Today we are celebrating National Mechanical Grape Harvester Day! (AKA Cesar Chavez Day).
For anyone who might not know, especially those living in other countries where our peculiar political holidays might not have currency, Cesar Chavez is that brave soul who through petty bickering, targeted destruction of individual farmers, and great political theatre ( mostly in the form of posed for TV “marches” and a “grape boycott”) single handedly brought about the invention of the Mechanical Grape Harvester and the destruction of jobs for hundreds of thousands of Hispanic farm workers.
Obama recognized this great contribution in 2014 when he declared the Politically Correct Token Hispanic Holiday in the name of Cesar Chavez.
Cesar Chavez Day is a federal commemorative holiday in the U.S. by proclamation of President Obama in 2014. On March 31 of each year, it celebrates the birth and legacy of the civil rights and labor movement activist Cesar Chavez.
Yes, we owe this great day to Our Dear Leader Obama’s great sensibility to all things exploitable for “the cause”.
Cesar Chavez lead a great movement to abuse farmers, cause a ruckus, and generally attempt to repeal the law of supply and demand in Farm Labor. He succeeded at the first two, but nobody bats 1000 and “2 out of 3 ain’t bad”… Forming and organizing the United Farm Workers Union that at the peak had a membership of about 80,000.
UFW Member Total Is Questioned
Labor: The union says its accuser is basing the accusation on incorrect set of numbers.
June 10, 2002|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER
Rob Roy, general counsel for the Ventura County Agricultural Assn., has long accused the union of inflating its numbers, but he now believes he has proof in the form of an amended federal document in which the UFW lowers its membership estimates by nearly 80%.
From 1995 to 1999, the UFW claimed membership of 26,000 on reports filed annually with the U.S. Department of Labor. The union upped that figure to 27,000 in 2000. But last month, in response to an inquiry by the Labor Department, the union revised its membership to 5,945, according to the amended report.
“Here they are portraying themselves as the voice of California farm workers, and yet they represent less than 1%,” said Roy, who fired off a letter in February prompting the Labor Department probe.
However, union officials say the lower number represents only those laborers working under UFW contract at the end of the year, and not the total number of members who work under contract on a seasonal basis at least one day during the year.
Once a formidable national presence, with upward of 80,000 members at its peak in 1973, the union had suffered decades of declining membership and was barely at 20,000 members when Chavez died 20 years later.
Even at the peak, it had not signed up huge swathes of farm workers, so the total number of grape pickers put out of work when the mechanical harvester made a debut will be much higher than the 75,000 or so UFW ex-members.
But that article is old, the present number per Union Facts shows a great resurgence from that 5k low, all the way to 8k!
Or about the size of a medium large high school. The Wiki, interesting to note, sees things differently:
They have this interesting image of membership over time:
Odd that they would start long long after the Glory Days of 10 Times more membership, and then cut it off 3 years ago just at a momentary blip, prior to the return to this same baseline value of 6,000 to 8,000 members. But hey, sometimes a Moral Truth ™ needs a little help to be seen, cluttered and obscured by rude facts.
But returning to the important central celebration of today, what is a Mechanical Grape Harvester?
Well, in the “Old Days” when I was a kid growing up in a rural farm town, grapes were all picked by hand. There was an annual flood of hundreds of thousands of Mexican Bracero farm workers, glad to have Yankee wages and a low cost home in Mexico at the end of the season. Sort of a ‘win win’ for them, and for the farmers who had an eager and effective workforce that was low enough cost to make the farm operation profitable. Local merchants, as in my Old Farm Town, also benefited from the seasonal influx of workers, and governments did not have a massive welfare burden during the off season.
The only ones who lost were the White Trash farm workers. We had a seasonal influx of largely White Farm Workers along with the Braceros. These were seen in The Grapes Of Wrath (book and movie) and I grew up meeting the tail end of that era. Folks in old Packard and Hudson automobiles with worn tires. Usually living out of their car, camping next to it. Mom, Dad, and a couple of kids. I remember one Dad with a flat tire, and no money, trying to figure out how to make things work out. Farm work was winding down here, and he could not get to there to get the next job. Food for the kids and no tire, so no more money, or get the tire and everyone goes hungry until next payday.
The local gas station on the highway sold him a used (i.e. ALMOST worn out tire but good for another few hundred miles) for nearly nothing and he installed it – in those days folks knew how to put a tire on a rim without machines. Balance? No, not balanced. “Smooth ride” was not a requirement and over 55 MPH was rare. I know the story as my Dad “visited” and “shared lunch”. It wasn’t “charity” as they didn’t want “charity”, just “brought something while we work on the tire”… Never mind that what we brought was far more than they could ‘contribute’ to the ‘pot luck’. Dad, IIRC, was giving the guy a ride to / from the gas station with the tire. Folks did that then. Helped each other. I suspect Dad may have fronted the money for the tire, but as a kid you don’t pay close attention to those things. I know Dad talked to his friend at the gas station out of earshot of the rest of us…
My Little Farm Town even built the Migrant Labor Camp out by the river. A collection of cinder block sheds with tin roofs, a cement table in the middle IIRC, and cinder block raised benches along the walls so you were off the ground when sleeping. Each with a single water faucet outside next to it and a fire pit / BBQ thing. A single central building had bathrooms and showers. EVERYONE was happy with this. A major improvement in sanitation and in convenience. Real running water and toilets, and even the luxury of a shower. Migrants had a roof and place to stay, even a playground for the kids. Farmers had a reliable location to find workers, and a happier and cleaner workforce. A grocery store about a half mile away got more business and the workers had easy access to the basics.
Today that would be ridiculed has horrid. No heaters (who needs them in summer / fall during labor season when 90 F is more common?) and no A/C (but we didn’t have air conditioning in our house until I was about 10? years old). The showers, IIRC, were originally cold; but I refer you again to the fact this was populated when “cold was desired” and during summer, cold water was about 70 F anyway.
I got my first series of vaccinations at the Farm Labor Camp. The County set up vaccination clinics and ours was there. Anyone from town (all of about 3 miles from the river) was invited to get free vaccinations. Dad loaded up the whole family and off we went. Queuing up with the White Trash and Mexicans all in one place, the Migrant Farm Labor Camp. We were all poor and nobody seemed to notice.
During summers, we kids would ride our bikes out to the river. After a swim, we would stop at the Farm Labor Camp to play. Everybody was just having a good time. We were all too poor to know were were supposed to be unhappy and oppressed. During early spring and sometimes late fall, the camp would be empty (or nearly so) and we would play in one of the ‘sheds’ or ‘shelters’. It is where I first imagined having “my own house”. Just me in my little space. Since then I’ve often wondered how many families started their first home dream there, and how many moved up and out from there. I know some did, since the best workers were sometimes hired on as year-round farm hands and “moved in to town”. Eventually we ran out of White Trash to absorb and uplift and the camp became more nearly all Mexicans. BTW, nobody seemed to care about the transition. The local park had regular Mexican Baile night (Dance Night) in a hall there. I remember visiting and learning how to “dance Mexican”. My best buddy growing up was a Mexican Kid. His family having a house “in town” and Papa working for the Rail Road maintaining track. That’s where I first learned Spanish.
Then came Cesar Chavez. Lucky for me, I was grown up and ready to leave town for college then. He taught folks how to feel oppressed and unhappy and how to turn opportunity to earn into an opportunity to hurt your employer. There was great strife brought to Farm Country. I remember that time particularly well as that was when the Mechanical Picker starting being important. First was the Tomato Harvester. I have no idea how many hundreds of thousands were put of work with it. Tomato planting took off and lots of hand picked vegetable land was converted to tomatoes. The few who worked the pickers made more money, but most were out of work and went back to Mexico. I worked with one inventor trying to invent a mechanical pumpkin harvester; this after spending a few days harvesting pumpkins by hand… You use a single tine fork to toss the “punkin” into a truck. Single tine so it can rotate to heavy side down and torque does not fight you. I don’t know if he ever succeed, but someone did as a web search shows they exist now.
That effort to make mechanical pumpkin harvester was a direct result of Cesar Chavez too. Locals could see what was happening to the Grape Farmers and figured they were likely the next target for destruction, so got started finding a fix. Was it because they were greedy evil bastards? Well, no. I knew these folks. Honest and hard working family farmers. Just trying to make enough money to keep farming and raise a family. They just didn’t want labor costs to ruin them. None of them what you would call “rich”. (That was the Rice Farmers with thousands of acres already mechanized. One guy, we called him Hindu Dean – don’t know his real name, but he was a regular at our restaurant – was about 75 and looked dirt poor, but paid more in truck registrations each year than most folks earned).
And that’s the whole problem. There is a global market in commodities. Raise cost to produce too high, it becomes cheaper to ship produce in from somewhere with low labor cost. The end result of 40 years of “organizing” farm labor in California is that in one of THE richest agricultural regions of the world, my local grocer has produce imported from Mexico or mechanically harvested produce from California. We no longer have a Mexican Migrant Worker program, as the jobs moved to Mexico. Those products that survived here were the ones with low labor costs or where mechanization was achieved in time. The Almond Shaker was one of my favorites. Grabs the tree by the trunk and just shakes the almonds off. Great fun to watch.
But today is Grape Harvester Day. That one was very hard. Traditionally each grape cluster is cut with a short knife from the stem and placed in a box. The boxes carried by hand to a bin, then the bins taken to the crusher (juice or wine) or the packing shed (table grapes). If handed too roughly, the grape doesn’t make it to the end of the line. Only the ripe clusters were picked and you would pick a field several times.
Well, as with all things mechanically harvested, part of the work goes into making varieties that ripen “all at once”. This is one of the Big Problems with commercial seed production today. Varieties best in a home garden are often heirlooms that produce a little each week over a long growing season (so you don’t need to preserve as much). Varieties best in a mechanical farm are the ones that ripen as close to ‘all the same day’ as possible so one pass with the crew and machine and then you plough under and plant something else. (Or for grapes, wait for next season and get on with the wine making).
The other work goes into things like ways to prune the plant for easier mechanical picking, how to separate leaves, twigs, and bugs from the stream of picked fruit, how to prevent breakage of fruit, etc. etc. It takes a while, but eventually all those bits get worked out. Then you fire the pickers.
These folks are just one of several mechanical grape harvester makers. It is no accident they are located in Fresno California, where Cesar Chavez “organized” the grape pickers of the California valleys:
AGH is the leading manufacturer of grape harvesters and related equipment in the Western Hemisphere. Our Spectrum and Quantum grape harvesters accept a variety of picking mechanisms so, nearly all vineyard terrains, trellis types and grape varieties can be gently and effectively harvested.
AGH is dedicated to providing today’s grape growers and custom grape harvesters with top quality and productive equipment they need to compete in our demanding industry.
AGH is located in Fresno, CA. Please call us at 800.786.4232.
How many thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of Mexican Farm Workers were sent packing back to Mexico thanks to Cesar Chavez? I doubt we will ever know, but the number is huge. Thanks to my personal history of growing up during the era of the Migrant Farm Worker and knowing them personally as friends (and occasionally working along side them, picking pumpkins, peaches, etc.); it pains me greatly to wonder how many had the grand dream of the North shattered by ‘no work today’ signs as the machines started to take over.
The Wiki puts the peak near 1959 / 1960 at 437,000:
Today, thanks to Cesar Chavez and his push for high farm wage rates, we have machines employed nation wide picking tomatoes, pumpkins, almonds, grapes and so much more. Last time I drove by, I saw no sign for the Migrant Labor Camp. I suspect it is long gone. The only reference to it I found on line was a paper written in 1964 about the education offered in the summer there by a local college. Average attendance 68 and classes ‘at all levels’. So with the demise of that camp, also gone is that free education.
So was this a good thing, or a bad thing?
IMHO, we can’t really know. It depends on what replaced it. Are those ex-Braceros now working their own farms in Mexico and shipping produce north, instead of people? Do they have a permanent home now? Did the White Trash “move up and out” into real homes in the communities? Or are they the urban Welfare Ghettos of today? I don’t know what happened to all those folks.
What I do know is that the conditions for migrant farm laborers was tough. Then again, my Dad was all of about 15 years out of the army and had “walked across France” so didn’t want to see it again. He had arrived in California in a “Beat up old Chevy with 50 cents in his pocket” and got a job on a construction site. 2 kids and wife arriving in a car with no home, working with his hands. Now where did I hear that scenario before?…
So I don’t see that things were all that much worse for the guys in the late ’50s and early ’60s than they had been for my Dad in the late ’40s. I have a hard time “talking dirt” about something that is a matter of family pride to us now. My Dad was very proud of starting, literally broke, and ending up owning 4 rental houses and semi-retired with them as his retirement.
Now we’ve cut off that first rung of the ladder. Now those folks are told “Don’t Come!” in the first place, or are placed on dead-end welfare if they are already here. I’m not hearing a lot of success stores that start with “First we sat at home and did nothing” or “Mom dutifully collected her welfare check every week”. There may be some out there, but it isn’t the kind of thing folks ‘talk up’.
For many Mexicans, the “ladder of success” starts, now, with importing or dealing drugs from Cartels in Mexico. This is an improvement how?
But at least the machines are fully employed and our farmers are now some of THE most productive in the world and with the lowest labor usage.
So, for today, join me in celebrating that little bit of positive out of all this. We can enjoy the stories of success and perseverance, of triumph and invention, on this, Mechanical Harvester Day. Thank you Cesar Chavez, for making our farms so productive and replacing those teeming hundreds of thousands of Mexican Farm Workers with machines. I hope your remaining 8.000 UFW members are celebrating their status as survivors today. It is quite a “legacy” for Cesar Chavez, and we ought to celebrate it today.