Immigration and Agriculture

By Martin, Philip | National Forum, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Immigration and Agriculture


Martin, Philip, National Forum


Agriculture is the oldest and most widely dispersed industry in the United States. However, the farmers and farmworkers who produce food and fiber are largely invisible to most Americans: only about 2 percent of the nation's 260 million people live on farms, and less than 3 percent of the nation's ninety million production workers are employed sometime during a typical year on farms.

Most Americans do not know any farmers or farmworkers; and most do not reflect on the different images conjured by two of the oldest occupations in the United States. The nation's two million mostly older white farmers are generally held in high esteem. The farm operator in his mid-50s, doing honest work in the fields while being subject to the vagaries of weather and markets, evokes empathy and enough political clout so that on average 20 percent of American farmers' net income comes from government payments.

Americans have a different image of farmworkers. Farmworkers are defined as persons who plant, cultivate, and harvest crops for wages, or who tend livestock and poultry as hired hands, or who operate and maintain farm machinery. In contrast to farmers, who are often considered living links to our founding fathers, farmworkers often bring to mind books and films with self-explanatory titles: The Grapes of Wrath, The Slaves We Rent, Sweat-shops in the Sun, and Harvest of Shame.

This article explains how immigrant farmworkers helped to isolate the farm-labor market in a manner that ensures that Americans will avoid farmwork. Once farmers assume that immigrant workers will continue to be available, land and other asset prices adjust, giving farmers an enormous economic incentive to maintain access to migrant workers. Agriculture has become the chief side and back door through which most of the immigrants from the world's major country of emigration, Mexico, are entering the world's major country of immigration--the United States.

Immigration Exceptions

The first U.S. Census of Population in 1790 found that 90 percent of all Americans lived in rural areas, where most residents were farmers or farmworkers. Farming was "a way of life" as well as a business operation that supported farmers and their families. A system of family farms was the ideal sought by the nation's founding fathers: politicians waxed eloquent about the need "to keep the plow in the hands of the owner," thereby promoting the growth of independent small businesses. Diversified family farms was the goal of American agriculture.

No room existed in this family farming system for a permanent class of farmworkers. For this reason, programs and policies that reinforced a permanent need for farmworkers were considered exceptions. The most important exception was slavery. At a time when free land was available to aspiring farmers, slavery in the southern colonies seemed necessary to the farmers of the time to ensure a seasonal farmwork force. Another exception emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century: as grain production spread to the plains in the middle of the nineteenth century, armies of migrant workers followed in its wake to harvest wheat.

The roots of the "sucking sound" that draw immigrant workers into U.S. agriculture today are in California. When irrigation and the transcontinental railroad made it profitable to grow labor-intensive fruit crops in the 1870s, California farmers immediately looked for an "un-American" supply of labor. The leading farm magazine of the time asked, "Where shall the laborers be found ... to become the working men on the state's farms?" Farm-work was described as "the work of the slave," and the magazine repeated its question and offered a solution: "Then where shall the laborers be found? The Chinese! ... those great walls of China are to be broken down and that population is to be to California what the African has been to the South."

Farmers could not hope to attract Americans or European immigrants because seasonal agriculture "cannot employ them profitably . …

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