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Thursday, March 1, 1990

The Grapes of Opportunity

Hannah, Lapp is a dairy farmer and writer in Cassadaga, New York., This article is excerpted from a book she is writing about her family and their experiences as farmers and farm workers.

“We are go-o-oing down the A-arkansas River Bottom La-ands!” chanted four young girls standing up behind the cab of a ‘59 pickup truck on its way to an Arkansas hayfield. At ages 9 to 16, they were laborers already—field laborers, as was evident by the dark shades of their faces burned in the heat of southern summer. Their plain homemade dresses, some patched or mended, were tossed about by rushing air as the truck rolled along. Skirts and pigtails fluttered, and the spirited childish voices were all but snatched away, but that gave even more reason to sing out loud. Indeed, now was the time to sing, for in a few minutes more the pickup would stop and discharge the girls in a hayfield full of heavy bales to load. Once out of the wind, they’d feel the hot glare of sun in cloudless skies and 100 degree temperatures, which, combined with the strenuous work, would temporarily mute them.

The children were my sisters Lydia, Drusilla, Nancy, and Lavina, working for their own living and for their family. They were migrant workers in the bloom of their youth. The demands of the fields had given them muscles and grit, but alienated them from the world of parties, dances, theater, and dating. The fields and parental guidance had given them something they would not trade for anything else: self-respect, purpose, hope, and contentment. In the fields, you learned reward for labor.

Just the term “migrant labor” conjures repulsive images in the minds of many people who have heard of or seen only such examples portrayed in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The term is often associated with poverty, shame, desperation, and helplessness. What’s frequently overlooked by those enjoying material ease is the fact that happiness isn’t measured only by standard of living, and that poverty isn’t necessarily unfortunate in the minds of those involved. There exists among human beings a wide range in personal attitudes and priorities regarding living standards. Some of this could be attributable to culture, some to personal feelings, and some to the human capacity of adapting to varying circumstances. It is important to recognize that these differences in priorities are normal and acceptable by society.

In our own migrant labor experiences, we were often appalled by the living conditions as well as careless manner of some of the other workers. But we learned through firsthand experiences that pitying them to the point of insisting on change was improper. You could break your heart over them, but they’d go right on singing, joking, and making merry amid their want and filth. For many of them, this was simply preferred over the disciplined, and to them, cumbersome, life of those who plan ahead and save toward ever higher goals. “You guys aren’t happy till you got a million!” one migrant laborer observed of the more well-to-do society. “Well, we just got a dolla’, we satisfied.”

Tell my sister Drusilla that migrant workers are miserable, exploited people, and she’ll draw her lips tight and face you with an ominous shine to the eye. “What are you trying to say?”

You’re telling these people they are not capable of looking out for themselves, and most of them know that simply isn’t the case. Drusilla will understand what you mean when you talk about the physical strain for young children of long hours in the fields. She has felt the aching muscles and fatigue, the heat, the cold, the rain. She has felt the pain of on-the-job accidents; once, a misstep under the weight of a heavy burden of peaches left her with a leg gash that required 13 stitches. Drusilla’s message to those who sit in government offices concluding from such instances that children should therefore not be permitted to work is, “You haven’t got the whole picture.”

Perhaps these people have never felt the demands of the fields and therefore cannot know the joy in completing a task or a day’s work and being able to sit down basking in the bodily relief and mental satisfaction of having reached your goal. When you’re a child, working with the encouragement of a close family, the opportunity to expend great efforts toward your family’s livelihood, and bring in cash toward your joint needs and dreams, does to your sense of worth what almost nothing else can do. To try denying a family this opportunity sadly overlooks the individual desires and potential of a child. It is an insult to his dignity, an insult reinforced by child labor laws that have done today’s youth more harm than the problem they were supposed to correct. I would not make this claim if I had not heard the figures of rising suicide rates among teens, not heard the tales of drug abuse, not seen the emptiness or even utter desolation in the eyes of America’s youth who are being told, “We don’t need you.”

Measuring Happiness

What we need to recognize with children as well as adults is that there are different ways of measuring satisfaction and happiness. For example, sports for youth are viewed by most people as healthy recreation despite being at times extremely stressful both physically and emotionally. Field labor can give children all the envied fitness, fresh air, and chance for achievement as sports. Those individual cases where child labor is used to exploit and abuse children should be dealt with on an individual basis without casting an unfavorable shadow over the general concept of children as wage earners.

The effort to relieve the so-called plight of migrant workers has itself led to injustice by implying that a way of life which seems agreeable to one individual is intolerable to society. In his book, The Ground Is Our Table (Doubleday, 1966), Steve Allen does a good job of degrading the migrant worker by deploring his living conditions and then declaring him a helpless pawn of the farm employer. Some of the practices he laments, such as an eight-year-old picking beans all day, women picking crops at the top of “teetering” tall ladders, and a family using crates and boxes for furniture, are things to which we ourselves can say, “We’ve been there.” And we object to having society bewail our “plight” because of it. The arrogant presumption that every person desires or should have the same standard of living, or that there is such a thing as a universally just level of material comfort, has led to many problems, including the welfare system itself.

Mr. Allen does expose some instances of migrant labor and living conditions that are unquestionably deplorable. What he fails to recognize in addressing the problem is the capacity within an individual to affect his own condition in either a positive or a negative way. Federal programs to solve the problem too often add to the helplessness and degradation of the human beings they were designed to aid. Private measures to relieve poverty are much more effective because they are more likely to encourage individual efforts.

We went to Arkansas, not as migrant workers, but in high hopes of establishing ourselves as a family dairy operation. Strout Realty’s ad for a cheap farm caught Dad’s eye, and the fact that it was located a thousand miles to the southwest didn’t dismay him as it did some of the rest of us. Morn did not resist much, though—Dad% ventures always held the possibility of good fortune.

“A dairy farm,” the realtor called the 50-acre lot set high in the northernmost fringes of the Ouachi-ta Mountains. At one time someone had evidently milked cows in a tiny, simple milking parlor on the place, and mountain plateaus offered a little flat land for farming. Dad was assured that there was sufficient cropland around and that there would be jobs available for the children—although he had to wonder where the jobs were, considering that there were few other habitations for miles around.

It often occurred to Dad during the headaches that followed that perhaps we never should have moved away from our home in Virginia, where we had been able to maintain ourselves well. Yet he knew that his reasons for the change were legitimate. His job on the farm had been fine for just himself, but the lack of work at home for the children made the family wish for a better way: owning our own dairy farm. It was the undesirable part of the migrant work that prompted us to look for something better—and landed us in more of the same.

Back in the summer of ‘66 when Susan was born, Morn could not work away from our home in Clearbrook, Virginia, so Dad obtained three weeks leave from his farm position to take the three oldest girls 80 miles away to produce country in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. When they were inquiring for work at a tomato-packing house, they met Ray Nessone, who would give the children field work through that season and the next. Dad and the girls weeded and picked tomatoes until late September, with weekly breaks at home.

Apple Picking

By apple season in October, More felt she could wean her four-month-old baby and go to Chambersburg. Drusilla and sometimes Lydia accompanied her to the orchards and soon learned to pick as fast as she did. Drusilla built up her muscles, acrobatic skills, and self-confidence in the process of aiming for the highest possible count of bins per day. More was still a little stronger than her daughters and moved the high, heavy, and awkward ladders for them—but she let spunky, 13-year-old Drusilla do the tops of the tallest trees.

The gifts seemed to cope well with heights, perhaps from having had childhood experiences in climbing. Lydia, Drusilla, and Nancy had been just 7 years old and up at the time when they used to help Dad catch pigeons for selling. They went out to neighborhood barns at night when the birds slept, and Drusilla and Nancy learned to climb high up under the barn roofs, hugging big beams with both arms while carrying flashlights in their mouths. Nobody told them they had to do it, but neither were they told they couldn’t.

Apple picking involves a variety of skills, the most crucial ones being the positioning of ladders on springy tree branches and having a good sense of balance. Carrying the monster of a ladder without having it carry you is one step. Then you need a good eye for the proper “set” in the tree, where the ladder will rest against a branch while its legs sit firmly on the ground. Suspender-type straps support a three-quarter-bushel bag against your chest so that you can use both hands for climbing and picking.

You learn constantly to test your ladder’s balance while your hands fly from apple to bag, and you explore the bounds of stretching and leaning from your ladder. Ladders do tip, slide, and flip, so you must have some awareness of the closest good branches to grab in the case of your feet suddenly kicking into thin air. Drusilla learned to deal with a flipped ladder by monkeying down its underside with her hands when she happened to find herself dangling underneath it instead of resting on top. She even unnerved our mother by drawing Mom’s attention to her feat with a spirited “ya-hoo!” as she went.

Apple picking is special the way it’s so rough and so pleasant together. Tree branches whip your face, your shoulders sag from the weight hanging on them, and how your muscles hurt the first few nights after work! But by the time you’re broken in, you’re attached to it. It’s generally less harsh work than tomato picking where you continually stoop, and the occasional wet and cold days of late fall are kinder than the summer heat of tomato season. There are factors like crop condition, weather, and employee management that make the difference of misery or pleasure on the job, and a good worker must take some of both. More and Drusilla sometimes put up with conditions that scared off most of the other pickers, partly in an effort to do their job well, and partly because you’re anxious for work when you’re far from home.

The next year, 15-year-old Lydia led her younger siblings in tomato picking. Early each Monday morning, More took the crew of five or six eager young bread-earners to the shanty at Ray Nessone’s, left a food supply with them, and returned 80 miles home to get the day’s laundry done and serve the rest of the family. On Wednesday night she would make a big kettle of soup, and the whole family would gather together at the shanty for supper, singing, and fellowshiping until it was time for the parents and youngest ones to go back home to Clearbrook.

It was an exciting experience for the young workers to practice fending for themselves, to discover how much money they could make if they worked really hard. Lydia, the crew leader, knew how to keep the younger ones in control while spurring them on with her own good cheer. “It’s time you got up! The eggs are getting hard as bricks!” might come her energetic call at six o’clock in the morning as she made breakfast.

They’d eat their Shredded Wheat, milk, and eggs, wash dishes, and get out to the fields at sunup. The girls’ skirts would get soaked if there was much dew in the morning, for the tomato plants were big, and so were the weeds in some places. There’d be a half-hour lunch break at noon with Velveeta cheese sandwiches, fig-bar breaks in between, and water handy for when they were thirsty. Otherwise, they lost little time.

The sun would become hot as the day advanced, and the weeds more prickly—weeds that were tall enough for a six-year-old like Barbara to hide behind to cry when things got too tough. But Barbara was big and strong in physique for her age, and even stronger in psyche, so she wouldn’t be left out. Sticking with the crew from sunup to “can’t see” most days, she’d aim for her goal of 30 baskets of tomatoes—worth about four dollars. Sometimes she’d make it, and the pride would gush through her being to drown out her aches and pains. The physical drain on her energy would temporarily subdue her, but she’d march pretty tall in the walk home from the fields. Her hands would be almost as green with stain from the tomato vines as her brother Chris’s and her big sisters’ hands, and she’d scrub them long and hard with Mione soap. Even then, there would still be plenty of stain left to show More and the younger ones when they came.

After a supper of potatoes with canned pork-and-beans, the littlest tomato pickers would scrub faces, feet, and legs, and drop right off into good, deep sleep in their bunk bed, so that when morning came they’d be ready for another day.

  • Hannah Lapp is a dairy farmer and writer in Cassadaga, New York.