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Article

Frederick Rowe Davis

The history of DDT and pesticides in America is overshadowed by four broad myths. The first myth suggests that DDT was the first insecticide deployed widely by American farmers. The second indicates that DDT was the most toxic pesticide to wildlife and humans alike. The third myth assumes that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) was an exposé of the problems of DDT rather than a broad indictment of American dependency on chemical insecticides. The fourth and final myth reassures Americans that the ban on DDT late in 1972 resolved the pesticide paradox in America. Over the course of the 20th century, agricultural chemists have developed insecticides from plants with phytotoxic properties (“botanical” insecticides) and a range of chemicals including heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, chlorinated hydrocarbons like DDT, and organophosphates like parathion. All of the synthetic insecticides carried profound unintended consequences for landscapes and wildlife alike. More recently, chemists have returned to nature and developed chemical analogs of the botanical insecticides, first with the synthetic pyrethroids and now with the neonicotinoids. Despite recent introduction, neonics have become widely used in agriculture and there are suspicions that these chemicals contribute to declines in bees and grassland birds.

Article

In September 1962, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) held its first convention in Fresno, California, initiating a multiracial movement that would result in the creation of United Farm Workers (UFW) and the first contracts for farm workers in the state of California. Led by Cesar Chavez, the union contributed a number of innovations to the art of social protest, including the most successful consumer boycott in the history of the United States. Chavez welcomed contributions from numerous ethnic and racial groups, men and women, young and old. For a time, the UFW was the realization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community—people from different backgrounds coming together to create a socially just world. During the 1970s, Chavez struggled to maintain the momentum created by the boycott as the state of California became more involved in adjudicating labor disputes under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA). Although Chavez and the UFW ultimately failed to establish a permanent, national union, their successes and strategies continue to influence movements for farm worker justice today.

Article

President Abraham Lincoln signed the law that established the Department of Agriculture in 1862 and in 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed the law that raised the Department to Cabinet status. Thus, by 1900 the US Department of Agriculture had been established for nearly four decades, had been a Cabinet-level department for one, and was recognized as a rising star among agricultural science institutions. Over the first half of the next century, the USDA would grow beyond its scientific research roots to assume a role in supporting rural and farm life more broadly, with a presence that reached across the nation. The Department acquired regulatory responsibilities in plant and animal health and food safety and quality, added research in farm management and agricultural economics, provided extension services to reach farms and rural communities in all regions, and created conservation and forestry programs to protect natural resources and prevent soil erosion and flooding across the geographical diversity of rural America. The Department gained additional responsibility for delivering credit, price supports, supply management, and rural rehabilitation programs during the severe economic depression that disrupted the agricultural economy and rural life from 1920 to 1940, while building efficient systems for encouraging production and facilitating distribution of food during the crises of World War I and World War II that bounded those decades. In the process, the Department became a pioneer in developing the regulatory state as well as in piloting programs and bureaucratic systems that empowered cooperative leadership at the federal, state, and local levels and democratic participation in implementing programs in local communities.

Article

The period from 1900 to 1945 was characterized by both surprising continuity and dramatic change in southern agriculture. Unlike the rest of the nation, which urbanized and industrialized at a rapid pace in the late nineteenth century, the South remained overwhelmingly rural and poor, from the 1880s through the 1930s. But by 1945, the region was beginning to urbanize and industrialize into a recognizably modern South, with a population concentrated in urban centers, industries taking hold, and agriculture following the larger-scale, mechanized trend common in other farming regions of the country. Three overlapping factors explain this long lag followed by rapid transformation. First, the cumulative effects of two centuries of land-extensive, staple crop agriculture and white supremacy had sapped the region of much of its fertility and limited its options for prosperity. Second, in response to this “problem South,” generations of reformers sought to modernize the South, along with other rural areas around the world. These piecemeal efforts became the foundation for the South’s dramatic transformation by federal policy known as the New Deal. Third, poor rural southerners, both black and white, left the countryside in increasing numbers. Coupled with the labor demands created by two major military conflicts, World War I and World War II, this movement aided and abetted the mechanization of agriculture and the depopulation of the rural South.

Article

Emiliano Aguilar

Since the U.S. acquisition of Northern Mexico in the 19th century, Latinas and Latinos have played an ever-growing role as workers in the United States. The continued migration from Latin American countries has increased the importance of Latinas and Latinos across various economic sectors. As diverse as the Latina/o community itself, the array of jobs Latinas/os/xs have held has been enormously varied. As an increasing demographic of workers, Latina and Latino workers have also played a pivotal role in the labor movement in the United States. Their labor activism has been a response to the persistence of oppression and marginalization in the workplace. The presence of Latinas/os/xs in a variety of occupations offers a glimpse into the overall transitions of the U.S. economy, from agricultural to manufacturing to service work. Their movement from farm to factory to service work is of course not universal, as Latinas/os/xs still have a considerable presence in agricultural and industrial employment. Yet the transition from one kind of work to another remains a useful way of understanding the history of Latina/o/x labor over time. Latinas/os/xs have often stood at the forefront of shifts in the economy as they have followed the need for workers into new industries, which has placed them among some of the most vulnerable workers in American society.

Article

The Sacramento Delta is an agricultural region in northern California with deep historic significance for Asian Americans. Asian American laborers were instrumental to the development of Sacramento Delta, transforming the swampy peat bog into one of the richest agricultural areas in California. Beginning in the mid-19th century, Chinese laborers constructed levees, dikes, and ditches along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers before breaking the fertile soil to grow fruit and vegetables including pears and asparagus. Asian Americans continued a permanent and transient presence in the Sacramento Delta on farms as migrant farm laborers, permanent farmworkers, and overseers, and in the small delta towns such as Isleton that emerged as merchants, restaurant operators, boardinghouse operators, and other business owners catering to the local community.

Article

“Twenty and odd” Africans arrived in Virginia aboard a Dutch vessel in 1619 shortly after permanent colonization of the English Americas began. There has been significant academic debate about whether the enslavement of peoples of African descent in England’s early 17th-century colonies was an inevitable or “unthinking decision” and about the nature and degree of anti-black racism during the 17th century. The legal and social status of African peoples was more flexible at first in the English colonies than it later became. Some Africans managed to escape permanent enslavement and a few Africans, such as Anthony Johnson, even owned servants of their own. There was no legal basis for enslavement in the British Americas for the first several decades of settlement and slave and servant codes emerged only gradually. Labor systems operated by custom rather than through any legal mechanisms of coercion. Most workers in the Americas experienced degrees of coercion. In the earliest years of plantation production, peoples from Africa, Europe, and the Americas often toiled alongside each other in the fields. Large numbers of Native Americans were captured and forced to work on plantations in the English Americas and many whites worked in agricultural fields as indentured and convict laborers. There were a wide variety of different kinds of coerced labor beyond enslavement in the 17th century and ideas about racial difference had yet to become as determinative as they would later be. As the staple crop plantation system matured and became entrenched on the North American mainland in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and planters required a large and regular supply of slaves, African laborers became synonymous with large-scale plantation production. The permeable boundaries between slavery and freedom disappeared, dehumanizing racism became more entrenched and U.S.-based planters developed slave codes premised on racial distinctions and legal mechanisms of coercion that were modeled on Caribbean precedents.

Article

The United States often views itself as a nation of immigrants. This may in part be why since the early 20th century the country has seldom adopted major changes in its immigration policy. Until 1986, only the 1924 National Origins Quota Act, its dismantlement in the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, and the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, involved far-reaching reforms. Another large shift occurred with the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) and its derivative sequel, the 1990 Immigration Act. No major immigration legislation has yet won congressional approval in the 21st century. IRCA emerged from and followed in considerable measure the recommendations of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (1979–1981). That body sought to reconcile two competing political constituencies, one favoring the restriction of immigration, or at least unauthorized immigration, and the other an expansion of family-based and work-related migration. The IRCA legislation contained something for each side: the passage of employer sanctions, or serious penalties on employers for hiring unauthorized workers, for the restriction side; and the provision of a legalization program, which outlined a pathway for certain unauthorized entrants to obtain green cards and eventually citizenship, for the reform side. The complete legislative package also included other provisions: including criteria allowing the admission of agricultural workers, a measure providing financial assistance to states for the costs they would incur from migrants legalizing, a requirement that states develop ways to verify that migrants were eligible for welfare benefits, and a provision providing substantial boosts in funding for border enforcement activities. In the years after the enactment of IRCA, research has revealed that the two major compromise provisions, together with the agricultural workers provision, generated mixed results. Employer sanctions failed to curtail unauthorized migration much, in all likelihood because of minimal funding for enforcement, while legalization and the agricultural measures resulted in widespread enrollment, with almost all of the unauthorized migrants who qualified coming forward to take advantage of the opportunity to become U.S. legalized permanent residents (LPRs). But when the agricultural workers provisions allowing entry of temporary workers are juxtaposed with the relatively unenforceable employer-sanctions provisions, IRCA entailed contradictory elements that created frustration for some observers. In sociocultural, political, and historical terms, scholars and others can interpret IRCA’s legalization as reflecting the inclusive, pluralistic, and expansionist tendencies characteristic of much of 18th-century U.S. immigration. But some of IRCA’s other elements led to contradictory effects, with restriction efforts being offset by the allowances for more temporary workers. This helped to spawn subsequent political pressures in favor of new restrictive or exclusive immigration controls that created serious hazards for immigrants.

Article

During the Holocene, the present geological epoch, an increasing portion of humans began to manipulate the reproduction of plants and animals in a series of environmental practices known as agriculture. No other ecological relationship sustains as many humans as farming; no other has transformed the landscape to the same extent. The domestication of plants by American Indians followed the end of the last glacial maximum (the Ice Age). About eight thousand years ago, the first domesticated maize and squash arrived from central Mexico, spreading to every region and as far north as the subarctic boreal forest. The incursion of Europeans into North America set off widespread deforestation, soil depletion, and the spread of settlement, followed by the introduction of industrial machines and chemicals. A series of institutions sponsored publically funded research into fertilizers and insecticides. By the late 19th century, writers and activists criticized the technological transformation of farming as destructive to the environment and rural society. During the 20th century, wind erosion contributed to the depopulation of much of the Great Plains. Vast projects in environmental engineering transformed deserts into highly productive regions of intensive fruit and vegetable production. Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, access to land remained limited to whites, with American Indians, African Americans, Latinas/os, Chinese, and peoples of other ethnicities attempting to gain farms or hold on to the land they owned. Two broad periods describe the history of agriculture and the environment in that portion of North America that became the United States. In the first, the environment dominated, forcing humans to adapt during the end of thousands of years of extreme climate variability. In the second, institutional and technological change became more significant, though the environment remained a constant factor against which American agriculture took shape. A related historical pattern within this shift was the capitalist transformation of the United States. For thousands of years, households sustained themselves and exchanged some of what they produced for money. But during the 19th century among a majority of American farmers, commodities took over the entire purpose of agriculture, transforming environments to reflect commercial opportunity.

Article

If one considers all the links in the food chain—from crop cultivation to harvesting to processing to transportation to provision and service—millions of workers are required to get food from fields and farms to our grocery stores, restaurants, and kitchen tables. One out of every seven workers in the United States performs a job related in some way to food, whether it is in direct on-farm employment, in stores, in eating/drinking establishments, or in other agriculture-related sectors. According to demographic breakdowns of US food labor, people of color and immigrants (of varying legal and citizenship statuses) hold the majority of low-wage jobs in the US food system. Since the late 19th century Latinos (people of Latin American descent living in the United States) have played a tremendous role in powering the nation’s food industry. In the Southwest, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have historically worked as farmworkers, street vendors, restaurateurs, and employees in food factories. The Bracero Program (1942–1964) only strengthened the pattern of hiring Latinos as food workers by importing a steady stream of Mexican guest workers into fields, orchards, and vineyards across all regions of the United States. Meanwhile, mid-20th-century Puerto Rican agricultural guest workers served the farms and food processing factories of the Midwest and East Coast. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Central American food labor has become more noticeable in restaurants, the meat and seafood industries, and street food vending. It is deeply ironic, then, that the workers who help to nourish us and get our food to us go so unnourished themselves. Across the board, food laborers lack many privileges and basic rights. There is still no federal minimum wage for the almost three million farmworkers who labor in the nation’s fruit orchards, vineyards, and vegetable fields. Farmworkers (who are overwhelmingly Latino and undocumented) earn very low wages and face various health risks from pesticide exposure, extreme weather, a lack of nutritious, affordable food and potable water, substandard and unsanitary housing conditions, workplace abuse, unsafe transportation, and sexual harassment and assault. Other kinds of food workers—such as restaurant workers and street vendors—experience similar economic precarity and physical/social invisibility. While many of these substandard conditions exist because of employer decisions about costs and the treatment of their workers, American consumers seeking the lowest prices for food are also caught up in this cycle of exploitation. In efforts to stay competitive and profitable in what they give to grocery stores, restaurants, and the American public, farmers and food distributors trim costs wherever they can, which often negatively impacts the wages and conditions of those who are working the hardest at the bottom of the national food chain. To push back against these forms of exploitation, food entrepreneurs, worker unions, and other advocates have vocally supported Latinos in the US food industry and tried to address problems ranging from xenophobia to human trafficking.

Article

The United States underwent massive economic change in the four decades following the end of the American Civil War in 1865. A vibrant industrial economy catapulted the nation to a world leader in mining and manufacturing; the agricultural sector overcame organizational and technological challenges to increase productivity; and the innovations in financial, accounting, and marketing methods laid the foundation for a powerful economy that would dominate the globe in the 20th century. The emergence of this economy, however, did not come without challenges. Workers in both the industrial and agricultural sectors offered an alternative path for the American economy in the form of labor strikes and populist reforms; their attempts to disrupt the growing concentration of wealth and power played out in both the polls and the factory floor. Movements that sought to regulate the growth of large industrial firms and railroads failed to produce much meaningful policy, even as they raised major critiques of the emerging economic order. In the end, a form of industrial capitalism emerged that used large corporate structures, relatively weak unions, and limited government interventions to build a dynamic, but unbalanced, economic order in the United States.

Article

In the 20th century, US policymakers often attempted to solve domestic agricultural oversupply problems by extending food aid to foreign recipients. In some instances, the United States donated food in times of natural disasters. In other instances, the United States offered commodities to induce foreign governments to support US foreign policy aims or to spur agricultural modernization. These efforts coalesced during the 1950s with the enactment of Public Law 480, commonly known as the Food for Peace program, which provided for a formal, bureaucratic mechanism for the disbursement of commodities. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, successive presidential administrations continued to deploy commodities in advance of their often disparate foreign policy objectives.