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Published March 09, 2009, 08:00 AM

AG AT-LARGE: Historian recounts stories of Red River Valley laborers

FARGO, N.D. — If you’re at all linked to or love agriculture in the Red River Valley, especially sugar beets or potatoes, you should take a few hours and read this new book — “North for the Harvest,” by Jim Norris, a history teacher at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — If you’re at all linked to or love agriculture in the Red River Valley, especially sugar beets or potatoes, you should take a few hours and read this new book — “North for the Harvest,” by Jim Norris, a history teacher at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

For me, this 223-page book ($22.95, Minnesota Historical Society Press, available in local book stores and at amazon.com) fills some knowledge gaps about the underpinnings of sugar beets, one of the region’s most important value-added crops.

The subtitle, “Mexican Workers, Growers and the Sugar Beet Industry,” hints at how the book brings together issues of immigration policies, trade and technology.

The book tells of how Mexican laborers have been used since they came as in the early 1920s — “betabeleros,” the Mexican Americans, primarily from Texas, and the illegals — a half-million of whom were deported in the 1930s. The “braceros” were Mexican nationals, brought in legally starting in the 1940s, in an on-again, off-again immigration policy.

Norris, who teaches Mexican and Latin history, is a native of east Texas. He freely admits that when he came to North Dakota in 1997, he didn’t know a sugar beet from a soybean. No matter. This book is rich with detail and draws heavily from other existing works and talks about the history of the industry into the 1970s, when American Crystal Sugar Co., was purchased by the farmers.

Diversifying sugar beets

The author starts this tale with a primer on agriculture in the Red River Valley from the 1800s into the pre-World War I era, when farmers turned to diversify into sugar beets as an alternative to sinking commodity prices. (Railroad magnate James J. Hill wrongly predicted they’d never make it here — not enough cheap workers here.)

Norris tells how the Mexican revolution in 1910 led to an influx of laborers. This helped lead Crystal to diversify led to the East Grand Forks, Minn., beet factory in 1926.

Initially, seeds came in “balls.” Workers bent down or crawled along, thinning beets and using short-handled hoes and a company official said “every beet plant must be kneeled to.” Harvesting in the fall involved a mechanical lifter, adapted from potato implements, to loosen them. Workers then pulled the four- to eight-pound beets, slapped them together and threw them into rows with tops facing the same direction.

In the 1930s there developments sugar price supports, minimum wages for harvest workers and labor rules to prevent working children 14 years. In those years, Texas was encouraging Mexican nationals to keep wages lower there, forcing Mexican-American citizens to look elsewhere, including the Red River Valley.

In the 1940s, with World War II and sugar demand increasing, worker shortages required Mexicans and other nationalities and German prisoners into the region. With strong demand, some 40,000 Mexicans were brought into the area by the then-corporate American Crystal Sugar Co.

In the 1950s, the company tried to encourage local youths and clubs to replace workers, but they didn’t enjoy it and were never competitive. Locals only ever seemed to do a fourth or a fifth as efficient work as the Mexicans. Norris mixes in tales of the migrant worker housing, about the “patronismo” relationship between growers and workers, about the futile efforts to replace them with locals or with mechanization.

In the 1960s, the elimination of Cuba’s sugar created a need to expand.

Norris’ tale ends in the 1970s, as growers purchased the company and made it a cooperative. Then farmer-owners soon decided to abandon corporate Crystal’s labor recruiting offices in Texas, and growers dealt more directly with laborers, while turning more toward technology that would displace them.