Unintended Consequences

It was Cesar Chavez’ birthday, a holiday for some, and I was having lunch with a 92-year old Japanese bachelor farmer. He’s kind of a lonely fellow. His brother hated farming and moved to a job in Minneapolis when they were young. Like him, his sister never married, and lived with him for a while before moving on to her own life. She has since passed away. He has two nephews neither of which are interested in farming. So he farms his 60 acres of almonds near Sanger, California and talks to his German shepherd when no one else is around.

My father grew up near his ranch in the 1940’s in a farm worker’s camp nearby and attended elementary school on his street. My friend remembered the camp my dad had lived in. As we talked it struck me that the Okies, my grandparents, had provided labor for the farms before their children had moved to other professions like the construction trades. My dad’s generation had then raised their kids to go to school and do better. Today I could see the same progression with the Mexican farm workers and their children.

I explained this to my friend and he told me something I had never heard before. He said that before the Okies came to California it was the Japanese who provided farm labor. His father had lived in that same camp my grandparents had lived in and, like my dad, he had attended the school about ten years earlier. He knew the family that had built the camp to house labor for their nearly 600 acres. His father had come from Japan in the 1910s, leaving his wife and family behind and sending money home much like the Mexicans do today. At that time, the camp was all Japanese men. Eventually these men saved enough to buy some land and bring their families to join them. I knew that there were many Japanese farmers dotting the landscape around Fresno, but I didn’t know they started as laborers.

He remembered a story his father had told him from the prohibition era (my grandparents were still in Oklahoma then). One Saturday night a young man from the camp got drunk and crashed his car into a downtown Fresno storefront. The men in the camp heard about it and, fearing that the drunk driver would be traced back to their camp followed by a visit from the revenue agent, they formed a party to carry an illegal barrel of wine out to a field and bury it. They were very careful to leave no traces. A  few days later, after they figured the coast was clear, they went to reclaim their barrel and couldn’t find it. They had buried it at night and had no landmarks to work from. His dad told him that if ever he was discing that field and felt a bump he should go digging. There would be a good barrel of wine to be found.

Central Valley farms have always depended on farm labor. And the Japanese and Okies were able to scrape by and eventually make a better future for their children. “Hard work” and “labor” were words that equaled opportunity in their minds. It might be hard, and exhausting, but they could do it. And, if they managed their earnings with discipline and purpose, it not only fed their families but built a future for them.

When Cesar Chavez began to organize farm labor the interaction between land owners and those who did the work changed. The spirit of shared opportunity in food production was replaced with a spirit of who could win versus who could lose.

I’ve heard it said that when we resort to making demands we often get more. But the more that we get comes to us in “little bitty pieces.” It’s better for all involved when we understand that we gain most by offering service. The person who is most generous with that service is the person whose bank balance grows the fastest.

Farmers who saw the success of Cesar Chavez’ demands prevailing responded by adopting mechanized ways to farm. The first of these was the Blackwelder tomato harvester. It took some time to develop, but once perfected hundreds of acres of canning tomatoes that formerly would have required two or three hundred field workers could be harvested with a crew of about 15 or 20.

Almond farmers developed equipment to shake nuts to the ground and sweep them up with machines rather than manually knocking the trees with mallets onto tarps and gathering them by hand to dump into bins. A crew of three was soon able to do the work of about fifty.

Other labor saving technologies like selective herbicides to eliminate the need for hand weeding came with the mechanical advancements.

The advances in technology created the ability for individual farmers to operate on more acres. A farmer who could cover 40 acres of land with a crew could now do five times that much with equipment. Chavez’ intentional disruption of the farm labor supply ultimately resulted in less demand for those he represented, but it also led to fewer farmers needed to continue to feed the world.

When I was a freshman in college in autumn of 1974 (about the time Cesar Chavez was really hitting his stride) there was a conference at UC Davis of “eight distinguished UC scientists” who predicted that by 1985 the world’s population would overwhelm our capacity to produce food. A terrible world-wide famine would result- even to the point of impacting the United States. As usual, the news was intentionally alarmist. Personally, I saw it as opportunity, and switched from studying medicine to studying food production. I reasoned that if a food shortage was imminent then those who could provide solutions would be most appreciated.

What I missed was exactly what the “experts” missed. We didn’t factor in the idea that as problems crop up many people are inspired to find solutions. Since 1974 when that grim forecast was made, and Cesar Chavez threatened to disrupt the supply of farm labor, farming systems were developed that opened the door to large-scale, ultra-efficient farming with a small labor requirement. And their production per acre went up as their labor requirement fell.

Cesar Chavez definitely got more for the farm workers. He got lettuce growers to provide long handled hoes so workers wouldn’t have to bend over all day as they weeded. When this change was made many workers actually grabbed the long-handled hoes by the neck and bent over to weed the fields anyway. He got Delano table-grape pickers a raise of about 60%. And he got farm workers the right to band together to demand more whenever they felt the need.

But the legacy we rarely see in his biographies was the huge impact he had on the mechanization of food production in California, and the resulting huge increases in productivity. His efforts ultimately resulted in people he was trying to help losing their jobs to machinery. Meanwhile food production from California skyrocketed and the imminent disaster of worldwide famine was averted. While others praise his accomplishments for farm workers (which ultimately was a failure) and his non-violent protests (I know many farm managers who were shot at or threatened with violence by Chavez’ followers) his real accomplishment was to curtail world hunger. For that I guess we should honor him by celebrating his birthday, even if it was by accident.