Industrial Agriculture: Machines Take Over
California Farm Workers at Work in Root Crops Cotton and Hay
n 1958, when Harvey Richards photographed farm workers at work in California’s central valley, California agriculture was undergoing a transformation from hand to machine work in many crops.
Not all crops, but certainly root crops and extensive crops like cotton and hay took to the new machines in a big way. Spurred on by the imminent collapse of the bracero system (abolished in 1964) employing guest workers at substandard wages, the impulse to mechanize was fundamentally a quest for profits. It took millions of dollars of investment combined with the cooperation (at no charge to agribusiness) of the University of California research facilities to make it happen.
Abundant capital for mechanization put the lie to the claim that agribusiness could not afford to pay living wages or to support unemployment insurance for farm workers. Profits from agriculture went into the banks, leaving farm workers powerless in the face of a billionaire employers and their political allies.
At a pivotal moment in this process in 1958, Harvey Richards focused his cameras on the workers and work in agriculture. His purpose, of course, was to produce helpful documentary images and films for organized labor. But, beyond this, having been a worker himself, he recorded the impact of the relentless quest for profits on the human beings who did the work.
The industrial food system created during these years by agribusiness tore at the fabric of our nurturing relations with the land, creating instead a chemical filled, machine dominated production system where dirt was synonymous with poison and nurturing was transformed into repetitive factory style work in the hot sun. Mechanical harvesting destroyed tens of thousands of jobs with devastating impacts on the labor force and the land.
Wave after wave of foreign immigrant and domestic migrant labor traveled to California seeking work in agriculture in those years and continuing up to today. Small scale farmers, pushed off the land by dust storms, mechanization, bank foreclosures, and collapsing world prices for agricultural commodities, found California agriculture a very unwelcoming place to make a new life. And group after group has left it for better opportunities elsewhere. Nothing, it seemed, could please the agribusiness barons more than reducing the work force to anonymous replaceable unskilled units of labor who found no support in social legislation or surrounding communities. Use them and discard them.
Truly, industrial farming grew into an inhuman system which not so many years later would adopt the genetic modification of plants with escalating use of poisons for the purpose of increasing profits yet again as it completed the near total destruction of balanced relations of human kind with the earth. Industrial farming was not only a dead end for the workers, it has become a dead end for humanity.
Harvey Richards’ agricultural worker photography
Harvey Richards’ agricultural worker photography is collected in ten photo image galleries which captured the look and feel of a formative moment in the creation of industrial agriculture in the central valley of California (1957 to 1966.) He began photographing California agriculture while making his first films for the United Packing House Workers organizers, Factory Farms (1959) and The Harvesters (1960).
He toured the central valley documenting many crops. He followed bracero workers from Mexico to the fields, into their barracks and dining halls. He photographed resident farm workers in the early morning shape-ups where labor contractors were hiring, in the labor camps and in their homes. He photographed child labor in the fields and the long lines at soup kitchens when there was no work. And he photographed the wave of mechanization that swept over the central valley as growers prepared for the end of the bracero program.
Next, he turned his attention to farm worker strikes led by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee of the AFL-CIO and later for the United Farm Workers Union. He photographed strikers during the 1962 strike for $1.25 per hour in the lettuce fields of Imperial County and Fresno County (Uno Veintecinco), the grape strike of 1965 and the United Farm Worker’s Union march to Sacramento in 1966 (The Land is Rich).
All images are copyrighted © Paul Richards 2001-2020.
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