Carrots from California

ON THE STEINBECK TRAIL

 By Alfred Friendly, An article in Survey Graphic, July, 1939

Editor’s Note: Alfred Friendly (1911 – 1983) was an award winning American journalist, editor and writer for the Washington Post. He began his career as a reporter with the Post in 1939 and became Managing Editor in 1955.

WHEN YOU DRIVE TO THE IMPERIAL VALLEY FROM any direction you follow a road leading for miles across the scorched sagebrush desert. By the time the monotony of sand, rocks and dry gullies has become unbearable, when heat waves have made your eyes burn and your head ache, you will suddenly come into the verdant garden which is the Valley. At first you will think it a mirage—there seems to be no reason why this part of the desert, and no other, should blossom like a rose, with section after section of carefully cultivated melon, lettuce and carrot rows, with pea fields and cotton patches.

But after you remember that land which grows sagebrush will grow anything, provided only it has moisture, and that the water from the Colorado River has been brought into this area by a tremendous canal, you will understand. You can see, too, from the few arid and still sagebrush covered patches of land lying above the level of the ditches which enmesh the Valley in a huge gridiron, what the whole county must have been like thirty or forty years ago, before the great irrigation project was developed.

I arrived in the Valley a little after noon and made my way along the portico-covered sidewalks of the town to a state relief office. Although it was February the electric fan in the director’s cubicle was welcome after the burning sun outside. The county director himself was none too cool, even in shirtsleeves. He was young and friendly.

“What’s the low-down on the Imperial Valley?” I asked.

“It’s fairly simple,” the director explained. “Half a dozen big produce corporations, with headquarters on the eastern seaboard or in the Middlewest, own some of the land and have contracts with the owners of the rest of it to handle their produce. The big fellows have the packing sheds and hire the crews to do the sorting, cleaning and packing in ice. They ship out carload after carload of pre-season peas, melons, carrots and lettuce. Everything that grows here is irrigated. It’s the one place I know where the farmers don’t want rain. Rain spoils their plans; they can get what water they need out of the ditches exactly when and how they want it.”

“It’s also the one place I know,” I said, “where industrial organization seems to be applied to agriculture. Imperial Valley produce we buy in the East is pretty good and almost as cheap as the same vegetables would be in season. Maybe the system here is the answer to the farm problem.”

The director’s laugh was not a pleasant one.

“God forbid,” he said. “You get cheap vegetables because there are just about five times as many stoop laborers here as there are jobs for them. I don’t know how many itinerant farm workers are in the Valley now, because there aren’t any figures available. But I do know that the crop curtailment program forced thousands of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas sharecroppers off their land and it seems as if most of ’em came here.

“The Mex work the carrots and lettuce, while the colored boys are best in the melon patches—they can spot a ripe one like nobody else on earth. The Negroes and Mex work on after April when most of the white laborers have to get out on account of the heat. The whites work mostly in the pea fields. Besides those, there’s a small scattering of rag-tops—Hindus.”

“How about Japs ? ”

“Too smart to work in the fields. Quite a few own land, though.”

“How much is stoop labor paid in a day?”

“Almost everything is piece rate here. A Mex, working ten hours, can make $2 at pulling and tying carrots, but he has to go like hell. In the pea fields it’s a penny a pound. A white man is good if he can pick more than two hundred pounds a day. Other wages are about the same.

“But it isn’t the wage rate alone that’s so bad,” he continued. “A big Mexican family, all working in the fields, can earn ten bucks a day. But they’ll work ten days and then have nothing to do for maybe two months. There are white families here who’ve been lying around for six weeks waiting for work in the pea fields. And peas won’t be ripe for two more weeks. A smart fruit tramp—I mean one who figures out a route starting in the winter with grapefruit at Yuma, working here in February and March, then on up to Bakersfield for haying, in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys during the summer thinning and picking fruit, and taking in the harvest and the apple orchards in the Northwest in the fall—he can earn maybe $500 a year, but he’ll probably get nearer $300. If he can find ninety days of work he’ll be lucky.”

My informant yawned and put his feet on his desk in a gesture of resignation.

He went on, “The big boys got ’em coming and going. They can get away with low wages and they can pay low prices for the crops they contract for in advance. The workers aren’t organized, and the small growers aren’t organized. The packers and distributors are the neck of the bottle, and they know it.”

I SAID, “WHY CAN’T A FEW OF THE INDEPENDENT GROWERS GET together and set up their own packing shed and do their own marketing?”

“Yeah, some lettuce growers tried that,” he replied, “once. But it costs a lot to build a shed and put in the equipment. Once they were set up the best they could hope for was a total shipment of less than five carloads in the course of the season. The poor saps loaded up their first car and sent it off to Cincinnati where the market looked good. So the big boys just diverted two of their cars, already rolling, to the Cincinnati market, which they efficiently shot to hell. Since lettuce is perishable the independents couldn’t send their car anywhere else and just had to take what they could get, which was almost nothing. Of course the big distributors stood a loss, too, on their cars, but that was just a fraction of their yearly output. The independents saw one fifth of their year’s work vanish into thin air. They never tried it again.

“Take a look at one of the pea camps if you want to see how it works out. Conditions of the poor devils working in the company-owned fields are bad enough, but they aren’t in a class with what goes on in the desert camp.”

I asked what he meant by desert camps and he explained the distinction by telling me how the first itinerant workers who come into the Valley head for the camps provided by the companies on their own fields. While they may have to wait a long time, these more fortunate itinerants are at least sure of some work. The companies maintain some small pretense of sanitation in the way of a couple of clap-trap privies per camp. Later arrivals to the Valley, however, camp nearby, hoping to find work even though the labor quotas of the companies are already filled.

“The only drinking water in the camps,” the director went on, “comes from the irrigation ditches. It’s a deep coffee brown in color. Some of the families rig up a filter out of sand and charcoal, but most of them just take the water out of the canals, let it settle in gasoline drums, and drink it off. And, of course, the canals serve not only as the water mains but also as the sewers.”

He took his feet off the desk, placed his hands far across it and leaned over, close to me.

“Listen,” he said. “Six days ago, a case of spinal meningitis broke out in one of those desert camps. I called up the county board of health and told them not to hesitate about quarantining the camp.”

“Those fellows said they couldn’t spare the guards to patrol a quarantined camp. So they quarantined only two tents—the one where the case broke out, and the one next it. But the mother of the kid who came down with spinal meningitis is in the family way and every woman in the whole camp has been trotting in and out of her tent, helping with her cooking. So far there’s been no epidemic, but we’ve got our fingers crossed.”

It was late in the afternoon before I left the office. As I went out, the director called after me.

“Next time you eat some of our carrots,” he yelled, “be sure and wash ’em off well. There’s a lot of sweat on ’em.”

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Friendly, A. (1939, July). Carrots from California. Survey Graphic, 28(7), 460. Retrieved [date accessed] from /eras/carrots-california/.

Source: New Deal Network, http://newdeal.feri.org/survey/39a10.htm (March 22, 2014).

 

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