I could have told them this experiment wouldn’t work

When I was in high school, and also part of college, I spent my summers working in a wholesale nursery as a menial laborer. It was all stoop labor — “there’s 10 acres of pots of kinnikinnick, go weed them all” — and of course once you finished it all, you’d start over again because a new crop of weeds was sprouting. So I spent long days in the sun, bent over, scraping popweeds out of containers. It’s not a job I’d wish on anyone, but it’s partly how I paid for college.

Now I’m reading that, in 1965, the US government had a brilliant idea for replacing those darned Mexicans who were doing all that farm labor: pay high school students to do it for minimum wage. Thousands of students took the offer.

He remembers the first day vividly. Work started before dawn, the better to avoid the unforgiving desert sun to come. “The wind is in your hair, and you don’t think it’s bad,” Carter says. “Then you go out in the field, and the first ray of sun comes over the horizon. The first ray. Everyone looked at each other, and said, ‘What did we do?’ The thermometer went up like in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. By 9 a.m., it was 110 degrees.”
Garden gloves that the farmers gave the students to help them harvest lasted only four hours, because the cantaloupe’s fine hairs made grabbing them feel like “picking up sandpaper.” They got paid minimum wage — $1.40 an hour back then — plus 5 cents for every crate filled with about 30 to 36 fruits. Breakfast was “out of the Navy,” Carter says — beans and eggs and bologna sandwiches that literally toasted in the heat, even in the shade.
The University High crew worked six days a week, with Sundays off, and they were not allowed to return home during their stint. The farmers sheltered them in “any kind of defunct housing,” according to Carter — old Army barracks, rooms made from discarded wood, and even buildings used to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II.

I think you can guess what happened. Students quit in droves after only a few days. Others held strikes. The whole program was declared a failure, not just because the kids wouldn’t do it, but because they were pointing out the horrible working conditions and pitiful wages that were inflicted on desperate migrant workers…conditions and wages that still apply.

Clearly, the lesson is that we should hire anybody, migrant or not, and that they should be paid an hourly wage that reflects the value of their labor.

I only stuck with that kind of work because I was desperate, and even then my parents were housing and feeding me so all of the cash could go straight into my college fund.


  1. Bruce says

    Apparently, the first rule of being a boss is: don’t participate in capitalism if you don’t have to. The owners have no desire to pay free market rates for labor, which would increase the labor supply to meet the farmers’ demand for laborers. They claim to want capitalism, but they really prefer to be able to exploit workers and not pay a market-competitive wage. That’s why they always prefer powerless workers, whether students or immigrants.
    Farmer claims of labor shortages are the equivalent of other people complaining that there’s not enough free stuff out there. Too many farmers just want something for almost nothing, if they can exploit workers. If the employers paid enough, maybe there wouldn’t be a labor shortage. Maybe those jobs are worth $25-$30 per hour? I wouldn’t do it for that little, so why should anyone else? Make your workers an offer they can’t refuse, and I don’t mean exploitation any longer.

  2. microraptor says

    My mom made me get a summer job picking berries one year. It sucked. It was hot, and you got paid something like twenty five or thirty five cents a flat, which took a long time to fill, especially after the first round when the easy to spot berries were gone.

  3. anxionnat says

    My first year of graduate school (mid 1980s) I had a state fellowship that paid my fees, but that was literally all the financial aid I had. No TA or RA position–nothing. Now, I’m from a working class family that’s always valued education. I was the first in my family to actually go to grad school. So, my parents gave me about $100 a month, but I had to make up the rest by working. I got part time jobs at local hotels as a maid. Yep–scrubbing toilets. To my family, all work has dignity, so it didn’t particularly bother me that I was doing those jobs. Until my advisor asked me how I was making financial ends meet. So I told him. He was horrified! He said something about how it was beneath a grad student to do the work I was doing. (An upper middle-class white male privilege, I thought.) Anyway, my second year, he put pressure on another department to give me a TA job, which he sputtered was “much more fitting.” Later, when I’d passed my orals and actually was supposed to be starting field work for my dissertation, I was told by my committee that I’d have to hire someone with a gun permit to protect me when I was doing the field work because “it was unsafe” for me to be out in the field alone. I told my committee members that I couldn’t afford to hire anyone on a TA stipend. One of my committee members said, “Well just take it out your trust fund interest.” Really! That’s what she said. She looked extremely puzzled when I told her that I didn’t have a trust fund. She was equally shocked that I’d worked as a maid that first year. Because I couldn’t afford hiring an armed guard, that put paid to my efforts to finish–or even start–my PhD research. This was at a state university, but the attitude towards working class students is probably similar at most colleges and universities: we don’t belong.

  4. kudayta says

    So a little off topic, but a few years ago I walked past PZ Myers outside of some dinner being held for humanists. I nodded and said hello, and he nodded back and continued on his way. I sincerely doubt he remembers this, but I noticed he had balled a fist (I’m a big and creepy looking guy, it’s a common response when men see me). Dr. Myers is not a dude you want to pick a fight with, his forearms are carved out of wood.

    Now that I read this story about his summer job, I know why his arms are built like hydraulic pistons.

  5. starfleetdude says

    I remember showing up as a college student trying to make ends meet to detassle seed corn, along with a bunch of younger high school students. I had a clue about such things and showed up wearing a long sleeve denim shirt, jeans, and a hat with a wide brim. And had good gloves too. The high school students were mostly wearing shorts and t-shirts. As you might guess, the rough edges of the corn stalks did a number on them, not to mention the sunburn. It paid $6.50/hr back in the 1980s, not a bad wage really, and if you stuck it out and worked hard you got a 50 cent an hour bonus.

    I also saw other crews of migrant workers in the fields and learned they got paid $4.50/hr, so there’s that.

  6. anbheal says

    It’s also the only employment sector where it is ILLEGAL to apply workplace safety rules and it is ILLEGAL to pay overtime. It’s almost as if Congress knows it’s not a place white people get near.

  7. chrislawson says

    I wouldn’t say the experiment failed. It was a great success in the sense that the agricultural sector learned that you can’t treat people that badly and expect them to work for you…unless they are desperate, like say illegal immigrants or unemployed people in a country with little in the way of a social safety net.

  8. jrkrideau says

    @ 1 Bruce
    Too many farmers just want something for almost nothing, if they can exploit workers.

    Not necessarily. Too many middle men want something for almost nothing because the consumer does not want to pay a fair price for groceries.

    You must remember that the farmer is in a buyer’s market. He is not setting his selling price. Well he can, and if he wants a high enough price to pay a market-competitive wage and stay in business, he cann watch his crops rot in the fields.

    I am not suggesting that all farmers are going to turn into philanthropists, and many could do a lot better by their labour for probably minimal costs right now, but if you want farmers to pay market-competitive wages, and they should, then you are likely to see a 20% hike in your food costs.

    As far as I can see it, the only way farmers could afford to pay market-competitive wages is by government legislation. If every farmer must pay a market-competitive wage then there is no competitive advantage to any other farmer and the middlemen and consumers must suck it up and pay more for the product.

    Otherwise, as Tabby points out this is capitalism.

  9. jrkrideau says

    I wonder how much of the US economy would collapse if Trump really meant to deport all illegal refugees? I don’t see a lot of hope for the field crops in California.

    Hotels having to pay decent wages for cleaning staff?

    Trump’s golf courses?

  10. John Morales says


    I wonder how much of the US economy would collapse if Trump really meant to deport all illegal refugees?

    I appreciate the sentiment you express, yet I can’t help but notice you’ve been conditioned to use term “illegal refugees”, as have so many others.

    (Do I need to unpack that?)

  11. rcs619 says

    There have actually been a few attempts like that over the decades, and they all tend to end in similar, unambiguous failure. Americans just won’t do that kind of work (and I don’t blame them). I know the talking point is “Illegals are taking advantage of us!”, but they’re often the ones getting taken advantage of, since they have no legal recourse.

    Agricultural work really needs to be the first thing that gets given over to the robots when the tech gets up to snuff. Americans won’t do the work, and employing illegal aliens is not only against the law, but also often predatory and unfair to the aliens themselves. Let some cold, unfeeling machine do it instead.

  12. unclefrogy says

    as long as I have been alive and aware there has been the issue of immigration and how we have to fix it. The big not surprise in all that time we still have the same situation or one so similar that it makes no difference.
    agricultural work is some what a separate issue, as long as there is a demand for cheap exploitable powerless labor there will be immigration issues, there is never going to be any reform that is going to do away with “the problem” .
    the issue is only used to get votes that in the end is the only thing that really happens or is likely to happen.
    Democratic effective trade unions world wide would go a long way toward eliminating one of the root causes of immigration problems, Climate change and war and persecution are a little harder.
    uncle frogy

  13. says

    What they [Democrats and Republicans] truly advocate is Socialism for the rich and Capitalism for the poor.


    Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that Capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor both black and white, both here and abroad.

    —Martin Luther King Jr., “The Three Evils of Society”, August 31, 1967

  14. robnyny says


    I detasseled corn for seven summers in high school and college. A few points: (1) At least it was not stoop work. In fact, it was better if you were tall. I was 6’1″ when I was 12. (2) There is a technique that makes it much easier: Grasp the tassel, lock your elbows, and rise up on your toes to pull it out. Your legs are stronger than your arms, and with experience you can integrate the motion into walking. (3) The fast workers got to wait for the slow workers to finish a row. So we fast ones got to stand around nearly half of the day. That is not true for so many field workers. (4) We got paid time-and-a-half after 40 hours or in rain storms, and double time if it rained on Sundays. We worked on days when hundreds of cattle in the county were being killed by lightning, but for an extra $2.25 an hour!. (5) A lot of the workers were on work-release from the local jail. You learn how to get along with everyone. (6) Some of the girls crews got to ride in contraptions attached to tractors, and were both elevated, and didn’t need to trudge through the rows.

    For those who don’t know, corn detasseling is a way of producing hybrid seed corn. Row A has one strain of corn, and Row B has another. But the tassels of Row A must be pulled out and discarded so that only Row B pollen is available to fertilize. Basically, we’re castrating corn stalks.

  15. jrkrideau says

    @11 John Morales
    Duh, stupid wording to put it mildly.
    What is the US term, undocumented residents?
    I don’t speak fluent American.

  16. says

    My dad once remarked on taking a job picking cotton in south Texas. He quit after one day. Much later, I worked in a retail nursery for about 1 week before quitting. These are not easy jobs and I admire the people who do them. But … perhaps they have no choice but to put up with it.

  17. says

    Second generation Mexican American here. My mother did agricultural work, and so did some of my cousins. My sister and I didn’t, and none of the younger cousins have. At worst, we can get other minimum wage jobs.