Mechanization Mania in California Agriculture

Factory Farms in Agriculture

The Tractor, June 10, 1958, Salinas, California

The Tractor, June 10, 1958, Salinas, California

The rush to mechanize California agriculture in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s came initially from the fall of the bracero labor system which was finally ended in 1964. Growers and bankers who controlled agribusiness knew that the end of bracero labor would increase labor costs and lower their profits.  Unions knew that it was their chance to move.  When Harvey Richards photographed the fields of California’s rich agricultural valleys during these years, this drama was his primary focus.  In looking back now, over 50 years later, it is apparent that the triumph of industrial agriculture world wide was unfolding in front of his cameras.  This triumph, with its creation of cheap commodity food, with its chemical pollution, destruction of top soil, ecological impacts and now the spread of insidious genetically modified organisms, bequeathed to future generations a terrible legacy.  While mass production agriculture thrived on producing cheap food sold in supermarkets around the world, and profits soared, the impact of this profit based rush to mechanization laid the basis of the current crises in the food system and in the health of the planet itself.

The images presented here let the viewer see how mechanized farming impacted the land, water, farm workers, and the labor process from plowing to planting, weeding, pest management, fertilizing, and harvesting to packing food.  Millions of dollars were poured into mechanization in an industry that claimed to be unable to afford living wages, that employed child labor and received government subsidies through direct payments, publicly funded water systems, tax breaks, and even support from the University of California at Davis where during these years mechanization research was centralized and made available free to growers. The people who made this system had dollar signs and profits in their eyes. The public supported cheap food. The health of the earth, however, was ignored in this rush to riches. What they created was a short lived panacea, underlain by a nightmare of ecological destruction that current generations now have to undo in order to find our way back to a balanced existence with a future that does no harm to the earth.

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