free housing, wood, gardens, or other perquisites ... five-sixths received $500 or less. Only 2 per cent received more than $800. So much for individual worker. What of family incomes? ... 56 per cent of the incomes were $500 or less; 15 per cent received more than $800. Among colored families …. 72 per cent had family incomes of $500 or less; and only 5 per cent incomes higher than $800.”

Average annual earnings in the Colorado beet fields in 1938 for a Mexican family were found to be $568.49 of which $412.46 were earned by working in beets; $132 through other employment, and $24.12 from relief. As families are large it is in the realm of the debatable whether average earnings per individual worker are greater than $105. It must be remembered that the sugar beet workers are the aristocracy of Mexican agricultural labor.

In the Michigan beet fields, average seasonal earnings per family were estimated at about $640. The size of the average family is 4.4 adult workers of 14 years or over. Work is from 5 a.m. to sundown.

In the Colorado Palisades fruit region, wages average about $1 a day. In the bean, celery, berry and tomato fields of that state Mexican workers are compelled to work for from 50 to 60 cents a day according to the Report of the Denver Bureau of Public Welfare in December 1940. If a worker does not accept this work he is forced off relief. Average annual earnings per worker in the potato fields of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana are $230.

In the tomato fields of Indiana about 5,000 out-of-state families are employed. Their point of origin is mainly Kentucky but in the recent period Mexican families have appeared. For a 10-, 12- or 14-hour day it is doubtful if an experienced adult worker can make $1.50 daily, with women and children proportionately less.

In the berry fields, wages range from $108.24 to $424 a year throughout the country. In Michigan at existing hourly and piece rates workers can average 20 to 25 cents an hour for a 10-hour day, but if the season is late, or the crop small, these days and hours are often punctuated by long periods of idleness. The average family picking berries does not earn more than $150 to $200 per year. Wages in other Michigan crops range from $185 to $400 per family per season.

The average annual income in the strawberry fields per family, of which relief payments make up a good percentage, was $287.

For share-croppers, tenants and farmers in the Bootheel region of southeastern Missouri, the annual family income was estimated at $415 for the white cropper, for the white laborer at $264 and for the Negroes as a whole at $251. These income figures include relief payments.

On the eastern shore of Virginia (broccoli, spinach and peas) the former Tennessee share-croppers earn $8 a week.

Relief families in the Hemmerton area make $3.30 a week in the raspberry fields, living five and six to a room. In the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts, earnings per season per family in 1938 averaged $265, of which about 30 per cent is earned by children under 10.

Wages in the Kentucky berry fields, in which some 20,000 migrants work each season, averaged $474 per year per family ($77 per person), with one-crop migrants earning about half as much as the year-rounder who works in both strawberries and cotton to earn the total amount mentioned.

It is a characteristic trick of the growers always to try to maintain a super-abundance of available labor. They advertise far and wide to attract laborers; through their control of the counties they refuse relief to workers who might work in the fields. The level of farm wages can be deduced from the fact that the miserable relief is preferred by the workers to toiling in the fields.

The Rural Slums

Some of the most horrible slums in the world are located in the rural areas of the United States.

In California, since the beginning of the migration of the “Okies,” – there are numerous settlements on the outskirts of the established towns. These are populated by “homeowners” who have bought a plot of land from speculators for $200 – $5 down and the balance on payments. Housing in these settlements is a progression from tents and trailers to lean-tos and shacks, and to one- and two-room cabins, built of knotty pine or boxwood, costing $75 at the most. Sanitation is negligible; water is expensive, often equal to the monthly payments. The soil is poor and truck gardening impossible. Some of these migrant communities number from 4,000 to 8,000 souls.

There are 5,000 private agricultural camps in California housing 150,000 persons. Due to the strikes and the exposés by Steinbeck, McWilliams and others, there has been some improvement in the standards of these camps. Inadequate as they are, they do supply some type of shelter, bathing facilities, toilets, garbage disposal, some sanitation and an adequate supply of drinking water. California camps are the best in the West. By this measure we can judge the rest.

The living conditions in the Yakima Valley are the worst in the West. There are not even the growers’ labor camps found in California. The growers assert that to establish such camps on their land would provide too good an opportunity to steal fruit. In the hop camps most of the cooking is done out of doors, drainage is bad and sanitation absent.

There are four types of housing for migrant farm families in Arizona: grower camps, cheap auto and trailer camps, squatter camps and shacktowns such as exist in California.

In Maricopa and Final Counties, center of Arizona cotton raising, 68.4 per cent of the migrants live in 191 grower camps, totalling a population of about 21,000 people during the season. These camps are mainly “unfurnished tents, pitched on the open sun-baked mud flats at the edge of or near the cotton fields. Toilet facilities, never segregated for the sexes, consist of ordinary privies. Water is piped from wells or tanks and frequently irrigation ditch water is used. Bathing facilities are unknown.” Brush has to be gathered from the desert for fuel; electric lights are as though never invented.

Approximately 21.2 per cent of the workers live in trailer or auto camps where rents range from $1.50 to $2.50 per week. This is preferred by many pickers, for living in the trailer or auto camp enables them to freelance in looking for work instead of being obliged to work for the grower on whose land they camp. Also in the auto and trailer camps supplies can be bought wherever one wishes rather than from the overcharging company commissary.

Located on the roadside, ditch banks or on the open desert, usually near water, are the squatter camps, most horrible of all. In numerous cases the only shelter is the automobile. Many of these camps are the result of the policy of the growers of not admitting to their camps families with less than three pickers.

In Texas, there are generally no private camps provided. Pickers throw up their own camps wherever they can find a site. There is no effort to provide camp facilities of any kind: water, toilets, etc. The weather gets extremely cold in parts of Texas in October and November. In those cases where camps are provided they consist of sheds, barns, machine houses, or rows of one-room cabins, 20 to 60 in a row.

The season is opening in Palm Beach, in the luxurious hotels, as 20,000 migratory workers arrive in the Lake Okeechobee region for their “season.” White laborers live in “tents, trailers, tarpaper shacks, hovels of patched-together tin, even in tree houses.” They pay $1 to $1.50 a week rent for ground space. The typical Negro family lives in a 10-foot square stall in a long shed or barracks, which rents for $1 to $1.50 a week unfurnished. The county physician reports that “as many as 10 persons have been herded in a room 12 feet by 14 feet, with only two windows and have paid $4.00 a week rent ... I know of one man in the neighborhood who collects $2,000 per month for such sub-standard quarters.”

Investigation in Michigan agricultural fields has unearthed some interesting facts.

In Gratiot County clusters of “terrible” shacks were found. Toilet facilities are generally absent. Four or five people sleep in one bed (there is no furniture or bedding) and the more unfortunate rest on the floor. In Monroe and Lenawee Counties, 75 per cent of the housing was found to be inadequate one- or two-room shacks, “overcrowded, vermin-infested, badly ventilated.”

The following is from a WPA report on the conditions in the region around Benton Harbor:

“Many producers in the area hire from 50 to 400 workers. All the camps in which these migrants live follow the same dreary description. The only concession is a well for water, and an average of one outhouse for 50 people. When old barns and buildings are available they are used as bunkhouses to provide for an. unbelievable number of people ... In the center of one camp were two large frame buildings each about 75 feet long and 12 feet wide. The houses had dirt floors and each was divided by flimsy partitions into eight rooms. The buildings are the homes of 100 men, women and children – an average of over eight to one small room.”

This is Michigan, “enlightened” Michigan, not Mississippi!

We cannot leave the description of housing of the farm workers without quoting from an eye-witness in Florida:

The people swarm back from the field and scatter to their stalls, huts and hovels. “Finally no more sleeping places. Men made big fires and fifty or sixty men slept around each fire. But they had to pay the man whose land they slept on. He ran the fire; just like his boarding house – for hire!”

Child Labor and Health Conditions

Family labor – child and woman labor – often unpaid, make up a great part of the agricultural workers.

In the Northwest hop and apple fields, labor of women and children is very important. Sugar beet contract labor, both in Colorado and Michigan is exclusively “family contract” labor. In the Michigan sugar beet area, nearly 35 per cent of the workers are children. It is claimed in New Jersey that children make the best berry pickers.

The conditions of education of the migrant children is indicated by the saying in California: “You can’t educate a procession.”

In September 1940 there were more than 75,000 children reported not attending public school in Texas.

The education of the children of the Florida migrants is revealed by the statement that “enrollment in school dropped from 485 to 20 in a week” when the beans came in.

In the beet fields of Michigan the children do not even pretend to start school in the fall. They lose two or three months in the fall and one or two months in the spring.

Of the children of Mexican agricultural workers in Colorado, one-fourth of all children between 6 and 15 years of age had no school record for the year 1935-36; practically no Mexican children progress beyond the eighth grade.

At a conference in Washington on Lincoln’s Birthday in 1940, a Mrs. Simmons stated, speaking of New Jersey: “New Jersey children must go to school but Pennsylvania children don’t have to go to school, so we use the Pennsylvania children in the truck gardens early in the season and in the cranberry bogs later.”

In the strawberry fields of Louisiana, only about half the children attend school and those only when they are unable to find work. In the Bootheel of Missouri, of 400 schools only about 24 meet the low standards of the State Board of Education, only 54 per cent of the children attend school and they have regular spring and fall cotton “vacations.”

Farming is generally considered healthful work. Never was there a greater error. The health conditions of the farm workers is glaringly expressed by an investigator in the following statement: “They seem to die fastest in areas of greatest agricultural prosperity.” Low wages, poor housing, inadequate sanitary facilities, early child labor, women working in the fields, make of the agricultural workers and their families the most sickly of individuals. The “sturdy yeoman” suffers from anemia, rickets, pellagra, diarrhea, typhoid fever – the list is too long to repeat.

There are 864 rural counties in the United States, in which nearly 200,000 live babies were born in 1937, yet not a single one of these births took place in a hospital.

In the sugar beet areas of Colorado, the death rate from filth-borne diseases such as typhoid fever, diarrhea and enteritis were found to be two and one-half to five times as great as in the rest of the state. The county that leads in potato production leads as well in death rates from the above-mentioned diseases.

The report of the Kellogg Foundation on health conditions of the fruit pickers of Michigan states: “The children suffer more than any other group ... Impetigo and other skin diseases are very common and often progress unrecognized.”

Agricultural labor is dangerous not only due to the diseases rampant among the workers but also owing to the high rate of accidents resulting from farm machinery, poorly equipped or completely unequipped with safety devices. More people are killed in the course of farm work than at any other occupation. In 1939, 4,300 workers, over one-quarter of all industrial fatalities, were killed as a consequence of farm accidents.

Agricultural workers also suffer many traffic accidents as they search for work in their antiquated, dangerous autos, or ride the freight trains or plod the highways.

Labor and social legislation does not affect farm labor outside of certain legislation for sugar beet workers. The Wagner Labor Act is not operative, nor the Social Security Act, old age and unemployment insurance, nor the Fair Labor Standards Acts with its wage minimum and hour maximum.

Only four states treat agricultural workers in the same category as industrial workers for workers’ compensation insurance. Twenty-three states exclude children from existing child labor laws. Few states even make a pretense of regulation of hours and conditions of the women and children who work in the fields. Only 13 states have regulations governing private labor camps. States that legislate minimum standards of housing for cattle have no such laws for migratory workers.

In practically all social legislation the phrase can be read: “Agricultural labor is exempt.” The excuse for this exemption is that agriculture is not an industry and that social legislation is unnecessary due to the benevolent relations existing between farmer and worker, different than in the shop. Yet, as we have seen, social legislation is more needed on the land than in the factory.

This is the picture of farming in America today. It is the great merit of Carey McWilliams that he has gathered many of the important facts together in his new book, Ill Fares the Land. But what shall be done?

The Future of Agriculture

McWilliams does not glorify or sigh for the past, impossible to recover. He says:

“... there is no point whatever in attempting to reverse a clearly defined historical trend. We cannot cope with the problem by relocating displaced farm families on subsistence noncommercial farms. Nor can we legislate the large-scale industrialized farm out of existence by conducting indignant campaigns against ‘corporate farming.’ ... Nor is there much point in being sentimental about so-called ‘rural values’ and bewailing the fact that the farmer has been robbed of many hand-labor functions now performed by the machine. Many of these functions were unspeakably dreary and unnecessarily degraded rural life. There is nothing to be gained technically, nor, in the long run, socially, by attempting to break up large holdings and to return to a concept of farming which prevailed a century ago.”

He also correctly states:

“To deal with the basic causes of migration, we can no longer think in terms of rehabilitating a few thousand individual farm families, of makeshift work programs, of improvized welfare projects, of social legislation to protect farm workers (valuable as these proposals are to attain immediate objectives). These measures will not, and cannot, suffice. We must think in bolder terms; we must plan on a much larger scale. The general direction which our thinking and planning should take is clearly indicated. Democracy is not only a means but it is the goal toward the attainment of which our efforts should be directed …. our industrial and economic order in all its phases – industrial, agricultural, and financial – is not democratic. It is neither owned nor administered nor directed democratically. It functions in an autocratic manner ... We need to refashion this economic order to a more democratic pattern ...

McWilliams, it is clear, looks forward to a socialist future; but he speaks of socialism with a most lamentable, ludicrous timidity. The Marxists say frankly what he hints:

Socialism is the only salvation not only for the worker in the city and farm, but also for the small dirt farmer. In the struggle for socialism the small farmer, victimized by capital, will be found shoulder to shoulder with the agricultural and city worker.

(This is the third and last of a series on American agriculture. The others appeared in our May and June issues.)


1. Many small farmers can keep themselves on the land only by becoming farmer-workers. The exodus from Oklahoma of the Joads, who formerly planted cotton, is directly connected with the use of the combine harvester in the wheat fields of Kansas. Previously the farmer from Oklahoma, Arkansas, or other regions would supplement his income from the soil as an “Iidependent” farmer with the wages of two or three months’ work in the wheat fields. When that came to an end with the introduction of the combine harvester beginning in 1927, which within a few years eliminated nine-tenths of the harvest hands, another prop was pulled out from under the share-cropping and tenancy system. Numerous share-croppers and tenants work in addition at picking berries, fruit, cotton and vegetables on the large farms. In 1939, 1,750,000 farmers worked part-time off their land. Of this number over 25 per cent worked at farm labor.

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