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"Migrant Workers in Washington State: a Boon to the Tree Fruit Industry"


Sons and Daughters of Dustbowl Migrants Pick Fruit in 1970's (Part 1)

  When I started picking fruit in 1970, I was amazed that my fellow workers looked just like the folks Steinbeck had described in The Grapes of Wrath.
I had thought these people had disappeared with the end of the Great Depression, but here they were: large families, often including half a dozen children, working together in the orchard and living in trailers, campers, or tents in the orchard camps. They seemed to be part of a vast migrating network of extended families who picked the nation's fruit. Who were these people? Where had they come from?
  I learned that these workers were the sons and daughters of the Dustbowl migrants that Steinbeck had written about in his novel. Many of them had left the southern states with their parents in the 1930s and had come west, mainly to California, where work was plentiful picking cotton and peas, but also, later, to the Pacific Northwest.
  By the time I met them, some forty years after the dust bowl migration, the Anglo workers who followed the harvest were so proficient that it seemed they had been "fruit tramps" forever, and were destined to remain Washington's primary work force. But by the 1980s, the agricultural work force had changed radically, and by the early 1990s, only a handful of "Okies" still followed the fruit run. There had been other groups of orchard workers before them, and there were to be others after them.


In the 1920's People Packed Their Own Fruit (Part 2)
  In the 1920's, when I was a kid going to high school, quite often the school was shut down for harvest, and if they didn't, a lot of the kids who lived on orchards stayed home and helped the parents harvest. In those days, almost everybody packed their own fruit," recalled Orondo orchardist Grady Auvil.

Native Americans: One of the Earliest Groups of Migratory Workers (Part 3)
  One of the earliest groups of migratory workers in Washington State, particularly in the northern part of the state, consisted of Native Americans. "The Canadian Indians came with their horses and tents and buggies and camped down here while they picked fruit," said Len Wooten, who remembered the early days of orchard labor from his boyhood in Chelan, Washington.

  Indians came from Canada to the Okanagon every year until the 1950s. Auvil, who worked as an orchard foreman in 1928, remembered that he was paid 75 cents an hour, while workers received 40 cents an hour. But all that changed, Auvil said, after the 1929 stock market crash. When the banks collapsed in 1932, wages plummeted: Auvil's wages went down to 25 cents an hour, while the workers received only 15 cents. "So, in order to support ourselves, we worked on a road job that summer and got 50 cents an hour," Auvil recalled.

Okies and Arkies Pick Crops During the Depression (Part 4)
  Wooten also remembered orchard work during the 1930s. "When the Great Depression hit, growers couldn't sell their fruit, and north central Washington was declared a disaster area. Growers were walking away from their orchards." Those who did keep their orchards, could hardly afford to pay their help. Wooten remembers being pulled out of high school and sent to work picking apples for three and a half cents a box.

  Despite the hard times and the low wages, for once, there was no trouble finding plenty of hands at harvest time. There were thousands of people who were destitute and desperate for work. These were the "Okies" and "Arkies," the names attached to the Anglo migrants from the Great Plains, who came from the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, or Texas. A
combination of factors, from mechanization to drought, dust storms, and a depressed economy, had driven these dispossessed families westward to seek employment ...What did these migrants do after the harvest? "For four months, they follow the fruit and are tolerated. But, as soon as the trees and fields become bare and the harvest is done, they are told to move on," Blanchard wrote in 1940. "Local farm help is adequate to care for the fields during the next eight months. Communities, moreover, do not want these poverty-stricken wanderers settling down and becoming a drain upon already sorely taxed school, health, and welfare services."
  Many Anglo migrants, as well as Mexican-American migrants from Texas who worked in the Yakima area, traveled south for the winter months, to work and live in California, Texas, Arizona, Florida, or other states. Yet others did settle successfully in Washington. By 1941 and 1942, while many migrants were leaving farmwork to work in the booming defense industry of World War II, others were just coming to the state to look for work in the orchards. "People came from Arkansas in '42, '43, '44," said Auvil, "and in three years, our school went from 25 to 150, so we had to build new schools."

WWII Labor Shortage Brings Braceros to Work in the Fields (Part 5)
  After the United States entered World War II, everybody went to work in the shipyards and defense plants. The demand for workers was so high that the government initiated a program to recruit braceros--Mexican nationals imported temporarily to work under contract in the fields.
  Although the labor shortage of the 1940s and 1950s was difficult for the growers, migrants tend to remember this period fondly. For workers who decided to follow the crops as a way of life, everything improved after 1941. As the Depression era's oversupply of labor faded from memory, wages rose and pickers were once more in demand. They would leave the orchards of the Northwest in the late autumn and travel to Arizona and California to pick two major crops: cotton and peas.

  Many of the workers I met in the 1970s remembered this period with nostalgia. "I have some good memories from that time," said Dale Jones, who picked cotton in California as a child. "I remember when you could work anywhere. Wherever cotton grew, there was work. You could make good money at it."

Bad Experiences Remembered By Some (Part 6)
  But not everyone remembered the migratory life so fondly. "Cotton was my worst experience," said Gladys Wilson, whose family left Oklahoma in 1940 and picked cotton in Arkansas, Mississippi, and California. "It was always so dusty. One time, Ma made Jello, and it was all covered with dust... We had to travel from town to town. That's why us kids never got much education." Wilson was grateful when her parents started working in Washington State and decided to stay. "We settled down and didn't travel so much when we started picking apples and cherries. We could thin, prop, and prune in the same area."

1940's and 1950's: Search for Seasonal Labor (Part 7)
  Now that there was no longer a surplus of workers clamoring for jobs, growers had to become more resourceful in the 1940s and 1950s to meet their need for seasonal labor. The larger fruit companies regularly sent buses to Spokane, Seattle, or Portland during the harvest season to recruit workers, not only for picking, but also for packing, sorting, and grading the fruit. They tried to make the jobs enticing. "We had our own cooks and kitchens, and served lunches," said Wooten.

  Still, despite the busloads of people brought into the area, the labor problem was far from solved. Many of the transient workers were alcoholics who couldn't handle the demands of the work, and often the buses were almost as full on their return trips to the cities as they had been on their trips to orchard country.

  This kind of recruitment continued into the 1960s. "When I came to this area in 1962, I was managing a big orchard which needed a lot of labor," remembered Ing, "and we chartered bus after bus out of Portland, and the Employment Security Service sometimes helped us round people up, and sometimes we'd send somebody down the night before and get them out of the restaurants.
Early in the morning, we'd load the bus, at four in the morning, and we also got some people out of Seattle. Yakima didn't do that because Yakima is a big enough town that it had a pretty sizeable casual labor group and a pretty good size Skid Row. In fact, we hauled some labor out of Yakima sometimes. People would say, 'Well, here comes another load of wine and flesh.' Of course, sometimes these people were in really bad shape and they couldn't work the first day, and they'd just stay in a cabin, and then some of them became excellent workers, they'd stay the whole season and were just great people."

Hippies Worked in Orchards(Part 8)
  Ing also remembered a nearly forgotten--and often maligned--source of labor: the hippies. They arrived at the orchards in psychedelic painted vans and pickups with cabins built on the back. "There were thousands and thousands of people that went on the road in this country as a kind of a protest against everything...and these kids were out on the road, and they did a lot of work. A lot of them were quite able-bodied young people, and they kind of liked to work next to the soil, and that kind of thing. We got a lot of labor from them...they contributed to the labor supply, and some people used them quite intensively."

Mexicans Became a New Source of Labor (Part 9)
  By the late sixties, there were signs of a significant new labor source: Mexicans. Since the end of the bracero program, most workers from Mexico, and later from Central America, came to the United States illegally. "Yakima, Toppenish particularly, always had a Mexican-American population, people who had immigrated from Texas, and along the border, so there was a large group there who worked in orchards and hops, etcetera," Ing said.

  "But the people we have now, the Mexicans that were mostly illegal, started coming about in the late sixties and early seventies...and I remember the transition. I was managing Mount Adams orchard, a big operation here locally. Well, we ran a cookhouse, and we fed the people, the Skid Row people that we brought in, we had as many as 250 people at a time, and anyway, there came a time then that we had a greater percentage of Mexicans, and so we quit running the cookhouse, and the people cooked for themselves, and there was a transition there all through the industry, where Mexicans became the principal labor force. It started in the late sixties, but it was probably 1980 before the labor force was mostly Mexicans."

Undocumented Latinos Replace Previous Workers (Part 10)
  For the Okies, the people I worked with throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, the influx of undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America spelled the end of a way of life. Suddenly, they couldn't find work in the orchards they had worked for years; they had been replaced. When they could find work, wages were low, families could no longer work together because of child labor laws, and it seemed that employers no longer valued them as much as they
once had.

  Additionally, mechanization of many crops had made the life of a migrant far more difficult. Crops like cotton, peas, and beans no longer required hand labor; even fruit crops like juice oranges were being harvested mechanically. Pickers had become more reliant on fresh fruit crops, but now, with the deluge of workers from Mexico, there were few jobs available. Discouraged and disheartened, many of them left the orchards for other kinds of work. "Most of the Okies and Arkies gave up a long time ago," said Bill Wilson. "There are not many places a white family can work anymore."

  But what was bad for the pickers--a surplus of labor--was good for the growers. The new workers--most of them, at first, males--were eager, and sometimes desperate for employment and money to send back to their families. And by the late sixties, more workers than ever were required to pick apples.

Research Changed Labor Practices (Part 11)
  Researchers had discovered that fruit wasn't being picked at the optimum time, and this, said Wooten, caused a change in labor practices. Once workers picked apples into November; now a grower had only about five days from the time the fruit was ripe to get it off the trees. This meant that a larger supply of pickers were needed for a shorter period of time. Anglo migrants grumbled, but workers from Mexico and Central America, who welcomed what work they could find, proved efficient and cooperative at a critical time. They became the workers of choice. "It would be very difficult if it weren't for them," Auvil said.

More Changes, More Workers Needed (Part 12)
  As the composition of the labor force was changing in the 1980s, so the requirements of labor were once again changing. With the varietals, there was more year-round work, blossom thinning, limb-tying, and color picking orchards several times. The demand for labor was higher than ever, and the employment opportunities began to extend beyond the basic four months. "We hire more people than we ever did now," said Auvil. "We hire as many as we possibly can year-round. A good share of our people work most of the time, anywhere from eight to ten months. You do a better job growing fruit if you have a plentiful supply of good labor."

  As different varieties of apples extended the harvest season and required more hand labor, more workers have been encouraged to settle permanently in orchard areas. Since many foreign workers have been granted temporary or permanent residence status under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, male workers who formerly came north alone began to bring their families, and Latino workers became a more stable force in Washington State's orchards. Like the Anglo migrants before them, they began to establish themselves in the tree fruit industry.

  "Many orchard workers can do pretty good," said Auvil. "These people all have families, good cars, and a good living. A lot of Mexican orchard workers are doing very well, and some of them are going into business for themselves, the same as did the people from Arkansas."

Many Things Had Changed Since the 1920's (Part 13)
  In 1992, picking cherries next to a family from Mexico, I realized how much things had changed. The people I worked near now were no longer from Arkansas and Oklahoma, and the children under16 were no longer allowed to help their families pick fruit. Instead of migrating to California, Arizona, or Florida to pick fruit in the winter, the family that worked next to me returned to Mexico each winter to visit their relatives. They were able to collect unemployment during periods without work --an advantage most Okie migrants never experienced. And they were more settled than most of the people I used to work with: this family had bought a mobile home in East Wenatchee, and the father found enough work in the area to keep him employed for eight months of the year.


Some Things Were Still the Same (Part 14)
  But in other ways, things had stayed the same. Like the workers I talked to 20 years before, the Latino workers liked the outdoor work and the ability to be near their families. Too, they preferred the piece-rate system of payment that rewarded them for working hard, and the seasonal work that provided variety.