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Berry Picking and Relief (1935)

Berry Picking and Relief

by Katherine Blair, Acting Director of Relief, DeKalb Co., Alabama;
former Case Worker, New Hanover Co., North Carolina,

an article in The Survey, August 1935

THE agricultural labor problem in eastern North Carolina is an old one. The heavy seasonal crops, the demand for labor for intensive work over a few weeks, arc conditions which the truck farmer has faced year after year. Strawberry picking, bean picking, lettuce cutting—each calls for thousands of hands for a brief season. Shortage of hands during the picking season is not a special 1935 curse on the farmer, but this year the farmer gives a reason for the shortage. “It’s the relief,” he says.

The North Carolina strawberry crop was heavy this year. Growers called in available local labor and started hands picking at the current price, 1 1/2 cents a quart. Calls to the Reemployment Bureaus in surrounding cities produced very little help. The growers, frantic over their failing crop, appealed to relief offices. A statewide order was issued for the suspension of relief to Negroes who refused to accept farm employment. But the Negroes, denied relief, announced that they would go without food rather than work in the berry fields. Colored relief clients who had worked in the berry fields before came into the office with tales of pay withheld, of having to walk home, of sleeping in hay-mows, men, women, children, rats and bugs together. One woman had contracted a venereal disease during her stay the last season, many had succumbed to lesser infections.

At this point the Emergency Relief Administrator in Wilmington asked a reporter from the Wilmington Star-News for an impartial survey of the situation. The reporter called back an hour later to express his regrets. Conditions in the strawberry fields were well known, he conceded, but the paper dared not air them. An appeal to the Raleigh News and Observer, edited by Josephus Daniels, brought no action.

The Relief Administration then sent out its own investigators to survey the Wallace area, from which growers had sent out a call for 1000 workers. A case worker accompanied by an impartial investigator made a five-day tour of the Wallace farms. Twenty-one farms were visited. At ten of them, laborers were interviewed; at four, growers; and at seven, both farmer and hands.

The prospectus drawn by the reemployment office and the State Commissioner of Labor was fair enough:

The strawberry growers have offered to send trucks to various points to haul workers to the fields, and have promised to feed and house them while there. A good picker can average $1.50 to $2.00 per day, and that would be clear money.

The survey showed the reasons why relief clients preferred home without relief to jobs in the berry field.

The first deviation from the prospectus which met the writer was the “help wanted” ad. The morning paper had carried a call for 1000 hands. Yet the investigator at one o’clock on the same day found only two growers actually in need of labor and they wanted five and six hands respectively. In every case the grower agreed that he could use more hands, but added that he could act along as he was. Most growers call for more labor than they require. A field over-manned is picked out in a half day instead of a full day and obviously each picker’s earning power is cut in half. At the same time, quarters are overcrowded. If the pickers’ cottage is made to house twenty persons it must care for thirty, and little relationship between size of house and size of labor force was found in the Wallace area.

In no instance did the investigator find board paid. Both pickers and growers declared this to be an unheard of practice.

From $1.50 to $2.00, the Commissioner of Labor and the Reemployment office assured us, is an average day’s wage for a fair picker. To make $2.00 a man must pick more than 130 quarts a day. In seventeen groups of workers interviewed, the mean (half more, half less) was between fifty and sixty quarts a day. At 1.5 cents a quart this means a daily wage of 75 to 90 cents. Only five had picked as much as 100 quarts on any one day. One picker laughed incredulously at the question of anyone picking 200 quarts a day. “Nob’y ain’t picked as high as 150 in seven years,” she said. Out of the money made, food must be purchased and expenses paid at the worker’s home in town. Food is usually bought at a grower’s store where prices are high, or credit is arranged by the grower at a neighboring store. Checks are cashed in at the end of the week and payment for food deducted.

How much cash is actually paid is difficult to determine. Many of the workers save their checks and cash them in all at once as a simple preventive against spending too much. None of the savers knew exactly how much cash they should draw. Many of them could not multiply by 1.5. But average earnings are low. Four persons picking together for four days had $3.30 in cash after food had been paid for. This family had rent to pay in Goldsboro during their absence and food to buy for the father left at home there. A white man and his wife made $2.00 for their four days’ work. Another white couple had cleared $1.00 for the same period. Pay for seventeen persons for a week’s work ranged from nothing to $2.60 each and this highest figure had not had food deducted. One report was given of a Negro boy clearing $7.01 for four days’ work, but the information did not come from the picker himself. The average cash earning in the strawberry field, then, cannot with safety be estimated at more than 35 cents a day, clear, for eight or ten hours of back-breaking work.

THE season lasts at most six weeks—the fields are usually picked out in three or four. The growers talk to their hands about camping out and “living it rough” for a few weeks. But it is scarcely to be wondered at that workers are loathe to leave the home in town and a safe and sure relief check to take up even a temporary abode in the quarters provided.

The “strawberry cottage” is a long, rough plank house usually ventilated by a window at either end and a door in the center. In this house fifteen to thirty persons are housed. There is usually one long bunk stretching the full length of one side. On this, pallets of straw are laid. Some of the houses provide separate rooms for men and women; most of them do not.

A group of twelve white workers slept and ate in a one room shanty built beside a pig pen. Sanitary conveniences were limited to “the woods.” The smell of pigs, food, and humans hung like fog.

Eighteen Negroes were found “camping out” in a one-room hut with eight single bunks. More than half of them had sat up for two nights after their arrival. Compelled by their protests the grower had offered the eight-bunk house, but promised no further accommodation for the eighteen men, women and children. This particular house had no kitchen. The workers cooked in the small kitchen of a house some fifty yards away. The nearest water was a pump a hundred yards in the opposite direction.

One of the largest growers in the section, a Mr. Teachey, who leases the strawberry fields at the Penderlea Homestead farms, near Wallace, and runs a strawberry canning plant in Wilmington asked his hands to build their own bunks upon arrival. Cooking was to be done over camp fires.

Conditions of housing vary, but in no case are living conditions adequate. We saw a few houses which had only three or four persons to a room, but such a house would probably be crowded beyond capacity if the grower found hands to fill it. Where conditions are decent the bunk houses are filled early in the season. The good employer is not usually hard pressed for labor.

The grower except in a few isolated instances is not unscrupulous. His fault lies in painting a too-rosy picture for his prospective hands, and in his low standards as an employer.

The worker’s complaints all boil down to one—uncertainty. If he decides to go to the berry fields he is crowded into a truck with twenty or thirty others and driven away. He does not know what sort of farm awaits him. The agent promises much, but the worker is no longer entirely gullible. He has heard of truck loads of labor being auctioned off to the highest bidder among the growers, and he is too close to memories of his grandfather to accept this calmly. Perhaps the grower will pay all the cash due him, perhaps not. The house may be clean and spacious, according to his meagre standards of “camping out”—it may offer more dirt, crowding and discomfort than he is ready to endure. The grower may be honest, as some of them are, but he may be “a hard one.” The worker may be sent to overcrowded fields. He may find that his employer has packers in the field to sort over the berries before they are brought to the stands, and thus he is paid for picking forty quarts instead of the 120 which he really picked.

Similarly the relief organization is balked by uncertainty. There are farms which deal fairly with their employees. To such farms would we send labor, but most of these growers are not asking for hands.

The social worker, in his official capacity, can not go far into labor controversy. He must prevent exploitation of the poverty-stricken on one hand; on the other, he must prevent the disintegration of labor, sustain men so that they will be fit for industry when industry has a place for them. Public relief affords no real security. The family on relief cannot meet its actual minimum needs. If private employment can offer more, we send it men. But we can hardly abandon our people to industry or agriculture which offers them less than relief. Employers will have no difficulty in getting or keeping labor if they can guarantee a certain and adequate wage and decent conditions. The relief client and his family are not lolling on the fat of the land on $7.50 a week.

Source:  Blair, Katherine, “Berry Picking and Relief,” Vol. 71, No. 8, p. 230 (August, 1935), New Deal Network,, (April 9, 2014).