Give Us This Day

(Harold Brewer was born in Wichita and raised on a farm in central Kansas. He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Berlin Airlift and the Korean War. After leaving military service, he attended the University of California and received degrees in agricultural engineering from Berkeley and Davis. He has done research at the university and federal government levels on advanced agricultural systems. This article is adapted from his recent book Fig Leaves And Masks.)

My favorite season on the farm during the 1930s was summer, when we harvested wheat, oats, and alfalfa. Harvest started when we rolled out a binder and thresher, stored since last summer. The binder cut stalks, tied them into bundles, and dumped them into rows. The thresher separated grain from straw and chaff. At threshing time, several neighbors and many itinerant workers assembled at our farm. With luck, no rain fell and the grain was safely stored in the granary within a few days.

Now, a combine rolls into a field. In a matter of hours, one or two workers harvest and store the grain. Labor is reduced at least tenfold.

Similarly, for harvesting alfalfa. What took many days and people is now accomplished in a few days with one or two people.

Childhood ended. I left the farm, completed military service, then enrolled at the University of California at Davis in the Agricultural Engineering Department. Its researchers were world-renowned for developing machines for field production. Field production machines are important because each replaces ten or more workers. Nations with the lowest percentage of workers on farms are the wealthiest. For example, the U.S.A. has 2% of its population working on farms, while Ethiopia has 84%. More? Japan 5% and China 68%.

My major at UCD, power and machinery, brought me into contact with people developing harvesters for crops such as grapes, peaches, and tomatoes. The tomato project was particularly interesting. Several people contributed in various ways, such as developing a variety that could withstand mechanical handling. But the key element of the harvester proved elusive. This finally fell into place when Steven Sluka, a refugee from the 1956 Hungarian Revolution – some immigrants can be useful! – conceived the idea of cutting vines loose from the ground, lifting them, then shaking the tomatoes off the vines. His technique was the basis for the first successful mechanical tomato harvesters.

Growers in California were faced with the loss of workers who were hand-harvesting their crops. Politicians and Labor had teamed up to discontinue the bracero program, so that wages paid domestic laborers could be driven up. However, UCD researchers, with grower funding, had just successively tested the mechanical tomato harvester. When braceros walked out of the fields, mechanical harvesters rolled in.

Several years later, the mechanization program at UCD was shut down and dismantled. Politicians did not intend to have their labor-friendly policies thwarted again. Just to make sure, they and their allies reached out to the Agricultural Research Service in the U. S. Department of Agriculture and dismantled all field mechanization programs there, too. Mechanical lettuce harvesters were under development in the 1960s. That work was stopped. Today, lettuce is still harvested by hand in the field.

The dismantling occurred over a period of years starting in the 1960s. Nothing overt, just not renewing any mechanization projects or starting any new ones. The mechanical tomato harvester had rankled a lot of labor-friendly people. When we say “labor,” we might as well say Mexican workers, legal or illegal.

But the precipitating event – I am relying on memory – was when a Secretary of Agriculture was due for a photo op in Northern California with UCD researchers, spotlighting a fruit-catching frame used in mechanization. Word got out and the next thing we knew the event was called off. Cesar Chavez, head of the agricultural workers union, pulled the right strings and stopped it cold. He didn`t want any more mechanization, which would put his union members out of work. [For Chavez` conflicted attitude to immigration, see La Causa or La Raza.]

That big hole in the Mexican border started in earnest when politicians and their labor allies stopped the development of any new agricultural field machines. The stopper on mechanization went all the way through the 1980`s and extended into the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA. Finally, around 1990, it was all right to “quietly” do mechanization research again, but it had to be labeled as being for the environment, or for food quality, or whatever. Field mechanization to save labor was still not allowed.

Meanwhile, across the Pacific at an Institute outside Tokyo, the mechanization work continued without interruption.

And rural America fills up with foreigners.

November 1, 2000