By Trudy Wischemann

I saw a movie on Netflix last week that I’d like to recommend: “Mudbound.” It’s about farming in World-War II-era Mississippi, about race relations, about families, about land. 

What hit me first was the brutality of land-owning whites against farm-working blacks at the moment when tractors were just about to replace sharecroppers forever. What occurred to me afterward was the parallel to what we’re going through now, as mechanization replaces laborers in the packinghouses as well as the fields.

Back then, they called it being tractored out. I first heard the term in 1976 when I read An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion by Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange (1939; 1969.) It’s important that I had the first edition in my hands, because it’s designed to reveal the human consequences of the multiple disasters that hit rural people during the thirties. 

The drought and dust were only the beginning. In response, the federal government-initiated relief programs, some of which helped, while some hurt. The provision of tractors through the AAA payments to farmers helped some landowning people, but despite provisions intended to protect sharecroppers and other small farmers, those tractors wiped millions of people, landowning and sharecropping alike, off the land, making them landless.

The first edition includes a photograph from a Jan. 11, 1939 newspaper article under the headline “Evicted Sharecroppers Camp Along Highways in Missouri.” The photo shows groups of people, mostly black, standing next to piles of belongings—stoves, beds, tables & chairs —with mule-drawn empty wagons standing nearby. 

Paul explained: “Plantations of the Delta are coming under the machine. The sharecropper system is collapsing at its advance, and croppers are being cut from the land. In protest, hundreds of families—white and black victims of its devastation—left their cabins in January 1939 to camp along 150 miles of open road.”

“A pattern of mobile labor is developing,” he continued. “The landless cotton worker’s year is being divided into occasional employment by the day on the plantations between May and December, and virtual idleness on relief in the towns from December to May.” He added that white sharecropper families were migrating westward to pick cotton in Arizona and peas in California, but that black families were migrating northward to urban areas instead. 

From these desperate conditions rose the Tenant Farmers’ Union, protesting the lack of enforcement of the AAA provisions intended to prevent this very thing from happening. Years later another union, the UFW, would arise from these same conditions.

Cesar Chavez’s family was tractored out in 1934, when Cesar was only six. His father owned land in the North Gila Valley that his grandfather had homesteaded. A local bank foreclosed and evicted them, refusing to approve the government-guaranteed loan that could have kept them in place. The president of the bank owned land surrounding them and had no interest in seeing them remain. A tractor was brought in to demolish the house and corrals and reshape the land for irrigation. 

Cesar said: “We all of us climbed into an old Chevy that my dad had. And then we were in California, and migratory workers….it was a strange life. We had been poor, but we knew every night there was a bed there, and that this was our room. There was a kitchen. It was…a settled life, and we had chickens and hogs, eggs and all those things. But that all of a sudden changed.”

Six decades later NAFTA essentially tractored out untold numbers of Mexican farmers as well as many of our own. Mechanization of the packinghouses now ongoing is creating a moat against advancement up the agricultural ladder. Like during the emergence of the tractor, you might say this is just the price of progress. But if we included in that price the cost of restoring displaced people to their land and their livelihoods, you might just find the cost of progress is too high.

Trudy Wischemann is a rural advocate who writes. You can send her your tractor tales c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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