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The People Who Produce Your Food Speak: Interviews with Farm Workers, Farmers, and a Food Corporation Executive
by the Editorial Collective, Ann Arbor Science for the People
‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 3, May/June 1979, p. 23–34
These interviews were conducted in February and March of 1979 by members of the Editorial Collective for this issue of the magazine.
Putting together an issue of Science for the People about food is certainly timely. But something would have been misssing had we included only “analyses” of the food issue presented by academics. It seemed somehow important to include the voices of the people who actually are involved in the production of our food. To this end we interviewed several people who produce food: migrant workers, farmers, and a corporate executive in the food industry. We offer portions of those interviews below. We hope they convey something of the human element involved in the food system, as reflected in the words of those people most intimately involved in it.
We should admit, and perhaps apologize beforehand, that the questions we asked of the various people were in no way consistent from person to person. Our questions were colored by our own prejudices with regard to race, sex and class. Thus, we ask Lucy Sanduval (a migrant worker) about the size of her family, but not Chris McNaughton (a corporate executive). We hope the reader will excuse our lapse into bourgeois journalistic bias. It was certainly not intended, and was only recognized after the fact. On the other hand, given the small space available for printing these interviews, such biases are probably necessary to enable the presentation of such a diversity of opinion and feelings as is represented by these people.
Ruth and Dale Crouch are dairy farmers near Grass Lake, Michigan. They have been farming all their lives, on the same farm.
SftP: What kind of farming do you do?
Dale: We have a dairy farm. Right now we have about 80 cows and that many young cows to go along with them. We try to grow all our own feed. If conditions are right we hope we can grow all our own corn for our cows.
SftP: How big is your farm?
Dale: We have about 340 acres that we own and about another 60 that we rent. We also have a vegetable operation.
Ruth: We’re gradually getting into a vegetable operation. Eight years ago our children started a 4H project and started gardening. The result was a surplus of vegetables. So we started selling them at a stand by the roadside. The operation kept getting larger and larger. The last couple of years we have had people come in to pick strawberries on a pick-your-own basis. This year there will be four acres of those. The business has expanded just through roadside selling. We are now to the point that we are going to build a permanent stand this year. In essence our family farm is becoming a dual operation; not only dairy but also fresh produce.
SftP: When you sell the milk who do you sell it to?
Dale: We belong to Michigan Milk Producers Association. It’s a cooperative. They are the ones that we get our money from. Sometimes they haul milk directly to Detroit to the Krogers bottling plant. Another plant in Ovid is mainly a manufacturing plant – makes cheese, butter, etc. The guy that picks up the milk from me gets paid by Michigan Milk. Then Michigan Milk contracts to Jackson or Krogers or wherever.
SftP: When was Michigan Milk Producers Association formed?
Dale: About 60 years ago.
SftP: Does any foreign milk get sold to the bottling plant?
Dale: No fresh milk comes in from foreign sources, but a lot of milk products. It’s a real problem for us. Right now we’re running into another problem. They’re making a lot of imitation products now. They’re making bacon out of soybeans and they want to call it Bacon. The same thing is happening with cheese.
SftP: Are you in fact making ends meet?
Dale: To look on paper we’re doing real well. Of course most of that is inflation.
Ruth: I think we are making a good living. I don’t think anybody in this day and age is going to get rich farming. We go to the market. We are consumers just like you and everyone else and we have to pay the same prices. We have to go to the store and we have to buy gasoline not only for our car but for the tractor. And you know what the price of gasoline is. Inflation has really hit farm equipment. A tractor that we bought 15 years ago cost $10,000 and would probably cost $25,000 to $30,000 right now. We as farmers have to have our income keep going up in accordance with the rest of the workers or we can’t make it. Now we’re all right because we got animals and milk is not that bad a price right now. I’m not saying it’s super good, but it’s not that bad. It’s a price where we can break even or make a little money. But these farmers that you have been hearing about lobbying in Washington, they’re really hurting. It probably costs them more than three dollars a bushel to grow corn, and they’re turning around and having to sell it for about two dollars a bushel. Now you can’t stay in business very long if you’re doing that. And that’s why they’re hollering. This is one thing that people in general don’t realize. Back following the Second World War, even as recently as four or five years ago, corn was up to $4.00 a bushel, wheat was up to $6.00 a bushel. Right now wheat is selling for $2.60 and for corn you can get $2 if you’re lucky. So you see the prices for the products the farmer has sold have not continued to rise over the years as factory wages have. They (prices for produce) have gone up and down and we are at a low point on a lot of these things. Milk is at a high point. But I’m not going to say it’s going to stay there.
Dale: We got about $12 a hundred (pounds of milk) this last month. In 1946 they were getting $6.00 a So even milk has only doubled in price in a 30-year period. Compared to some other things it has not gone up that much.
SftP: Consumers are complaining that the price of food is going up and farmers are complaining that they’re not getting enough for what they produce. Who’s making all the profits?
Dale: There’s too many people in the middle. I think that’s the biggest thing. When milk was at a cheaper level it was pasteurized and that was it. Now it’s pasteurized, homogenized, – you got low fat, half percent, 2 percent. You do all these things in between. They used to go to a store and buy a bag of potatoes. But now how many potatoes are sold in bags. They’re sold in a box. Or maybe in TV dinners that you shove in the oven. But with milk, every time we get an increase (milk prices go up and down a lot) the dairies will increase just as much or more. But when it goes down you never hear about the dairy’s taking off any. What I’m saying is, if our milk goes up 50 cents a hundred, they add fifty cents too, to cover their expenses – fine. But say our milk goes down 50 cents. They never take 50 cents off the milk that you buy.
Ruth: Taxes is another thing that’s hitting the farmer. We are being taxed at the potential for real estate development on land out here. No one ever thought of subdividing it, but still it’s being assessed at its potential value for building. And as the population moves out west from Detroit and Ann Arbor our taxes are going higher and higher. There has been some tax relief in this open space act but not many of the farmers have gotten into it because we hate to have someone else tie up our land and tell us what we can do with it. But I do think this is an option that some of us are going to have to take. Now I do think maybe some of the solution is in selling direct to the consumer. We can sell a little cheaper than they can buy down at the store. And better quality. Maybe there is going to be more of a trend back this way.
SftP: In general terms, what does it feel like to be a farmer?
SftP: Could you briefly go through a description of a typical day in the life of a dairy farmer? Dale: In the summer .. . Those cows gotta be milked first thing in the morning. I usually work till midnight and then don’t get up till about 6:00a.m. or 6:30. Milking starts at about 6:00. Probably takes about three, three and a half hours. After that, depending on what it is, if it’s corn planting time you plant corn, from the time you get done milking until … depending on the day, if you think it’s going to rain maybe you go on a little longer … till you can’t see any longer and then you got another 3 to 3½ hours of milking. Or you may have hay that’s gotta be baled, and if you got a rain cloud coming, you work till you get that hay bailed.
Ruth: Let’s put it this way. In the summer time a good many of your days run from 6:00 a.m. to midnight. It’s not only him working those hours, it’s also me working those hours and 2 or 3 or 4 of the children working those hours. In this day and age to keep a family farm you have to work hard and it involves the whole family. Just feeding this many animals, milking, cleaning up, taking care of the barn and so forth is an 8 to 10 hour job, 365 days a year. The cows have to be milked everyday. It doesn’t matter if you want to go somewhere, those cows have to be milked. It is a very “tied down” job, but it has lots of rewards and advantages because we are our own boss. If we want to work twice as hard today we can take off a couple hours in the middle of the afternoon tomorrow if we want to. No one tells us when we have to work. It’s rewarding, especially with a family of our size. We have eleven children, so this makes us an extranormal family. It gives them all a job to do, keeps them out of trouble, keeps them busy. And there’s lots of rewards for living in the country. And if you’re working for yourself, you do a lot more than if you’re working for someone else.
SftP: Do you want your children to be farmers?
Ruth: I want my kids to do what they want. I’m not going to try to force them to stay on the farm. I do think a lot of sons have been kept on the farm to work for their parents for nothing, and then when they’re 50 years old and their parents die they’re left with nothing. I’ve seen this situation happen over and over again, and I don’t want it to happen with my kids. If they come in they’re going to come in as full partners.
Dale: If they want to work on the farm we can find a place for them. As far as I’m concerned, farming is a good life. But they may not think so. I mean a lot of the time you’ll see kids go up to school and get a job. Then they go out and find out they gotta punch that clock every day and work for 8 hours and so on.
Ruth: We got an 11-year-old and a 12-year-old boy. They just announced to me last summer that they weren’t going to be farmers cause they weren’t going to work that hard.
Dale: They probably just got through picking strawberries all day.
Ruth: These kids come home in the summer time and they don’t have much vacation from school. Everybody from the 8-year-old up picks strawberries cause we also fill orders. I have one girl for two years in a row has picked over a thousand quarts of strawberries. And that’s a lot of strawberries. As soon as the strawberries are in, you’re right into sweetcorn. And one weeked last year 800 dozen went out of here. A lot of ears of corn went through those kid’s hands.
SftP: (to Ruth) Is it especially difficult for a woman in farming today?
Ruth: Definitely yes. Not only do l have to take care of the house but I have to work on the farm today. I would like to sit in the house, do some sewing and just sit back and admire the work once in a while. But I can’t. I have to work in the fields all day with him and then squeeze in the housework and taking care of the kids in addition. Being a woman you’re always busy. Most farm women these days keep all the books on the farm … not always but usually. And keeping the books is a full time job in and of itself. And then on top of that you got all the housework and the regular farm work to help with. I wish I had the time to do the things that other women do, sew, keep a nice house and all that, but there’s just too much work to do with the farm.
SftP: Is there anything you would like to specifically say to the readers of Science for the People magazine?
Ruth: We’re just consumers too. We got to pay the prices you gotta pay. We aren’t getting rich and we work hard.
AN AGRIBUSINESS EXECUTIVE
Christopher J. McNaughton is Senior Vice President of Corporate Services. Secretary of the company. and holds primary authority for employee relationships. Other than a short stint with an accounting firm, his entire corporate career has been with the Kellogg Company, makers of Kellogg’s cornflakes and a wide variety of other convenience food products.
SftP: What are the differences between working in the food industry and working in other industries?
Chris: The food industry is basically a clean industry compared with other forms of American industry. The quality of jobs and the job environment are excellent, superior to most other jobs in American industry. Compared with, say, an assembly line job in the auto industry or a construction job, with regard to aesthetics, quality, occupational health and safety, the food industry offers much more than most other industries.
SftP: What about at the corporate level? Is the food industry more or less the same as other industries?
Chris: It’s just about the same as other industries, I guess. I feel quite comfortable working here because Kellogg has a general committment to people as people in and of themselves, as individuals. For example, in our newest plant in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which has been in operation for two years, we spent more than 3 years with industrial sociologists planning the work environment. We were planning in terms of restructuring the job environment in the plant for two reasons. First, because productivity and happy, well-motivated employees go hand in hand. You cannot have a happy environment when either the company or union creates insecurity, which comes from a lack of concern about the employee as a person. Second, for the welfare of the individual employee. We attempted to promote harmonious working in a group or team. This involved restructuring several jobs. For example, in the past we allowed the production process to define certain so called station jobs, jobs where an individual was required to be all alone because the machine he worked on was isolated. We now rearrange the job so as to have people working in teams of 15 to 17 people. We reorganized the technology so as to group jobs in control centers so as to facilitate people getting together around the nucleus of a job. This process cost us an extra $3,000,000, but we think it was worth it in terms of future labor relations and productivity. The whole process was done with full cooperation of the union at every step (American Federation of Grain Millers). The union represents the workers and is aware of things that we at the corporate level are not.
SftP: When was the union organized here?
Chris: It was first organized in 1937.
SftP: Have there been many strikes, or more than in other places in the food industry? Chris: We have had relatively few strikes. This is not the same as in other places in the food industry. Being in the food industry there are certain things that automatically lead to good labor relations, but that is only one aspect. Beyond that, Kellogg has especially good relations, probably attributable to the philosophy of the founders of the company and their commitment to people.
SftP: What about wages? Are people in Kellogg’s well paid?
Chris: Our people are very well compensated.
SftP: What about at the corporate level?
Chris: Less so, but still well compensated.
SftP: What would you say was the average salary of a corporate executive in the food industry?
Chris: I wouldn’t want to say. I just don’t know.
SftP: Would you say that in general they are well paid or underpaid?
Chris: I have too much self interest to answer that question.
SftP: Do you feel that you have a special responsibility because you work in the food industry? That is, since food is so basic to life, do you feel especially responsible to do a good job?
Chris: Yes, we recognize such a special responsibility. A majority of our employees feel this way, in terms of manufacturing clean, healthy and wholesome food.
SftP: What about the healthiness and wholesomeness of the food? Many people have complaints about the breakfast food companies in general producing food that is not very nutritious and loaded with too much sugar.
Chris: We feel that we manufacture food that is very nutritious. I can give you figures on our fortified foods that show that our cereals give more than adequate nutrition, especially since they are eaten with milk and in the context of a whole breakfast. But fixing nutritious food is only one side of the question. People have to want to eat the food. Our studies show that 20% of all children skip breakfast. But of those that eat ready made cereals, only 5 to 6% of the time do they skip breakfast. As it relates to sugar, a recent study by the Cereal Institute demonstrated that children who sweeten their own cereal put more sugar on cereal than the ones who eat ready-sweetened cereal, so the ones who eat ready-sweetened cereal actually take in less sugar. When you get right down to it, it’s all a matter of consumer choice.
SftP: What about food prices? Many people feel that since the farmer is getting squeezed and the consumer has to pay such a high price, it must be the middle person, the food processor, who is making a big profit.
Chris: As it relates to prices of products, we think that you can look at various breakfast alternatives and see that ours are definitely competitive. Not only are they nutritious and taste good, but they are a good value. We enjoy certain economies of scale that enable us to produce food products with such good value. If we were not in a position to use those economies of scale, costs to the consumer would be higher. If the food processers were smaller, food prices would actually be higher. The ultimate determinant of value is the consumer.
SftP: But when people hear that an executive of a large food corporation earns over $100,000 per year, they begin to think that prices are jacked up by such a thing.
Chris: In a free market both salaries and products find their own level. The food industry needs the right people in the right places. It needs special talents and special skills in the right place in order to work. It needs new types of equipment so we can help give the consumer the product that is wanted. All this has to be paid for in a highly competitive market.
SftP: There are those who would take as truth the suggestion that the problem of excessively high food prices was mainly due to things like excessive salaries of corporate executives. Wouldn’t your answer suggest to them that something must be wrong with the system? I mean, if the problem is that somebody in the middle is making too much, and that that somebody is making so much because of something structural, doesn’t that imply that the structure itself needs changing? Wouldn’t that give some credence to those who call for socialism?
Chris: No I don’t think so. Take the Soviet Union for example. In the Soviet Union about 95% of the land is held collectively, and the value of the produce is shared by all. Less than 5% of the land is owned privately. Yet over 25% of the actual goods are produced on that 5% that is in private lands. Or take Britain. That society is in an advanced state of decay because of what some socialists would advocate for us. It just doesn’t work
SftP: If we were to initiate some mild form of socialism in our country, what do you suppose would happen to your job?
Chris: I would invite the reader to look at the post office, GSA, Amtrak, or the general fiscal responsibility of the government. I don’t think that any responsible person would advocate that form of government intrusion. But look at the sort of things we’re doing. When we designed our Lancaster plant one of the first decisions was to involve the people, both for the good of the people and for the productivity of the company (that is, the person on the job is the one who knows it best). Unfortunately not all people are willing to accept the responsibility and work that goes along with that kind of decision making. Relatively few people are willing to undertake the responsibility and hardships involved in such work.
Chris: I think that is generally true of people.
SftP: Why are some people willing to accept such responsibility and others not?
Chris: Who knows. It’s a very complex question. Things don’t get done without some sort of authority.
A Migrant Farmworker
Lucy Sanduval is a migrant farm worker and mother of two. She was born in Copland, Texas. and now lives and works in Florida (among other places). To date, her life has centered on the harvesting of food crops in many different states in our country. Today she is actively involved in helping to organize the farm workers in northern Ohio.
SftP: Were you born into the migrant stream?
Lucy: I was born into it. I don’t know — we’ve been travelling as long as I remember. We’re always going to, well, a lot of states. The first one we started going to for beets.
SftP: Sugar beets?
Lucy: Yes. And from there on we just kept on going every year. Sometimes to a different state. We’d go to the same state for around two years — something like that — and later try another state.
SftP: Where were the sugar beets?
Lucy: In Minnesota and Nebraska. I been to Minnesota, Nebraska, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, South Carolina, North Carolina — you name it, I’ve been there.
SftP: How old were you when you started working in the fields?
Lucy: Well, I started picking cotton at the age of eleven.
SftP: That’s when you first started?
Lucy: Well, younger than that, but before that I was going to school, so, you know, I didn’t have much time, they just took me to the fields to learn how to pick cotton. I went to school to the age of eleven. Then I sort of drifted away from school. And that’s when I started picking cotton, like every day. And over there (Texas) school’s out, and — back then, I don’t know now — and if you don’t start school, they don’t look for you, you know.
SftP: When? At the first of the (school) year?
Lucy: Yeh … the first of the year. If you don’t start school, they don’t know that you’re there, so they won’t look for you. So that’s what I did. And I’ve been to Indiana for tomatoes. And Michigan — apples are from Michigan. That’s where I got married.
SftP: When was that?
Lucy: 1965. I was seventeen.
SftP: What was the school year like? Would you stay with relatives sometimes or always go with your family?
Lucy: No, I’d travel with them wherever they went. But I don’t remember that much about school, cause I didn’t go that much. You know, I was small. I was good when I was in school. And, I got a good head, so I learned how to read and write — Spanish and English. And I don’t remember that much about school. I know we traveled a lot. I don’t remember going to school in another state besides Texas. I don’t remember. I know that it wasn’t a school — it was like, ah, somebody came to the camps and it was more games than it was school. They just give you bunch of papers and, you know, learn how to spell this and spell that. But that’s all I remember. But I don’t remember riding a bus to school or anything like that, besides Texas.
SftP: The people who taught were Anglos?
SftP: What size family do you come from?
Lucy: We’re fourteen altogether. I’m right in the middle.
SftP: And every time you’d go someplace to pick, the whole family would go?
Lucy: Yeh. The whole family would go. There’s only one time when we had to go by ourselves and that was to go work in — I don’t know what it was. In Spanish it’s called “escoba”. And “escoba” in English means “broom”.
SftP: Where was this?
Lucy: In New Mexico. And that’s the only place only me and my father and some of my brothers went to work by ourselves (without the entire family) and we lived in this big grey house. We slept on the floor, of course. Some slept in the garage.
SftP: As a little girl growing up, were the things expected of you any different from the things expected of your brothers?
Lucy: No, we had to do the same things. We both had to work you know. Well, the only difference was in the kitchen, ’cause I had to help in the kitchen. And, besides that, work. And my brothers, they only helped in the field — not in the kitchen.
SftP: They never helped in the kitchen?
Lucy: No. They carried water. They had to carry the water from outside — that’s about it. They carried the water inside or if somebody wanted to take a bath or something, they’d just carry the water — that’s about it. And I was little. I worked and helped my mother with cooking, washing, and ironing.
SftP: Did that start pretty early for you?
Lucy: Yeh. We learned how to cook way young — there was a lot of us — especially taking care of kids. We have twins … two brothers. I had to take care of the ones older than the twins down, which is seven kids.
SftP: And how old were you when you started taking care of them?
Lucy: I was real young. When the kids were born I was — what? — eleven. So I took them over, ’cause it was just too much for my mother. I remember a long time ago we’re in the fields, working on sugar beets. And my brother was real little. He was in diapers, but he was real fat. I don’t know how old I was. I was very young. And we’re out in the fields. And my mother worked then. That’s the last time I remember my mother working. And I stayed in the car with my brother. And he walked right in the fields, with diapers, no shirt. I didn’t know what to do. I was real young. And he started crying. I was real little, I mean, what could I do with a little kid crying? And I started crying myself. And she heard us the way to the other end or the row, and just came to pick up my brother. That’s a long time ago. I don’t know. I must’ve been around four years old or something like that.
SftP: Could you talk about the strike that FLOC organized last summer?
Lucy: Yeh. We came here last summer for tomatoes. And I only worked around three days, I guess. Then I joined the strike. Everybody joined. Nobody was picking. I wasn’t going to stay there by myself. I had the two kids staying with me and I didn’t like staying at the camp by myself at all.
SftP: Do the kids go and help pick sometimes?
Lucy: They help, but they, I don’t know, they think it’s fun. Maybe because they’re young right now. They’re ten and twelve. But I don’t take ’em to the field. I don’t say you got to work. If they want to go, fine. But my older one – he’s more understanding, I think, than I was at his age. He just says “No, I’ll go and help you. You can’t do anything by yourself”, you know. The little I’ll make (by myself), you know.
SftP: Could you tell us what a typical day is like being both a worker and a mother?
Lucy: A typical day for me would be go out and work and come home and cook. I get up at five and I have to fix lunch for me and get the clothes ready for the kids — so they can go to school. My job now — usually I get up at five when I’m working in the fields, and we get back whenever. We’re not working by the hour, so you can quit at lunch or work until six if you want. But people usually work until four or four thirty, then start cooking or whatever. And that’s usually what I do.
SftP: How do you feel about the women’s movement?
Lucy: I don’t know what you mean by that. I think a woman should stay in the house. Not locked up, or any thing like that. But just be there. Do the housework. And the man should go out and work. But if you’re talking about a job … if a man and a woman are working at the same job and the man gets paid more than the woman, then that’s not fair. Sometimes in Florida I drive a tow motor (forklift) in packing house. And a man does, too. So he gets paid more than I do. And that’s not fair.
SftP: Have the women tried to do anything about that?
Lucy: No. But I drive a tow motor in the mornings and I don’t drive it every day that often. And another reason is that I never speak up. I don’t say anything about it. But I think we should be paid the same if we’re going to do the same job.
SftP: Do you feel that women are treated the same as men by the growers and crew leaders?
Lucy: Yeh. It’s really the same. If you’re going to do work in a field the crew leader — if he tells a man to hurry up and do something, he’ll tell the woman the same thing. He don’t say “Well, she’s a woman. She can take it easy.” He won’t think that. At least not the ones I know. They just expect you to do the same work. And there’s a lot of women I know that can — and do — do more than a man does in the field. I’m not one of them, but I do know some women that they can leave the man way behind. Especially picking tomatoes. I’ve got a nephew, and his wife can pick tomatoes twice as fast as he can. But I think even if I could I don’t think I would. It’s his job to support the family and work, so I’d just take it easy.
SftP: Is your husband here (in Ohio) now?
Lucy: No, I’m not married anymore. I’ve been supporting — and I mean supporting my kids for eight years now — on my own. I had help for a while from welfare, but it was only for a while. I can get a lot more working. For most of those eight years I been working, supporting.
Lazaro Miranda and Abel Gaspar are migrant farm workers, who were interviewed in the state of Tabasco, Mexico. The reader should recall that Tabasco is the site of most of the recent celebrated oil discoveries. These workers are thus from one of the richest states in one of the most resource-rich countries in the world.
SftP: What is your name and how old are you?
Laz: Lazaro Miranda. I am 18 years old.
SftP: Are you cutting cane here with relatives?
Laz: Yes. I am here with a brother, a sister-in-law, and a niece. This is my first year working in sugar cane.
SftP: Do you like it?
Laz: Yes. It’s a good job. A very good job. A year ago I was in the States, working in a restaurant in California.
SftP: Could you tell us how a typical day goes here?
Laz: We get up about 5 or 6 a.m. and go by truck to the fields. The foreman takes us, brings us lunch, and brings us back here at four in the afternoon.
SftP: How long have you been here and how is it that you came to this particular camp?
Laz: I’ve been here two months. There are some recruiters who go to where I’m from. They pay for our bus ticket to come here, and they give us money for food. The only thing is that we promise we’re going to work for them. The trip and the food here are free. The recruiters get money for every person they bring here.
SftP: Are you here on some sort of contract?
Laz: No not really. I don’t have to stay here if I don’t like it. I’m free to leave here and look for a better job if I want. If you work until all the cane is cut, they pay for your trip back home.
SftP: Do you think that the work you’re doing is worth it?
Laz: Well, it’s very hard work. Sometimes it’s raining, and that’s when we get hurt. Our lungs … we get sick. I feel it’s a tough job.
SftP: Could you tell us your name and age?
Abel: Abel Gaspar, and I’m 30 years old.
SftP: Are you married and here with your family?
Abel: No. I don’t have a family.
SftP: How is it that you’re here right now cutting cane?
Abel: Well, I just more or less do it. I only last a month or so at each place I work. I don’t like working. I only cut cane. That’s all I do, now. I’ve been doing this for five years. Five years … cutting cane …
SftP: What do you think about the new cane-cutting machines they’ve brought in this year?
Abel: I don’t know anything about machinery, I only heard that they work. But I don’t know anything about them.
SftP: Do you think that people will lose jobs to those machines?
Abel: I don’t know. Look, I’m dumb. I only work. That’s all I know.
SftP: Do you think your energies are well spent cutting cane?
Abel: They’re wasted. Everything I earn I drink.
SftP: No, I mean for Mexico. Could your energies be better spent working in something else?
Abel: I don’t know. It seems like all I work for is booze. And there are many people that do this. What’s the purpose of working … for wine?
SftP: Let’s talk about the actual work. How long do you work?
Abel: We work eleven hours a day, six days a week. I get a 1/2 hour for lunch, but no breaks other than that. We have to work the whole time.
SftP: What do you get paid for the work you do?
Abel: Sometimes nearly nothing. They do it by the ton. We get thirty pesos (about $1.50) per ton now. It’s very hard … and its filthy. Usually we just cut it and arrange it, but sometimes we have to lift a bundle up on our backs and haul it, too. I cut about two tons a day. That’s it, you can’t do more. It’s hard. I might leave today or tomorrow. I hate staying in one place.
Joe Velasquez is a former migrant farm worker and factory worker. He currently is a full time organizer for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). He was one of the 12 people who constituted the SftP delegation to China to study the food system.
SftP: Where were you born and when did you start working in the fields?
Joe: I was born in 1948 in Pharr, Texas. It’s about 30 miles north of the border. We were moving around until 1952, and finally my dad decided to settle out of the migrant stream. He settled out in Sandusky, Ohio, and worked there in a factory. He worked there for a year or two, and then we moved from there to Yerbo, Ohio. The first year we got to Yerbo, that’s when I started school. I went to all 12 grades in that same school system. That was from September through May. The rest of the time we were out in the fields. As soon as school let out in May we either went and picked cherries in Michigan, or strawberries, or we hoed sugar beets and things like that. It was one thing here, then we’d go to Michigan to work, then we’d come back and do the sugar beets, then we might hoe some beans over here while the rest of the crops are ripening over there. Then the potatoes and tomatoes came into season in August, then we’d be picking potatoes until school started. That’s what we did every summer, as soon as school let out, migrating and picking whatever crops were available in this area. Sometimes we even went down to Texas. Some years we finished the potatoes early and it was like a vacation, but we went down there to work. We got a vacation and went down and saw our grandparents, then of course the grandparents were still migrating all over the place, so we caught them at the time when they were about to go from Robstown to a place in north-central Texas to pick cotton. So they were moving from one part of the state to another and when we caught them in one spot we just jumped a ride with them.
SftP: In those years was your father working during the school year in the factory?
Joe: He worked all year round in the factory. When he moved here to Yerbo, he was working in the fertilizer factory. I remember him getting real sick one time because of the powder and the dust and all that. He was put in a hospital for about a year because the stuff just corroded his lungs, you know, so he had to take a year off and spend it in some hospital in Lima. Then he went back to work in a sugar beet factory. He worked in those two places all his life.
SftP: So when you worked in the summer time. that was with your brothers and sisters?
SftP: And what would your mother do, did she have a full time job or did she go with you?
Joe: She was working right along with us. We were all picking potatoes until 1966, even after that, 1968, I think. As a matter of fact, until 1972 or 73 everybody was still picking potatoes except the older kids who’d moved away.
SftP: How many of you are there, how many brothers and sisters?
Joe: There’s 11 in our family, 9 children and my mom and dad. That covered a whole decade of picking potatoes for the same guy. We made him rich.
SftP: In the summertime would the rest of the family be separated from your father?
Joe: During the summer he would try to take leaves of absence to go to Michigan, or he would have a two week vacation and we would take off and go up to Michigan and work. But a lot of times he would have seasonal work. The sugar beet factory wouldn’t be working until September, so he would have a month. This would give us a chance to go down to Texas or up to Michigan. But in the wintertime he usually had a regular job. All that happened up until ’66 when I graduated. Then I got a job working in Sylvania, making TV tubes. I worked there almost a year and then I moved out to California. Then I got drafted.
SftP: What did you do after the Army?
Joe: After I got out of the Army I worked at Dow Chemical. I was still doing reading at home but it was just working and then coming home, a real drab life. Then I started seeing these posters, as you walk into work there was this poster on the things that Dow Chemical was doing, public relations, you know. And they were developing napalm — those kinds of things. I think the thing that I saw that impressed me most was that they had experimented with some type of nerve gas and they had tested it on some soldiers, Washington, somewhere like that, somewhere way out. The connection clicked between what I just came out of and how they used experiments without anybody even knowing about it (how do I know, I could have been part of that). So that just clicked. That just made the connection between what you’re doing, and how other people are being affected without even knowing about it. How the company’s not even caring about that. So at this time I started doing little things for FLOC. Volunteering to do things here and committing myself to do things there. All the time, take care of this for FLOC. Little by little, you start committing your left arm to do this and committing your right arm, and pretty soon your legs are committed and before you know it everything else is committed except your eyes, and you better keep your eyes on the work. So that’s how I ended up working for FL.OC, just little by little.
SftP: How long did you work for Dow?
Joe: I only worked for Dow for a real short period. In 1971, the end of ’70, I started working for FLOC full time.
SftP: What similarities did you see between the kind of work the field workers did in China and the kind you did when you were a migrant worker in this country?
Joe: There’s practically no difference other than just the plants. The work is almost the same other than the type of plant that you’re working with- you’re still bending over, you’re still getting your hands dirty, you’re still really close to the earth. But there’s a big difference with agricultural work here compared to there. In China you’re working not for yourself but you’re working for everybody in your community. You’re working with everybody and you’re all cooperating, doing the same work. And the difference is that you’re in it so that all of you can benefit at the same time rather than just working for somebody else – you’re working for yourself, and that’s part of your life. The agricultural worker here doesn’t have any kind of participation in terms of his work and the end product. In the United States everything that he does, he doesn’t see it, he has no control over it after he puts it in the box. After he throws it into the basket — once it goes out of the basket he loses control over it. That’s not the case in China, it still belongs to the workers. It’s like they’re guaranteed that they’re going to benefit from their work. That’s not the case here — you may work your butt off until you die and you won’t get nowhere, but the difference over there is that you participate in what happens after you harvest, everybody has a say. You know that you’re not going to starve. You know that everyone is going to get just as much and that the country, the people aren’t going to let you starve.
SftP: Did anything that you saw on the trip give you any ideas for organizing here?
Joe: I thought that their organization was really good, because it involved everybody. Here it’s still embryonic. It hasn’t developed into anything and it probably won’t for a while. There’s just a lot of loose things. There’s all kinds of movements, but it’s not coalesced, it’s not focused on any specific thing. There’s many different issues, everybody has different involvements, they come from different parts of different cultures here in the U.S. Your education is really corporate, it has a corporate mentality. I mean you think in terms of money, profit-and-loss. Here there is a lot of apathy, but there isn’t in China. The reason why is that you participate at every level. You belong to a team and that team is responsible. You have to work in order to eat, if you don’t work, you don’t eat. You have to have the support of all the people, and if you have the support of all the people, your organization is as it is in China, which does have the support of most of the people. I’m not going to say that the answer is socialism, because the ultimate decision must be left up to the person. If there’s anything I learned in China, it’s that you have to keep plugging away at the people, even though you may not have the answers to everything, because the answers are made up by the people. One of the most important things that I learned in China was that you should never lose the support of the people because then you become false, you’ve set false goals. You have to maintain the support of the people and you have to work with the people. There’s a lot of things in China that could not have been done without the people. With the people you can do anything, and China is just a perfect example of it. For a system, for a country like China to go from almost feudal conditions to a really advanced state, the credit has to go somewhere, and it doesn’t go to the corporate mind.
SftP: But now they (China) seem to have become dissatisfied with the slow progress they think they’re making in technology and industry.
Joe: So they’re co-opting a little bit.
SftP: Like” Let’s try out the corporate mentality . .. “?
Joe: Yes. “Let’s bypass a lot of this work-on-our-own and let’s go over to the US and buy a couple machines so we don’t have to spend so much time developing them ourselves.”
SftP: Do you think that makes sense?
Joe: I’m not opposed to machines. But I am opposed to the use of machines that doesn’t benefit the people. I don’t think they’re wrong when they say they need machines. It depends on why they want them. For example, as far as tomato is concerned (here in the US), they’re already capitalists (e.g. Libby’s, Campbells). Those guys are all pushing for mechanization. But they’re not doing it because they think they can feed more people faster. They’re doing it because they know they can produce more and then get more profit. They’re not worried about whether people like it or not. They’re in it for the profit . . . . If the Chinese are coming over here because they want to feed more people faster, that’s different, and I don’t think it’s wrong. If they’re over here for the expertise, if they’re over here so they can feed more people faster, then I think it’s legitimate. I mean, I would do that.
GRAIN AND LIVESTOCK FARMER
Carlton Irving has been a farmer for many years. In 1974, his livestock were poisoned by PBB-contaminated feed. This poison continued to affect his livestock until 1978, when he quit.
SftP: How long have you been farming?
Carl: I guess I was just kind of brought up around it. My parents farmed. Five years after I was out of school I went to farming full time. We fed cattle and hogs, and cash crops. More or less the same as even today. We didn’t put any cattle in this year. We normally feed cattle and some hogs, but, oh we got kind of a problem on our farm so I just backed up this year.
SftP: How large is your farm?
Carl: Well, we only have 150 acres, but we have 12 other farms that we work. And about another 8 or 10 that we do custom work on. Another 800 acres of crops. Between my son and I, we get over about 1800 acres a year, between doing our work and somebody else’s. And the wife does chores, and Mark does chores.
SftP: Why did you join the American Agricultural Movement, or get involved?
Carl: I didn’t start in until last March. We always had so much work. If it wasn’t hauling hay it was hauling straw. If it wasn’t doing that, it was hauling manure for somebody. Worked every day for 25 years. We got to working 20 hours a day for 7 days a week and I figured I couldn’t work that anymore. It’s not uncommon for the sun to come out and go out and work till midnight or after. We harvest a lot of crops for other people. We work, my son and I, about 1000 acres, my wife and the other boy would help. We’d do chores in the morning. She’d start chores about 4:00 and then come out to the field. We’d stay there until 1 or 2 in the morning. I just didn’t figure that was any kind of life anymore.
SftP: Just on your own farm, were you making or losing money?
Carl: Losing! And I know my crops weren’t any worse than my neighbor’s because I harvest my neighbor’s too.
SftP: Have things been getting progressively worse?
Carl: Well, our wheat has helped us a lot this year. We’re still not up to cost of production plus a profit, but its better than selling wheat for $2 a bushel, like we did at harvest time. We sold our wheat after the first of the year at $3.40, but see now our interest is going crazy on us. Our interest is up to 13%. What I got is 12¾. Some people giving 13½ already. So your interest goes up. If we didn’t make money one year, you know, you just carried a little bit heavier note load the next year, that was all. When they stack up 3 or 4 of them end to end, then you get somebody’s bad feed on top of that, it makes you rebel a little bit.
SftP: Is your debt getting larger every year?
Carl: Oh, hell yes. Five years ago I had about $15,000 from the bank, 23 when my dad got his farm mortgaged. That was about ’55 when he got that. With inflation, that makes your debt going to go up. And then you’re not making any money, and it costs you $8,000 or $9,000 to feed the family. If you’re making about a third of that or less, that’s going to make your debt go up. Our debt was $118,000 for farm operating this spring.
SftP: Earlier you said you had some kind of problem on your farm. What kind of a problem?
Carl: Well, we fed some Farm Bureau feeds. We’ve been losing about 8 percent of our cattle since ’76. Last year we thought they straightened out pretty good and we dumped a bunch of sows back out on the dirt where we fed cattle and hogs, and same damn thing again. Same thing we had in ’73. Had a lot of questions but I couldn’t get any answers. Even the manager at the Battle Creek Farm Bureau, he told me they elected to handle it that way. I didn’t think that was a very Christian way to do business. It’s a lot like a lot of politics is. It’s very discouraging for people to see things handled in dishonest ways. As far as I’m concerned, when you feed livestock, you work hard at it, but you’re going to have problems. But when you end up with all problems, that’s something else. And you can’t get any answers. I’ve chased them down at Lansing, and they’ll run tests, but they won’t give you any answers and they won’t solve any problems. If you’re not making any income, when you bury bucketful after bucketful of hogs and cattle, your income, regardless of how good you are, is going to dwindle. And then you got somebody at the head of Farm Bureau talking about how radical you are, that you’re lying, and its not truthful and all this other stuff.
SftP: What about your equipment? Do you think you’re at the point where some of your equipment should be replaced, but you can’t for financial reasons?
Carl: Well, I haven’t had any problem borrowing money, but I’ve been pretty conservative. When your income’s so down, if you don’t quit spending, you’re going to be in trouble. You’re going to be out of business is what’s going to happen, because the interest load will get more than what you can acquire money to keep the interest debt down. If we was to put in a new herd to feed, and there’s five barns full of hay, but you put in 300 head of cattle, at the price of cattle today that’d be about $150,000. And, do you want to borrow $150,000? With the health problems you’ve had on our farm? And then pay 13% interest on that? That’d be $20,000 interest. You want to put 25 years of your working life, everything you’ve accumulated on the line on one batch of cattle? That you could lose? Some fellows have lost over 50% of their cattle, feeder cattle is what they’re putting in. That kind of stuff don’t hit the news media. That don’t get out because that’d be disastrous. See there’s a lot of this thing. I ain’t never had time. I had my own problems. But after you get involved in things and find out about things, there’s a lot more going down in the little old world I was working in. If you sat there and watched it, and if you then want to go to a place that make you feel bad, and get you mad, you go to Washington and listen to some of those economists. Some of those high-priced people, smart people, they don’t know what it takes to put meat on that plate they’re eating off of. But they think it would be exorbitant profits if a family farm, man, wife, and kids, made enough money to pay their debts and had something left over. They don’t figure you’re supposed to. You’re supposed to just supply food. And I’ve been down there and talked to the interreligious task force, twice. These are the people who want to feed the world. If you want to feed the world, you better keep the people at home happy. Nobody’s asking to get rich, but if you’re going to win a game, you better win it with a little harmony, and not have people lose their spirit and fight. I don’t know what we’re going to do. There’s farmers in Washington working hard today. The news media plays it up that they’re gone. They’re not there. Well I know its a damn lie because I was back last summer, and we was there all last summer. Maybe we ain’t got enough people so they can stumble off of them, I’ll grant that, but there was people in there every week working at it. I got a pretty good feeling from the public, which is a whole lot different than what the news media makes. Any place you was going around Washington, there was people interested. But, you take a few handfuls of people, and they can control the economy of you and I, truck drivers and everybody else, to me it’s just so danged simple. Everyone deserves to make a living or profit, whichever way your money comes from, out of profit or paychecks. Everybody’s entitled to be paid for what they’re doing. I’m not asking for no handout. And I don’t think a man should be downtrodden when he’s doing.
SftP: Do you think there’s a lot of government manipulation in agriculture?
Carl: Well, that’s another story. Have you ever heard of the Trilateral? You know, when I was a small kid going to Sunday school, we talked about the greed for power and money of these pharaohs and everything in the Bible. It really never got to me until about 40 years later, and that was last year. I was too busy in my own little world, working, and living with the people I live with that I didn’t have time to read and didn’t care to read or anything else. But if you put it all together, there’s still a lot of greed for money and power. Do you know what the Federal Reserve is? It’s not Uncle Sam’s Federal Reserve, it’s the rich people’s, is what it amounts to. A handful of wealthy families control the wealth of the Free World. I always figured, from everything I’d always read, you know, that the Federal Reserve, that’s Uncle Sam, he prints some more money so that for that bad money he printed he’d collect a little more interest out of all of us to make everything solid again. But that ain’t the way it works.