Working in the shade, and always in shadow.

Have you ever been curious about those long, vertically slatted, empty-looking barns near Bradley Airport and lining the riverfront of Glastonbury? In case you weren’t aware, they’re tobacco barns, for drying the shade-grown tobacco (yep, that’s what those ghostly canopies in the fields are for) that has been a central crop in the Connecticut River Valley for over a century. Connecticut History has a great piece up about the history of Connecticut tobacco culture, and the labor sources (young southern black students, among them a young Martin Luther King, Jr.) that supported it during the twentieth century.

Tobacco barns near Hartford, CT.
Tobacco barns near Hartford, CT.

The intertwined stories of race, class, and farm labor in America continue to be both incredibly significant and the great invisible aspect of current movements around farms, food, and agriculture. From the days of Carey McWilliams, Dorothea Lange, and John Steinbeck, to the era of Harvest of Shame (which you may now watch in its entirety here), to the United Farm Workers and the lettuce and grape boycotts of the ’60s and ’70s, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, social commentators, labor advocates, concerned consumers, and workers themselves have repeatedly attempted to draw Americans’ attention to the plight of those who tend, fertilize, cultivate, pick, and process our foodstuffs here at home. But, despite these efforts, Americans on the consuming end have generally failed to latch on to farm labor issues as a lasting cause and concern, even while they have become more conscious of the health problems associated with certain types of industrial agriculture and our modern food system.

Part of this is related, I think, to how, at least in the last few decades, movements around food have been consumption-side rather than production-side: they have focused on the ways in which the American food system is contributing to the ill health of those eating processed foods. The most well known of these critiques today is the one Michael Pollan lays out in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. (To be fair, Pollan has acknowledged criticism for his focus on the consumer, and replies that he does talk about labor issues more in his shorter pieces for such publications as the New York Times Magazine. You can see him respond to historians about these and other issues at the recent AHA meeting here.) There’s been some great historical work lately on health, environment, and labor in the food industry — Linda Nash’s Inescapable Ecologies springs most immediately to mind — but I would guess that the average Whole-Foods shopper is not thinking about the labor that produced his or her purchases as much as he or she is about what is most healthy or safe for his or her family. Indeed, as an NPR interview this morning reminded me, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey is staunchly anti-union, and has a new book out about what he calls “conscious capitalism” — a great reminder of the diverse set of ideologies and beliefs that intersect and find common ground in today’s food movement (and, as my friend and colleague Andrew Case will remind me, that have long latched on to food and health concerns, J.I. Rodale being just one example).

What is perhaps most interesting to me about the article on Connecticut shade-grown tobacco labor is the way it sheds light on how enduring ideas in this country have been about the suitability of certain people and certain bodies to particular kinds of farm labor and the tending of specific crops: the notion that black students from the South, for example, were perfect for harvesting Connecticut tobacco. These ideas have a long history that goes back to the colonial period, when European settlers were uncertain whether their own bodies could survive in the environment of the New World, and believed that a process of “seasoning” European bodies to these new conditions was required before they could thrive. Like plants and other organisms, humans needed an adjustment period when being transplanted from their natural environment to another, foreign one. (Some good books that deal with this process are Joyce Chaplin’s Subject Matter and Conevery Bolton Valencius’s The Health of the Country.)

Farm workers harvesting tobacco and fitting leaves into bulk curing racks being pulled by tractor.
Harvesting tobacco in North Carolina (n.d.), Agricultural Extension and Research Services, North Carolina State University Libraries, Digital Collections.

A corollary to these notions of bodily adjustment, seasoning, and environment was the idea that other bodies — most notably those of Native Americans and Africans — were better suited to the climates and conditions of the American continent. These peoples also possessed knowledge that Europeans required in order to thrive not just physically but economically as well: knowledge about plants, animals, the cultivation of particular crops chief among them. Southern rice culture was successful largely because of the knowledge of African slaves — and, of course, their labor. What is perhaps most striking about the development of agriculture in what would eventually become the United States is how utterly dependent its earliest practitioners were upon the knowledge and labor of subjugated peoples. The appropriation, or at least the control, of that knowledge went hand in hand with the control of those bodies. (A work that deals with these connections among labor, power, race, and knowledge is Andrew Zimmerman’s excellent Alabama in Africa.)

The legacy of slavery is the much more well known dimension of these enduring associations between peoples and plants. Many plantation owners believed that blacks were constitutionally suited to the field labor involved in cotton cultivation, tobacco culture, and rice harvesting. These beliefs were not confined to the South: ideas about who should cultivate what crops, and, perhaps more importantly, who should be able to own land, were everywhere in evidence. California’s exclusion acts barred Chinese and Japanese immigrants from owning land, and this legislated discrimination continued into the 20th century. The South was, of course, riddled with continued discrimination upheld by statute and enforced through both economic subjugation and threat of bodily harm. Tenancy was a huge problem there; the exploson of migrant labor in the 1920s and ’30s, as agricultural depression hit the nation in the wake of World War I, became a national concern, and prompted the exposes of the FSA photographers like Lange, and the books of Upton Sinclair, Carey McWilliams, and John Steinbeck. While the groups of people who do the labor have shifted in the intervening decades, the problems, to a frightening degree, remain the same.

The connections between knowledge and labor here are of particular interest to me. In my own research on 4-H, I’ve encountered such amazing documents as extension reports from Montana that discuss how counties are utilizing the labor of Japanese and German POWs to bring in the sugar beet crop: the Germans were of particular use to beet growers, as Germany had pioneered sugar-beet cultivation and processing, and many of them were familiar with the crop and the methods required to harvest it properly. County agents remark upon how useful this knowledge is to them. The labor and the knowledge are never far apart.

I think it’s important to remember these intertwined stories of race and labor when we think about our food system today — for, as Pollan admits in his comments at the AHA, when you pull on one thread of the problem, you find that you’ve ended up grabbing a whole snarling mess. Food and eating are connected to growing and farming which are connected to the environment and the health of everyone, not just consumers; human and environmental health are connected to labor conditions; these, in turn are connected to how we organize space and the geographies of inequality in our nation, which are the result of historical processes that have to do with land tenure, property law, and the legacies of racism and oppression. As we approach the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend, let us be conscious of the ways in which justice may be enacted in our country, and how connected our actions are, not just as individuals, but as groups and communities, to the lives of all our fellow citizens.


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