Labor, agricultural and migrant
Humans have long performed agricultural labor in the United States. Native Americans from New England to the West Coast engaged in agricultural activities prior to the European colonial presence. A central paradox at the nation's founding can be seen in the Jeffersonian idealization of the nation as made up of small farmers whose landownership would result in economic independence, fostering the political independence necessary for DEMOCRACY alongside the reality of the nation's economic reliance on PLANTATIONS in agriculture and on slave labor.
Environmental historians have established that slaves contributed Native knowledge to the development of American agricultural techniques, that slaves often had a more intimate understanding of the landscape than plantation owners, and that the knowledge of the landscape slaves garnered from their agricultural labor assisted in their resistance. After the CIVIL WAR (1861–65) in the late 19th century, many freed blacks became sharecroppers, leasing small plots of land from former plantation owners in exchange for a percentage of the crop.
Today, large-scale industrial agriculture has for the most part replaced small family farms. Yet the paradox remains between Americans’ admiration of family farming and the economic and environmental realities of corporate agribusiness, including the exploitation of migrant farm laborers.
Agricultural laborers, especially migrant farm laborers, include a diverse range of groups, whose presence has often had links to global migration trends and U.S. foreign policy. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, significant numbers of agricultural workers originated from China, India, Japan, Mexico, and the Philippines. According to the 2001–02 National Agricultural Laborers Survey, 75 percent of current agricultural laborers were born in Mexico. Historically, immigrants often introduced specialized knowledge with them or developed skills that transformed the industry. For example, Japanese Americans’ IRRIGATION methods in the early 20th century allowed marginalized lands in California to become productive.
These laborers often faced harsh conditions. Many were migrant workers. They worked in the FORESTS, the fields, and the FISHERIES. In 1939, the plight of migrant workers was called to national attention with the publication of JOHN STEINBECK'S The Grapes of Wrath and CAREY MCWILLIAMS'S Factories in the Field. These writers focused on the injustices facing DUST BOWL farmers who lost their tenant farms through ecological and economic crises. With WORLD WAR II (1941–45), many of these white migrants were pulled into the defense industries while Japanese American farmers and farmworkers along the West Coast lost their livelihoods as they were forced into internment camps. During the war, MEXICO AND THE UNITED STATES negotiated a guest worker program, the Bracero Program, justified largely through a perceived farmworker shortage. The program lasted from 1942 through 1964, during which time at least two million braceros entered the United States. The National Farm Labor Union opposed such guest worker programs, arguing that they increased worker vulnerability, lowered wages, and inhibited unionization.
Farmworkers had fought to better their treatment through strikes and other organized actions throughout the 20th century. One of the best-known organizing efforts was launched by the United Farm Workers (UFW) shortly after the Bracero Program's conclusion. One of their earliest victories was gained through a coalition with environmental groups concerning workers’ exposure to DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). Farmworkers’ health remains a key ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE issue today.
PESTICIDES offer just one example of the connections among workers’ health as FOOD producers, communities’ health as food consumers, and ecological health and SUSTAINABILITY. Food provides an intimate connection among ecological systems, economic systems, and the HUMAN BODY. While not all food originates in agricultural acts, and not all agriculture results in food, there is significant environmental overlap between the two. Food offers a tangible link between production and consumption. From the UFW's boycott of table grapes in 1967 to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Page 812 | Top of Articleboycotts of Taco Bell in 2005, farmworkers have utilized food to enlist consumer support for their workplace struggles.
The neoagrarian movement emerging in late 20th century and early 21st-century writings by Michael Pollan (1955–) and WENDELL BERRY and embraced by the slow food movement and the local food movement remains focused on a romanticized vision of small family farms. Yet such visions need also to take seriously the continued substantial presence of migrant farm laborers in the United States and their struggles for fair working conditions. The health of the farmworker and the health of the communities who consume farm products are inseparable.
See also AGRARIANISM ; AGRICULTURE, COMMERCIAL ; CHÁAVEZ, CÉSAR; CONSUMERISM ; JEFFERSON, THOMAS ; SHARECROPPING ; YEOMAN .
Guthman, Julie. Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
Shaw, Randy. Beyond the Fields: César Chávez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1981000458