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Those weren’t his exact words, but that was Dad’s advice. He was often a source of wisdom, but not that time in the summer of 1967. It was actually more than advice. He pretty much insisted on it. So as dutiful sons my brother and I went west (actually a lot more north than west) to Grafton, North Dakota, to join the student work crews in the sugar beet fields. I stayed only a few days, then got on a bus and went back home to reclaim the much better summer job I had left to go there.
My career in the beet fields consisted of about one day of actual work, and maybe not even that. That was part of the problem. We didn’t work when the weather wasn’t right. But I calculated that even though the weather would improve and I would get better and faster (it was piecework) there was no way I’d make the kind of money we had been told that students were making. I’d be better off going home to Mom’s and Dad’s place to try to get back in my job as a construction laborer.
That hadn’t been full-time work, either, and was also somewhat weather-dependent. But at a little higher than minimum wage the pay was better and the prospects were better yet. The construction work was also a lot more interesting and sociable. I decided to exercise my own judgment over Dad’s. And despite Dad’s misgivings as I worked my way back into my old job, my decision turned out to be right. In addition to the pay, the experience on the concrete and masonry construction crew, four summers worth, had lifelong benefits.
It wasn’t until after Mom and Dad died in 2015 that I began to learn the historical context of the short episode in the beet fields. The whole story, as I now like to tell it, connects to a family history that goes back to Moscow, Russia, the growing of sugar beets with migrant workers in Germany and Poland, and perhaps even to the Decembrist Revolt of 1825. I won’t go into all that here, but digging into that history led to my learning about migrant labor in North Dakota’s Red River Valley and the source of Dad’s advice.
I had heard many times that before coming to America my grandfather’s grandfather had been a foreman in a sugar beet field. Now I got to wondering to myself, “What kind of a job was that? Was it even a real job?”
Well, it certainly was a real job. The sugar beet business had got its start a little further up the Oder River region from the village where he had moved his family, motivated by the desire of the Prussians to have a source of sugar that wasn’t controlled by Great Britain. Growing sugar beets was very labor-intensive. Even a century after my great-great-grandfather brought his family to America it still required a lot of manual labor. That meant migrant workers were needed from places like Italy (at first) or more likely Poland by the time my great-great-grandfather was working. And that required considerable field supervision from planting through harvest, across a language and cultural barrier.
I don’t know how much it would have involved my great-great-grandfather, but there were some of the migrant labor issues we have now in the US. The Prussian locals were generally glad to have migrants come and do the work they didn’t want to do, but wanted them to go home when the work was done rather than stay and be a burden on the social service system.
My great-great-grandfather eventually left his foreman job. He had a large family and wanted to do better. He intended to buy his own farm, but prospects for that weren’t good in Prussia, so he brought his family to Minnesota and got a 160-acre farm under the Homestead Act of 1862.
I was amused to learn that although he got away from sugar beets, sugar beets eventually followed him to Minnesota. He is buried in the corner of a cemetery right next to a farm field where sugar beets are part of the rotation.
One of his younger sons (my great-grandfather) had a very different, indirect involvement with sugar beets. He was one of those persons who always had to be moving on and trying something new. After working at various jobs he inherited his father’s Minnesota farm, then sold it and moved to town where he did law enforcement work and ran a steam threshing operation during harvest seasons. Then he took the family to North Dakota where he filed and proved up on his own homestead (as did two of his own sons, including my grandfather, when they became of age).
In the 1920s, when all his children were grown, he sold his farm in central North Dakota and took his wife to south Texas to buy a new farm and grow citrus fruit. He and a few neighbors had been attracted there by citrus-industry promoters.
That didn’t work out for these North Dakotans, who went back to their old homes after a few years, but it was part of a broader change that was upsetting the lives of Mexican-Americans in south Texas and sending many of them to North Dakota for temporary work in sugar beet agriculture, which was just getting started in the Red River Valley of the North.
Anglo and Tejano cattle ranchers had had a paternalistic relationship with Mexican-Americans who worked for them. When irrigation brought vegetable and citrus farming to the region between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, the increased land values caused livestock ranchers to sell out, leaving many workers without their former livelihoods. And many small landowners couldn’t keep up with the tax assessments on the increased value of their land, so they joined the labor force, too. There was work to be had in the spinach fields and citrus groves, but it didn’t pay well and left the workers in a more precarious position than before.
The American Crystal Sugar Company was then contracting with farmers in the Red River Valley of the North to add sugar beets to their crop repertoire. This crop required more manual labor than other midwestern crops. As a rule of thumb, a family farm couldn’t manage more than 20 acres of beets with the help of its own child labor and part-time help from locals. The short growing season meant that there was only one crop per year, and that all the farmers were on more or less the same schedule. They all needed to do their planting at the same time, their thinning at the same time, their weeding at the same time, and their harvesting at the same time. To provide labor during these critical periods, American Crystal arranged transportation and credit for workers from south Texas who would come north and work in the sugar beet fields during those brief but intense periods. It was difficult work but it paid relatively well compared to work available in south Texas.
A three-way relationship among sugar companies, farmers, and betabeleros (as the Mexican beet workers were called) went on for over 50 years, but it was never a static one. Some of the changes over the years included:
- Increased mechanization of planting.
- Increased mechanization of the harvest
- New breeds of sugar beets that required less hand thinning.
- Herbicides and mechanical cultivation that resulted in less hand weeding.
- Periodic changes in immigration from Mexico. Growers often welcomed more illegals because they drove wages down. Those Mexicans who were American citizens or legal residents opposed it because they drove wages down.
- The Braceros program that brought legal temporary workers from Mexico under highly regulated terms and conditions during the period from World War II to 1964. Under the regulations, the braceros got paid for rainy days when there was no work, for example.
- Changes in migrant transportation. In the early days, rail transportation was provided by the sugar companies. Later, as betabeleros started using their own cars and trucks, they were less captive to undesirable work situations.
- The ban on sugar imports from Cuba after the Castros took over.
- Government quotas and price supports, starting with the New Deal.
- Social and political changes that resulted in less discrimination in education in south Texas, and more Mexicans who wanted to stay close to home while school was in session.
- Moves by the state of Texas to hinder and control the recruiting of migrants by agents of the sugar companies.
- Expanded opportunities for Mexicans in both the north and the south to do other work.
- Improvements in housing for a) farmers, and b) migrant workers.
- Growing tension regarding the contract terms between farmers and sugar companies regarding acreage allotments, the fixed cost charged to farmers for the migrant recruiting program, and a lack of sufficient expansion of sugar processing plants to meet farmers’ desire for growth.
- Long downward trends and brief upward movements in the prices for grain and other non-beet crops.
- Increasing public interest and government intervention in the labor conditions and living conditions for migrant workers.
There was always something for everyone to worry about, and plenty of motivation for members of each of the three groups to become less dependent on the others or increase their leverage over them. That’s where teenage student workers came in.
High school workers were tried already during World War II when there was a labor shortage. Even college students were tried at one point during the war, but that effort failed abysmally. Bad weather caused them to quit. I found that interesting because in 1967 I had just finished my first year of college and this work was targeted at high school students. I was less interested in hanging around with a bunch of high school kids than I might have been a couple of years before.
During high school summers, I had worked for local farmers, mostly at hay baling time. But upon going back to school in the fall I would hear other students, even the town kids, talk about their experiences on the student work crews that had gone out to detassel corn. It was intense work just for a brief period, but it paid well and sounded like fun — somewhat of a social activity for both sexes. I would have liked to do that, but I had established a relationship with a couple of farmers as their go-to guy when they needed help. They stuck with me and I was better off sticking with them. And there were others who sometimes had work for me when my main guy didn’t. That work had its social elements, too.
During my brief time in the beet fields, the possibility of social interactions looked pretty dim in comparison.
But a different type of social interaction was a motivator for the student worker program of the 1960s. Not everyone in North Dakota and Minnesota welcomed the Mexicans who were settling in the area as permanent residents. Some locals thought of them as bringing disease (TB rates were high) drugs (marijuana) and crime to their peaceful rural region. In the mid-1950s there were a few high-profile crime cases that got a lot of press and created the impression of Mexicans as a violent people.
This was also a period of national concern about juvenile delinquency in general, and it was thought that work opportunities for local young people would prevent them from going astray. And it was, of course, hoped that they could compete with betabeleros on quantity and price of work. The sugar companies conducted recruitment campaigns and hired high school teachers to supervise work crews.
I wasn’t aware of all these factors at the time. A couple of years ago I asked my younger brother, who stayed for the summer work season, if he had been aware of any Mexican workers. I hadn’t seen any sign of them when I was there. He said his crew never interacted with them, but he was aware that they were around. But he was also aware that the students couldn’t do anywhere near the amount of work that the Mexican migrants could do.
The data bear this out. For example, in 1963 the average student weeded about 4.1 acres, while the betabeleros averaged 23 acres per worker. Similar comparisons are available for other years. Students didn’t make this work a lifetime occupation, so they didn’t get a lot better at it.
Costs and pay rates are a little harder to compare. For example, farmers had to provide housing for the betabeleros but not for student workers. My brother and I stayed with “Uncle Emil” and his wife who graciously took us into their home. In fact, I’m almost certain that’s where Dad’s advice came from. Uncle Emil (Dad’s great-uncle, actually) owned and operated a drive-in hamburger place in Grafton, and was probably connected to the local Chamber of Commerce types who were trying to sell the student worker program and make it succeed, though I didn’t know anything about that at the time.
Grafton was almost the only community in the Red River Valley where the student program worked at all, albeit no thanks to me. Other communities in the Red River Valley tried to emulate Grafton’s success, such as it was, without much success. A few years later the whole program went away.
These days most people who are headed for a career in the academic science industry are advised to spend their high school and college summers doing something to further their careers. My old university workplace offers a lot of programs, many of them with attractive stipends, for promising undergraduate students and even for high school students.
I would advise people headed in that direction to take advantage of those programs. Nothing like a career in ecological science was on my visible horizon when I was starting college. I was on the way to be a Lutheran elementary school teacher, one of the few possibilities I was even aware of. I was gradually learning about other possibilities during my college years, but doing something with my summers other than hustle enough money to pay my board, room, and tuition never occurred to me.
Even so, I am thankful for all the bad advice I got and the good advice I never got. At this point in my life, I can’t imagine having lived without the resulting experiences or wanting to.
Here are some references that I used in learning about the sugar beet industry, migrant workers, and in writing this article:
Moving Europeans : Migration in Western Europe since 1650 (2nd edition, 2009) by Leslie Page Moch.
Growing Sugar: Local Teenage Labor in the Sugar Beet Fields, 1958-1974., by Jim Norris in Agricultural History, Vol. 79, No. 3 (Summer, 2005) pp. 298-320, published by the Agricultural History Society.
North for the Harvest: Mexican Workers, Growers, and the Sugar Beet Industry, by Jim Norris (2009).Published in