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From the Ground Up: 1936

From the Ground Up

By Paul S. Taylor, An Article in Survey Graphic, September 1936

Editor’s Note: Paul S. Taylor was a progressive agricultural economist. In 1934 Taylor saw the work of the documentary photographer Dorothea Lange and recruited her to his project. In 1935 they produced five reports on the conditions of migrant agricultural workers, and Taylor used their data to get state and federal relief funding for housing for farmworkers.

 Illustrations: Resettlement Administration Photographs by Lange A young framer, resettled on the Bosque Farms in New Mexicos

Illustrations: Resettlement Administration Photographs by Lange
A young farmer, resettled on the Bosque Farms in New Mexicos

A DISPOSSESSED Texas farmer last fall told his story succinctly:

“1927—made $7000 in cotton
1928—broke even
1929—went in the hole
1930—still deeper
1931—lost everything
1932—hit the road.”

In 1935 he was working with his family as a fruit tramp in the Sacramento Valley. His words epitomize the tragedy of thousands of the kind of people among whom I have worked during the past year. As regional labor adviser visiting projects of the Resettlement Administration in the Far West I have seen whole populations which should never have settled where they are, fallen on relief; lands which should have been left in grass, ravaged by dust storms; farmers cruelly dislocated from their farms joining the migrants of the west coast, squatting with them by the roadside, on garbage dumps, and on river bottoms; stricken people banding themselves together, seeking in simple cooperation to find a way out.

The Resettlement Administration was organized to meet the problems of rural folk such as these, who are in deepest distress, but whose rehabilitation is yet possible. Through its county and area rehabilitation supervisors it has been lending money to needy farmers who can be rehabilitated where they are, or elsewhere. It has been purchasing submarginal land, taking it out of cultivation and restoring it to beneficial public uses as grazing or forest reserves, recreational areas, or wild game refuges. It has been experimenting with removal of people from lands where their future is hopeless to others where a good life is possible. It has been aiding rural cooperatives where these offer better prospects for rehabilitation than do individual loans.

The people aided by the Resettlement Administration in largest numbers are, of course, rural rehabilitation clients rather than participants in projects. More than a quarter of a million of these clients, mostly families, are being restored to self-support by means of loans for poultry, bees, stock, teams and equipment. Of $48 million loaned in this manner, approximately S10 million had already been repaid by clients from their earnings by April 15 of this year.

In all parts of the country the effort has been made so to vary the program as to meet most effectively the problems peculiar to each region. This article describes some of the activities in the West with which I am personally familiar. Their significance lies not in the number of projects but in their value as demonstrations of means of rehabilitating people and lands.

In Taos County, New Mexico, numerous families took up homesteads on a remote plateau within the past decade or two. They built houses, grazed a few cattle, and planted small fields. But their lands could afford only the barest living in the most favorable years, and hardly any at all in others. Before long their crops failed, their cattle were gone, and they were reduced to cutting wood for a desperate living. Lacking water, which has been the solid support of the Taos Indian pueblo for centuries, these newest white settlers were soon thrown on relief, permanently without prospects. An offer from the FERA to buy them out was accepted, and about seventy families were moved south of Albuquerque. There on the Bosque Farms, a significant experiment in resettlement of people en masse is in progress. These are people who failed on small dry farms. Can they succeed on good irrigated land? The settlers are building a community of small individual farms with auxiliary cooperative activities. Already they have harvested vegetables from community gardens for themselves, and hay and corn from community fields for their stock. The qualities of pioneers are needed, for methods are new, and there are hardships and discouragements even on publicly financed projects. As on the old frontier, women often supply the courage when the hearts of the men flag. “My husband was going to quit, but I talked to him and told him we were going to stay. On this project we’ll be able to have more than we ever had before.” Not all of the original homesteaders from Taos have the ability to succeed under new conditions, and these, when it is proved, are helped toward rehabilitation by other means. Those who remain are hard at work levelling land with Fresno scrapers, clearing fields of trees and brush, tearing down old ditch banks with bull-dozers, and digging new ditches. Their temporary shelters of battened boards have been replaced by new adobe homes built in the style, and with material, native to the region. The children are in school, housed in a new adobe building erected by the Resettlement Administration. The mothers are meeting in their own PTA. And the vacated homesteads in Taos County to the north are closed to settlement, never again to be opened to other homesteaders who could only repeat the hardships of their predecessors.

The demonstration gardens of the El Monte Subsistence Homesteads in California
The demonstration gardens of the El Monte Subsistence Homesteads in California

IN the West, the open range has long since disappeared. It was fenced by large stockmen in a great enclosure movement to protect private cattle and private grasslands. And it was encroached upon by settlers under homestead laws designed for farmers, not for stockmen. At Mills, in northern New Mexico, hopeful pioneers settled on the rolling plains and wealthy investors built a small town. But stock-raising could not yield a living on the limited acreage allowed each homesteader. So the sod was turned under, and the soil exposed. Wheat—good crops and high prices for a few years, then falling prices and falling yields, mortgages, drought, wind, dust. The square, unpainted houses are in bad repair or abandoned. The town mill, built too late even to be run, stands idle. The general store has shrunk to almost nothing. Only the government project office shows activity. About four fifths of the inhabitants are being bought out, and resettled nearby in a community of small irrigated farms similar to Bosque. Their lands will be leased for grazing only to the settlers who remain. These families can now succeed as stockmen with sufficient range.

In Utah the range was once good near Tooele. But a procession of flocks tended by men in covered sheep-wagons have overgrazed it badly. What the sheepmen have not ruined, the farmers have. Their abandoned houses, their binders and harrows half buried in dust drifts tell the familiar story. Their vacant fields, covered with tumbleweeds, feed dust storms that still blow down the central valley. The government is purchasing 40,000 acres of submarginal land. There were no people to resettle, for they had long since departed. The range was gone, and with poetic justice the farmers who destroyed it were themselves in turn destroyed.

Today the range is being refenced, this time to restore and protect the very grasses. Cedar fence posts cut during the winter are assembled in huge piles. Old fences around wheat fields are torn down, and gangs of town laborers, small farmers, and sheep herders working on the Central Utah Dry Land Adjustment project as relief workers are today putting up new fences. Grazing will be controlled, cultivation will be prohibited, and portions of the area will be used for experiments in methods of replanting and restoring the native grass.

More than one hundred miles from a railroad in a high valley near Bryce Canyon, Utah, lies the town of Widtsoe. Its history, too, is sheep, dry-farming, drought, relief. “This land used to raise forty bushels of wheat to the acre, but it won’t now.” “My father came here with $7000, worked hard, and lost all,” said a stalwart young man on work relief who could neither farm since the drought, nor dig coal since work in the mines had slackened. The government has taken options on practically the entire valley, including the town. A dozen families have been placed individually on farms elsewhere in Utah, in contrast to the method of community resettlement employed at Bosque. The remaining families are eagerly awaiting removal from this bleak valley by the government.

Camp for migrant agricultural workers at Marysville, Yuma County, California
Camp for migrant agricultural workers at Marysville, Yuma County, California

Two years ago the basis of the economy of Tropic, an isolated Mormon hamlet in southern Utah, was swept away by flood waters which tore out the spillway of Tropic Dam. The inhabitants were thrown on relief. Today crews of men from Tropic and nearby towns are working in shifts under Resettlement, striving to rebuild and elevate the earthen dam in time to impound waters for next year’s crops.

The housing needs of employed families with low incomes have also been the object of experimental thrusts in the West. At El Monte, east of Los Angeles, one hundred families have been settled on fine suburban land, once a walnut grove. They are now living each on three quarters of an acre, in small, carefully planned homes. Their average income of $85 per month comes from steady private employment as garage mechanics, street car conductors, tire factory employee, hotel clerks, and so on, and will enable them to repay to the government the cost of the land and houses. Enthusiastically men, women and children are planting intensive gardens to supplement cash earnings. “We couldn’t have bought a home for ten years except for this project,” said a young couple with their first baby. “At first we wished we could have built our own house, but now that we’ve lived here we know it was planned better than we could have done it,” said another resident. In the Fernando Valley forty families, and at Phoenix, Ariz., twenty-five families are settled on similar projects.

After the first impact of depression small groups of newly destitute in many parts of the country began to attract national attention through primitive but heroic efforts to maintain themselves by salvaging surplus vegetables, cutting wood, and bartering labor for food and clothing. [Whither Self-help? Survey Graphic, July 1934, page 328.] Congress authorized grants to these cooperatives from relief funds with the aid of which a good many groups. especially in California. survived almost insuperable obstacles and demonstrated capacity to produce cooperatively on a small scale.

To most members, self-help has meant in practice no more than a supplement to relief or to an inadequate private income. In the better units it has contributed to full time members perhaps $15 to $25 per month. Now a number of the California cooperatives are applying for agricultural loans in order to achieve complete rehabilitation. The first loan by the Resettlement Administration to a self-help cooperative was completed in June to the Midway City Dairy Association near Santa Ana, a small unit with nine members. The mere prospects of rehabilitation fired morale. The plant was immediately renovated, and better equipment procured by trade. Bidding tactics of competitors were studied with all the zeal of poker experts, means of developing consumer cooperative markets were explained, and all plans laid to take full advantage of their new capital and condition as free producers in an open market. By means of this loan of approximately $7000 it is expected that these nine men, most of whom were on work relief, can elevate themselves to economic independence and repay the loan with no further help. Other groups, beginning to see loans as a means of getting off relief and rising to full self-support at a decent level, are preparing budgets and applications.

THE distress of the migratory farm laborers of the Pacific coast was forcibly brought to the attention of the country by a series of strikes in 1933 in California and Arizona, most of them led by Communists. The laborers and their families migrate many hundreds of miles in a single season from Imperial Valley to the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys and back, following the harvests. Numbers of them move in dilapidated cars from Arizona through California to Oregon and Washington, and even to Idaho and Colorado.

Efforts to organize farm laborers are made from time to time. On June 6-7 a conference was held at Stockton at which it was decided to ask for harvest wages of $3 per day and abolition of piecework. The meetings were addressed not only by organizers and by the secretary of the State Federation of Labor, but by representatives of women’s clubs, government agencies, the master of the California Grange, and large farmers. The executive council of the State Federation of Labor endorsed the move to organize fruit workers immediately. Farmers who have been leaders in efforts to improve housing urged that, “Instead of continued contests between farmers and workers, the two groups should work together for long time results. Harvest workers are poorly paid and poorly housed because farmers are losing money. It is necessary to raise farm prices so the farmer can afford to pay decent wages.”

The life of the migrants is hard. Employment is intermittent, jobs are precarious, and annual income is low. “We like to work and not just set around. I’d rather do anything but set around, but they just ain’t no chance here in California, seems like,” said a Kern County migrant. “Livin? It’s kind of sorry. You work a while, then lay up a little, then go broke, and then move.” “You wait for work two weeks,” then “fight like flies for the work.” A common estimate among employers and observers of the average annual earnings of migrant families is between $350 and $400.

The farmers, too, are under pressure. “Now we know that we ought to pay these people more wages to raise the standard of living, but the banks have got their foot on our necks.” So there are disagreements over wages and conditions, and strikes have broken out in 1936 as in other years. Inevitably, the WPA, administering work relief for the unemployed, is drawn in as a third party.

California agricultural leaders [under auspices of the State Chamber of Commerce] voted unanimously to seek shut-down during harvest season of federal works projects employing men who otherwise would be available farm laborers.

“Starve them out!” was the advice of L. M. Meredeth of Santa Rosa…. Others present gave general approval of Meredeth’s idea.

New cedar fence posts for the old grazing grounds
New cedar fence posts for the old grazing grounds

The state administrator of WPA asks assurance that a “reasonable wage” be paid before WPA workers are dispatched to farms, and holds that WPA “will be satisfied with the prevailing wage scale . . . even if this is considered in some circles to be notoriously low.” On May 19, however, a district director of WPA took back workers who had rebelled against living conditions and low wages in the pea fields. He said:

While it is against our policy to return a man to the work rolls just because he doesn’t like his job in private employment, there seems to be nothing else to do in these cases. We do not intend to force these workers to become peons or slaves to the pea picking contractors.

The cotton choppers’ “strike” in the San Joaquin Valley in May, 1936, reveals clearly the elements inherent in the situation. The organized cotton farmers, among whom the influence of the large growers predominates, set a rate of 75 cents per acre or 20 cents per hour. Fifty workers removed from WPA rolls refused this rate and “struck.” Thirty members of the clergy—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish—urged the growers to raise the rate, declaring that “underpaid workers offered a fertile held for agitators and radicalism.” The directors of the San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Labor Bureau protested hotly that the clergy had “stepped out of their pulpits.” “The farmers have worries enough without the well-meaning clergymen lining up on the side of the professional agitators.” They asserted that choppers can earn the monthly security wage at 20 cents per hour by working ten hours a day for twenty-six days a month. This of course assumes steady work in an industry notoriously afflicted by irregularity. The growers ridiculed the eight-hour day, forty-four-hour week on farms, and stated that California choppers’ wages are above those paid to cotton choppers anywhere in the world.

ABOUT the same time, organized small growers sided with the clergy and the laborers, and attacked both WPA and big growers for supporting low wages. Sensing the conflict of interest between small growers, whose income is in large part from wages because they too work in the field, and big growers, whose immediate interest is in low wages, the Weed Patch Grange resolved:

Whereas, only through raising the level of farm commodity prices and the wages of workers will we overcome the depression, and

Whereas, the present effort to force unfortunate WPA workers to accept wages even lower than the subsistence allotment set by relief,

Therefore, be it resolved that Weed Patch Grange repudiate any self-appointed labor committee who only represent speculative interest in labor and soil. Those starvation wages set by said gentlemen who do not toil will foster class hatred and crime.

We protest the use of Kern County public funds and public officials to be used by big landowners to intimidate by threat of starvation jobless citizens to work for wages insufficient to provide a decent living.

Some growers voluntarily offered 25 cents instead of 20 cents. Many workers accepted 20 cents. Others held out for and obtained 25 cents, and yet others departed for the North in hopes of work at better wages in the orchards. A small group of men removed from WPA to compel acceptance of farm work adopted the method of the embittered. Told by their employer to chop cotton and “leave a clean field” behind them, they did so, leaving it clean not only of weeds, but of cotton. They were lodged in jail.

This shifting reservoir of human distress known as migratory labor, left to itself can lead only to recurrent and bitter strife. But no program of rural rehabilitation can ignore it. Behind the tangled strife lie conditions of living which cannot be tolerated in the public interest, and which add fuel to the flames of conflict.

The United States Special Commission Agricultural Labor Disturbances in Imperial Valley described conditions among migrant workers which unfortunately are not limited to that area:

“Living and sanitary conditions are a serious and irritating factor in the unrest we found in the Imperial Valley . . . we found filth, squalor, and an entire absence of sanitation and a crowding of human beings into totally inadequate tents or crude structures built of boards, weeds and anything that was found at hand to give a pitiful semblance of a home at its worst…. In this environment there is bred a social sullenness that is to be deplored, but can be understood by those who have viewed the scenes that violate all the recognized standards of living.”

It is at this point that the Resettlement Administration attacks the problem of migrant labor. Two camps for migrants have been established, one in Kern County southeast of Bakersfield, the other at Marysville in the Peach Bowl. Eight more are being erected.

The very simplicity of the government camps shows the elementary character of the needs of the migrants. Pure water is piped through the camp to people who have had to buy it at 5 cents a bucket or get it from a service station a quarter of a mile away. Sanitary toilets adequate in number replace at Marysville two unscreened, open pit toilets which were supposed to serve a thousand people. Hot and cold showers are ready for the end of the day in lieu of a bucket of water or an occasional river.

In erecting ten migrant camps the Resettlement Administration does not thereby assume responsibility for determination of wage rates of farm laborers. Nor are the camps adequate to accommodate all the laborers who now congregate to serve the farmers of the districts in which they are located. But they assist local and state health and camp inspectors to enforce the law, by providing decent places of refuge to which occupants of condemned squatter’s and ranch camps can go. And since they are designed to demonstrate more decent living conditions, they will remove one of the most fruitful causes of unrest and strongest supports of agitation.

As a first measure of rehabilitation, then, the camps lift the migrants off the ground. But more must be done to meet needs which the migrants themselves express: “The trouble with us travellin’ folk is we can’t get no place to stay still.” Making a living? “Yes, as good as us draggin’ around people can expect—if you call it a livin’!” As a second step, in order to provide some measure of stability for women and children at least, and to afford opportunity to supplement seasonal earnings, the Resettlement Administration is preparing part time farms for several hundred agricultural laborers in California and Arizona.

Drought and depression, then, have exposed weak spots in our national economy. In many areas the dearth of water is so recurrent and so great as to be chronic. And to many people depression has brought collapse so complete and so protracted that they cannot rise by themselves to survive. The end of drought and the upturn of the business cycle do not solve the problems which have been so clearly revealed. The rains have come and prices have started to rise, but for hundreds of thousands a new and more stable future must yet be built from the ground up.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Taylor, P.S. (1936, September). From the ground up. Survey Graphic, 25(9), 526.

Source:  New Deal Network,  (March 19, 2014)

 Illustrations: Resettlement Administration Photographs by Dorothea Lange