Farm Workers at Work: Fruits and Vegetables

Industrial Farming from Hands to Machines, 1958-1964

Farm Workers at Work: Fruits and Vegetables

Picking tomatoes by hand. 1958, California

In 1958, Harvey Richards toured the central valley of California photographing farming in many crops. This photo image gallery presents images of farming fruits and vegetables. As part of his filming for Factory Farms and later The Harvesters, Harvey captured a moment in the industrialization of agriculture when hand labor gave way to machine labor. Machines did not triumph everywhere. In orchard fruits and nuts, or where the produce was delicate and would be damaged by machines, such as in grapes, strawberries and lettuce, machines have limited application. Machines helped packing operations move from unionized packing houses to the unorganized fields. Wherever possible, machinery invaded California agriculture intensively during the years from 1958-1964. 1958 might be the last year when hand labor was the rule in California agriculture.

While applying capital to reduce labor costs is the hallmark of industrialization and the key to raising profits everywhere, it has a special impact on the land and on the people who worked the land.  And as more and more people realize today, it also has a large impact on the quality and purity of food in the stores. The machines make profit and so the crops have to be engineered to work with them.  Tomato sizes, for instance, became uniform for better machine handling and supermarket displays.  Applications of chemical pesticides eliminated hand weeding.  There is no end to the application of engineering to bring about greater profit. Appearance and marketability standards displaced nutrition and taste.  Genetic engineering, a logical extension of industrial agriculture, is creating monster foods with serious impacts on health of both workers and consumers whose welfare has evidently become a barrier against rising profits in the industry. Pesticides poison workers and residues remain in food we eat.  What the government considers “safe limits” continues to rise along with the increases in the application of chemicals in the fields.

The ethnic diversity of farm labor in California in 1958, as evident in these photos and others in the Archive, reflect the presence of the last of the migrant groups coming from the south and the dust bowl states into California. Even as the bracero program ended, family farmer migrants did not take to industrial farming and soon moved out of agriculture into city jobs where conditions were better. Agribusiness recruited new sources of cheap labor from the urban poor as well as from immigrants, legal and illegal, from Mexico and Central America, the Philippines, and elsewhere. The same cycle of people fleeing the harsh conditions of farm labor to the cities continues in today’s immigrant groups, as industrial farm corporations continue to offer substandard wages and conditions. As long as this unfair and oppressive underbelly of agribusiness stays out of public view and outside the protections of social legislation, the cheap and profitable foods of industrial agriculture will flow to the supermarkets and to consumers in great quantities, all wrapped up in clever advertising and sanctimonious approvals by defunct government agencies that are no better than publicity departments for corporate profits. The impact of industrial farming on the land and water, on the work force and on our food has become a central issue for people trying to achieve a sustainable way of life and a healthy planet.   


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