Voice of male interviewer: How old were you when you started working in the peanut field?
LaRue: 5-6 Years old. That was my summer job. They would come to pick us up about 5am and it wouldn’t be over until 5-6 pm at night so that was my summer vacation. Working in the peanut field. These days yall have choices. Back then they didn’t have any choices Your choice is what you get. You get up, you get picked up by the truck and you go to work. If you were caught playing in the peanut file you got in trouble, so you did what you were supposed to do when you got there.
MUSIC CUE: 1500 Stories theme
Welcome to 1500 Stories, a podcast about something Americans don’t like to talk about–economic class. 1500 Stories is an art and digital storytelling project about economic inequality in the United States. My name is Jen Myhre and I founded 1500 Stories back in 2015. I have a day job teaching sociology–or as I like to call it, delivering the bad news–at a community college in the Silicon Valley and when my day job ends my work as a visual artist, documentarian and community organizer begins. You might be wondering about where the name 1500 Stories comes from. It comes from a visual data display I have nerded out on for over twenty years. It is a poster created by economist Stephen J. Rose depicting roughly the bottom 90% of Americans in terms of income and wealth. Posters don’t make good podcast material but if you were to look at you would notice that most of the people cluster at the bottom and most of the wealth and income clusters at the top. The poster only shows that bottom 90% because the top 10% can’t fit on the poster. In 1997 when I first started teaching the poster in my Introduction to Sociology classes, the poster would need to have been 3 stories tall to capture the richest Americans. By the time 2015 came around, the poster would need to have been 1500 stories tall to capture the richest Americans. That’s five miles long!! That phrase 1500 stories stuck with me and one day it hit me–STORIES!! We need to tell our stories about economic class. Since then, over 700 Americans, people living in very different economic situations, have opened up to the project about their lives. These people share openly about things Americans avoid talking about–things like money, and debt, their economic struggles, their worries and their hopes for the future. No matter where they fall on the economic ladder, everyone has a story.
In this episode of the 1500 Stories podcast, we continue to explore the myths and realities of farm work in the U.S., in a mini-series that grew from reading alongside one another interviews with adults in Wisconsin and in the farming communities of California. The first two episodes in the farm work mini-series focused on the Wisconsin stories, and the ways in American popular culture has built stereotypes about farm work and rural life that don’t always match up to reality. Those stereotypical ideas have a fancy academic name–it’s called the agrarian myth and it is a throughline in American culture. The agrarian myth is the idea that the self-sufficient family farm is the truest repository of American values of independence, hard work, family and community. As rural sociologists Katherine Meyer and Linda Lobao (2004) point out, “Real farmers may be disappearing, but the mythic American farmer is alive and inspirational and, therefore, powerful.” Those first two episodes about farm work and the agrarian myth asked us to move beyond our images of red barns and silos to understand with more nuance the challenging realities of contemporary farm work, even for Wisconsinites who grew up on family farms. LaRue, whom you heard at the top of the episode, lives in Wisconsin now but grew up in Florida. His story raises up another important corrective to the agrarian myth, which is its intersection with racial inequality in the U.S. These next two episodes explore what it means to farm while black or brown, or more precisely what it means to do farm work while black and brown. Because the stories of Black and Latinx 1500 Stories respondents who grew up doing farm work aren’t stories about family farms. They are stories about laboring in the fields for commercial agriculture. Here’s more from LaRue, a 47 year old African-American man who is now a dean of students at a college:
Growing up in the south it was less about social class and more about racial class because even when we worked in the peanut fields, it was almost as if we were working in the cotton fields in slavery days because all the supervisors were white and back in the day there used to be these big ford trucks that would decent and carried all these guys that would come see if we were working called supervisors but I call them overseers now that I know my history. They would come out on these big trucks and I would be like I want a big truck like that but there were none of them that looked like me so there was a racial undertone to it, but we never really thought of social classes.
As earlier episodes of the 1500 Stories podcast discussed, the class divide is primarily a rich-and-everyone-else divide. In the previous episode about farmwork, I shared that economic inequality is even more severe in farming than it is in the rest of the economy. Wealth concentration means that fewer farms are doing most of the production. Only a handful of firms produce most of the cattle, most of the wheat and a big chunk of the produce market. (Lobao & Meyer 2004) The richest 4% of farms making nearly half of the farming income, and receive the lion’s share of the federal farm subsidies. (Sharp 2009)
The period of the greatest loss of family farms in the U.S. was the two decades immediately following World War II (Lobao & Meyer 2004). This was the period of the spiraling growth of industrialized agriculture and as Linda Lobao and Katherine Meyer point out, during this period agricultural technologies, things like large tractors and chemical fertilizers, replaced family labor (Lobao & Meyer 2004). The number of farms got smaller and the size of those farms got larger. As discussed in previous episodes of 1500 Stories, folks on small farms get most of their income now from non-farm jobs. Much like big box superstores and Amazon has knocked out many a family owned local business, giant agribusiness has replaced the family farm. As Lobao and Meyer (2004) explain, “Small farms (those with annual gross sales less than $50,000) make up about three-quarters of the nation’s farms but account for just 7 percent of total sales.” Yet even still 1 in 5 American counties is economically dependent on farming. (Lobao & Meyer 2004). The corporatization of agriculture has been the nail in the coffin of the last sector of the economy that had been dominated by family owned businesses (Lobao & Meyer). Now much of the farming that remains is contract farming–corporations pay the farmers when animals or produce are delivered (Lobao & Meyer 2004). Linda Lobao and Curtis W. Stofferahn (2008) point out that most farm production and most farming income is made by industrial farms. These are not family or household farms. Industrial farms are owned by one set of people, managed by other people and worked on by yet another group of people.
LaRue’s farming story is one of working for other people. You got picked up by the truck and you worked in the peanut fields without question. Unlike Caitlin from the previous episode whose story of difficult labor even as a child is intertwined with warm feelings of family belonging, LaRue is clear that his labor benefited someone else and the people who supervised him were overseers rather than parents. Researchers Ellen Kossek and Lisa Burke shared that “farmworkers are at the core of the $28 billion fruit and vegetable industry in the U.S., 85% of which is hand-harvested or cultivated.”36 (Marisol Clark-Ibanez and Richelle Swan 2019)
And as LaRue observed, farmwork as an occupation is racially segregated and exploited. Megan Horst and Amy Marion looked at the National Agricultural Workers Survey to investigate the demographics of farming today. LaRue is right that economic inequality in farming maps onto racial inequality. White people make up 74% of the U.S. popluation but own 98% of all farm and receive 98% of all farm-related income from land ownership (Horst and Marion 2019). People of color who operate farms are more likely to be tenant farmers than landowning farmers (Horst and Marion 2019). And farmworkers are disproportionately people of color. People of color make up 26% of the U.S. population but 62% of farmworkers (Horst and Marion). And of these farmworkers, 80% are Latinx (Horst and Marion). Among farmworkers as a whole, median income is roughly $25,000 per year. On the other hand, according to the US Department of Agriculture in 2018, “the median income from farming was $141,614 for households operating commercial farms. Residence farms also reported a negative median income from farming of -$2,610; however, the substantial off-farm income of residence farm households provided them with higher total incomes ($88,220).” Just to be clear, that negative median income is because as discussed in previous episodes the USDA defines a farm as any place where $1,000 or more of agricultural products were sold, or could have been sold, during the year. And so most folks defined as farmers in this way get their actual income from non-farm sources. So we can see that people of color tend to do the lowest paid agricultural work. They also disproportionately do the most dangerous work.
Agricultural work has the highest rate of preventable fatal injuries of any other industry (National Safety Council). The fatality rate each year is 5 times higher for agricultural workers than it is for workers overall and they have higher rates of workplace injury, chronic illness, and illnesses associated with pesticide exposure. (Holmes 2006). Imagine stooping for 10 or 12 hours straight to pick cucumbers. Imagine working in the fields underneath wind-carried-pesticide-drift from crop sprayers. Farm machinery itself also causes a lot of injuries. Those delicious strawberries we love to eat come spring are referred to by farmworkers as fruta del diablo or “the Devil’s fruit” because of that stooping required to pick them.37” (Marisol Clark-Ibanez and Richelle Swan 2019) Meat processing is another category of agricultural work done predominantly by people of color that is extremely dangerous and has very high rates of occupational injury. (Marisol Clark-Ibanez and Richelle Swan 2019). Farmworkers in many states are excluded from worker’s compensation, and the Social Security Act of 1935 excluded them from unemployment benefits (Holmes 2006). And ironically, given that the labor of farm workers feeds the nation, farm workers themselves have very high rates of food insecurity (Rodriguez et al 2015) with anywhere from 40-70% of farm workers lacking consistent access to enough food to maintain health. Farm work is simultaneously one of the most dangerous, most strenuous and most underpaid jobs in the U.S. This too is one of the realities of contemporary life in rural America, and one of the facts hiding underneath the agrarian myth. So it is not surprising, as we learned in previous episodes, that people recognize that getting off the farm is a route to upward mobility. Here’s LaRue again.
I was raised working in the fields. Every summer we worked in the peanut fields and as I got older, branch out to watermelon fields and pick oranges and hay which you made more money doing that. I’ve always worked fields growing up so there was always a conversation about: If you don’t want to work in these fields go to college.
I made it. I graduated out of high school, I made it. I left my community when some of my friends aren’t even alive or they’re in jail, I made it. I graduated undergrad, I made it. I graduated grad school, I made it. So, there are chapter in this road of living so I’m not one to settle so I would never be that person to say, “I made it”. Even when I retire, I don’t think that phrase fits me because I’m not that type of person that I needed motivation to go after my goals and my dreams. I guess when you accomplish something, I can say “I made it”.
LaRue’s story was one of the few interviews gathered in Wisconsin that was a farmworker story rather than a family farm stories. And when I started reading stories gathered in the farming communities of California they struck me as different in key ways from the Wisconsin family farm stories, and even further from the agrarian myth than Ruth or John’s stories from previous episodes. Like LaRue’s story, they are the stories of what it’s like to work as a laborer in commercial agriculture. But they brought new things to light about growing up as a farmworker. Before we meet one of the Californians who grew up in a farmworker family, it might be helpful to have a little bit of a sense of the the hierarchy on a commercial farm. For this we turn to an anthropologist who did fieldwork as a participant observer and described the life in vivid detail. Anthropologist Seth Holmes embedded in a family farm in Washington, working alongside the 400 other workers at the peak of the growing season, and the smaller subset of workers who work on the farm during the rest of the year. In Holmes’ words, Workers lived in “one of three labor camps. Each labor camp is made up of shacks, the average of which is 10 feet by 15 feet with one or two mattresses, one small refrigerator, two camping-style gas stoves, one table with a bench, and a small sink with one hose each of hot and cold water.” Holmes described a racial hierarchy on the farm. In his words, “The further down the ladder from Euro-American to indigenous Mexican one is positioned, the less control over time one has, the more degrading treatment by supervisors one receives, the more physically taxing one’s work is, and the more exposed one’s body is to weather and pesticides.” “[indigenous] Strawberry pickers must bring in 50 pounds of de-leafed berries every hour. Otherwise, they will be fired and kicked out of the camp. In order to meet this minimum weight requirement, they take few or no breaks from 5:00 A.M. until the afternoon or evening when that particular field is completed.” Holmes continued, “Often, they are reprimanded nonetheless and called perros (dogs), burros (burros), Oaxacos (a derogatory term for ‘‘Oaxacan’’), or indios estupidos (stupid Indians). Many do not eat or drink anything before work so that they do not have to take time to use the outhouse. They work as hard and fast as they can, picking and running with their buckets of berries to the white teen checkers.” Despite documenting this grueling situation, Seth Holmes did not blame the owners and managers of the farm he worked on for the exploitation he witnessed. In his words again, “The Farm executives are ethical people who have a vision of a good society that includes family farming…[but] The corporatization of US agriculture and the deregulation of international free markets squeeze growers such that they cannot imagine increasing the pay of the pickers or improving the labor camps without bankrupting the farm.” Now that we have a more visceral sense of everyday life for a farmworker, let’s meet Javier. He is 40 years old, Mexican-American and lives in a small town in the rural areas south and east of San Jose. Like the other stories we’ve heard in these episodes on farm work, he started working when he was young.
Well, my parents were migrant workers, so we grew up in the fields, too, working and it was hard for us to go to school because we had to go after school to work in the fields. Back then, it was like the fields, it was the fields, it was… now they are more strict, you know? But before they had kids, you know, around there, and I remember and summer time would come and they were out. I would hate summer time because to the fields they um… I remember they were more, we were poor, my parents were poor, and we were just three brothers. So man, we had to … Wherever they go we had to go, and it was hard.
The US Department of Labor, using a nationally representative sample of face to face interviews, estimates that 6% of farmworkers are under the age of 18. “Legal exemptions in agriculture allow children as young as ten years old to work in the fields with their parents, compared to a minimum of age 16 for other jobs.” (Clark-Ibanez and Swan 2019). The US Department of Labor exempts agriculture from child labor laws. Of the nearly half a million child farmworkers in the U.S., 85% of them are male, the majority of them are US born, and they make on average about half of the income of their adult counterparts. Nearly 8 in 10 are under the poverty line. And 20% of farm workers are migrants, like Javier’s family. Javier’s story is one of the more invisible stories of rural America, and it bears little resemblance to romanticized notions of farm life. 8th grade is the average level of formal schooling for farm workers, and Javier’s story helps to explain why.
We didn’t get the opportunity to just stay focused in school. Like now, these days, kids just go to school and that’s it. Back then it was like, for us, it was hard. And not only our family, there was other families que andaban en el campo tambien and they went through what we went. Y luego mi dad andaba in Stockton. All over California. Nos train a nosotros asi tambien. And I hate it because we had to go to school every time, a new school, y ibamos three months, and okay we’re going to move to y pues you didn’t even know what you were learning cuando estabas aca. And it was hard. Y asta horita me acuerdo I would hate to go to a brand new school all the time. no me gustaba. Interviewer: What were you feeling, like, every time- J: Like nervous. I was small. Pues es como todos you feel nervous. But, I mean, like a year, like four times, we had to move to a different school, like four times during the year. And that was like, it’s too much. Interviewer: Do you think that affected you from getting a solid education?
J: Yeah maybe, too. Because you would study right here, and then you would jump over here in different schools with different … you know? It’s not like you keep going, you know, and you learn it all. Pero it was hard. It was hard. A little homework was like … I never had a chance to do my homework. I was like nos estaba esperando mi dad and man y como las 7 all tired. But no, you wouldn’t stay focused in school. Yo me hubiera ido al army or be a cop or something, you know? Something no muy matado pero you know? Pero I didn’t get the chance. After school, we had to go to the fields, and then Saturdays and Sundays, it was work again, and then it was like … I liked school, but then it was, it wasn’t like I couldn’t really focus on school because I was working and we had to work because we had no other choice, you know?
You might be surprised to learn that, in what feels to me a lot like a direct holdover from slavery, “In Alabama, school-aged migrant children are exempt from attending school.88” (Marisol Clark-Ibanez and Richelle Swan). The nation does not treat its farmworker children *as* children. Javier’s story makes clear how laboring in agriculture as a child undermines one’s education. We can see from his story why it might be hard to complete high school if you grow up as a farm laborer. The exhaustion of a second shift of work after a day of school, and lack of time for homework, is one reason. But the toll of frequent moves from school to school following the crops also undermines children’s academic progress. Educator Michael Rowanowski tells us that migrants are the most undereducated subgroup in the country precisely because of that geographical mobility. The timing of growing seasons mean that many migrant children miss the first month of the school year and with each subsequent move they lose on average two full weeks of school. And as Javier’s story highlights, each move is socially disruptive, and leaves children without a community of stable friends. The story of migrant farmworker kids is not one, as the agrarian myth suggests, of rooted communities. But rural people like Javier and his family embody other aspects of the agrarian myth–they *do* work hard, they *are* loyal, they *are* committed to their families. Javier’s story is a classic American tale of family values, working hard and dreaming of more for one’s children.
My dad used to say a man is not a man if he don’t have no money in his pockets. That’s the way he used to tell us, you know? Pero my parents showed us how to work con example, you know? Because they were there too y nos traian asi. I don’t know, it’s just, it does all the work, you know? Because if you work in the fields, you can do any job, you know? I mean, like labor job. Pero I don’t know. It was hard for us. We didn’t have a chance. That’s all my parents did. Just fields. So, we were just stuck right there, you know what I mean? Pero lo bueno that they taught us how to work. That’s why I tell my kids, go to school because you don’t want to be like me, struggling. Hey, go to school. You can be anything you want. Y luego les digo, you could be like those airplane, those trophies, those pilots. And they think about it. You could be anything if you want it. You guys got the chance. Verdad.
Despite feeling himself that he was stuck because his parents worked in the fields, Javier nonetheless believes that his children can be anything, and he pushes the importance of school to give them that chance. But even so, we can feel in his story how difficult it may be for Javier’s children to move up very much. And overall LaRue’s story and Javier’s story are very very far away from my Little House on the Prairie stereotypes of rural life. And even though all of the rural stories shared so far in these episodes are stories of children working very hard even at a young age, children who contributed significantly to the work and income of the family, LaRue and Xavier’s stories of what it is like to be a child working in commercial agriculture are different in degree from Caitlin’s story of working on her parents’ farm. And they are part of a larger story about the industrialization and corporatization of agriculture. That larger story is not a part of the agrarian myth. But today most farm income isn’t generated by family farms with red barns and silos. As farmer and writer Janet Kauffman pointed out, at your average dairy, also known as confined-animal-feeding-operations, these days, “you will not see cows outside grazing, red hip barns, pastureland, upright silos for storing feed, straw as bedding, windmills.” You WILL see, in her words, “pits, lagoons, and cesspools of millions of gallons of untreated animal waste…. The CAFOs use scrapers and huge quantities of water to pump all feces and urine into pits, lagoons as large as some lakes. Eventually the liquified manure will be trucked or pumped or injected or “spray-irrigated,” as they say, onto fields.” Sociologists Linda Lobao and Curtis Stofferahn note that people who live hear CAFOs report a whole bunch of physical and psychological harms. And at these large commercial agriculture farms, you might see children like LaRue or Javier.
And as we discussed in the previous episode industrial agriculture has harmful effects on its local communities, including higher levels of income inequality and social conflict, lower levels of local governmental autonomy, and environmental degradation. So there is good reason to dig below the agrarian myth to confront head on the devastating realities of industrialized agriculture today. In our final episode of the series, we will explore how the demographics of rural America are changing and how there has been a browning of the heartland.
This episode was written, produced and edited by Jennifer R. Myhre, with editing assistance from Lea Li and Deven Sutaria. The music that opens and closes each 1500 Stories episode was composed and produced by Benjamin Henderson, who also composed the additional music. You’ll find references for the sociology and data discussed in this episode in the show notes. The 1500 Stories podcast was launched thanks to generous financial assistance from the Mellon Foundation and American Council of Learned Societies community college faculty fellowship program. However, any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed here are our own and do not necessarily represent those of Mellon or ACLS. Thanks to Lea Li and Melinda Poley for their ears in early stages of drafting this episode. Special thanks to all of the storygatherers who conducted interviews for the project and all of the people who shared their stories so openly. You can hear and watch more of these stories at 1500stories.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at 1500 Stories. Thank you for listening. Listening deeply to another person’s story is one of the most valuable gifts you can give them. Imagine how the world might change if we really listened to each other.