Farm labor Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The United States is one of the most productive agricultural nations in the world, and its ability to produce food and other cash crops has been a direct function of the labor available and its relationship to the means of production. The southern states in particular have found themselves at various points dependent on slavery and other forms of labor to continue the agricultural productivity underlying their traditional way of life.

The use of some kind of farm labor other than farm owners themselves to help plant and harvest crops has been a part of the agricultural history of the United States from colonial times. Various sources provided that help, which can be divided into at least six categories: indentured servants, both black and white; African slave labor; sharecroppers; immigrant Asian laborers; braceros; and undocumented immigrants.Agriculture;laborLabor;agricultural

Indentured servants

Indentured Indentured laborservitude was a reality in America from early in the country’s colonial era. White laborers–British, Irish, Scottish, and German–emigrated to America, having been guaranteed passage into colonies in exchange for years of hard labor, usually in the fields. In fact, up to 75 percent of the populations of some colonies were made up of indentured servants. Used principally in the Middle Colonies and the tobacco-growing colonies, these “bound” laborers, or indentured servants, were either voluntary or involuntary laborers. Voluntary laborers (redemptioners or “free willers”), bound themselves for terms varying from two to seven years or more in return for passage to America. It has been estimated that from 60 to 75 percent of the total immigrant population until 1776 were of this group. In addition, apprentices–minors who were given training in exchange for services–were considered voluntary laborers.

The involuntary laborers generally fell into one of four groups. Some British convicts were allowed transportation to the colonies to avoid a death penalty. Between 1655 and 1699, forty-five hundred such servants entered the colonies, and between 1700 and 1750, around ten thousand came to Maryland alone, with many others going to Virginia or the West Indies. Convicted criminals, especially those charged with larceny or debt, and victims of kidnapping by overzealous recruiters also became involuntary indentured servants.

Throughout the first half of the seventeenth century, these white indentured servants performed most of the arduous labor of clearing the land and cultivating tobacco crops in Virginia in particular. Thanks to this cheap labor, tobacco quickly became a cash crop, with over 500,000 pounds being exported by 1627. Indeed, it was said that indentured servants’ contributions in the raising of tobacco saved the Virginia colony. The golden age for the indentured servant ended during the mid-seventeenth century, however.

In South Carolina, the decline was due largely to the nature of the work involved in rice production. Rice cultivation is well suited to gang labor, and the hard work in the hot summers in the colonies may have been an important deterrent to those considering migration to South Carolina. The Restoration of King Charles II and the subsequent passage of the Navigations Acts deprived Virginia and Maryland of the free world market they had enjoyed for tobacco, and this, along with other conditions, led to an irreversible decline in the number of indentured laborers.

A new wave of indentured migrants began to arrive in the United States around the 1830’s. These were largely Asian, and, unlike the earlier European laborers, the nineteenth century arrivals received wages, housing, medical care, and clothing. Although these new indentured laborers resembled members of the earlier European labor trade in some ways, there was no historical connection; instead, they replaced African slavery. By the 1850’s, however, holding laborers in indentured servitude came to be perceived as equivalent to slavery, and the Anti-Peonage Act of 1867[AntiPeonage Act of 1867]Anti-Peonage Act of 1867 prohibited both voluntary and involuntary servitude in all states and territories of the United States. Indentured servitude, however, played a significant role both in making the United States successful economically and in populating it.

Slave Labor

Slavery Slaveryin the British colonies began on August 20, 1619, when about twenty Africans were delivered by a Dutch ship to the Jamestown, Virginia, settlement and sold as indentured servants. Although these people did not become slaves immediately, they were the first permanent involuntary African immigrants in what would become the United States. Over the course of the next 150 years or more, however, slave labor came to be the answer to the need for cheap agricultural labor, especially in the South. With the emergence of cotton, first as a small specialized crop in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia and then as the “king” of cash crops, slavery became ever-more important to the southern economy.

Few would have dared to believe that all sectors of the national economy would be transformed by cotton during the early years of the nineteenth century. It quickly became clear that large numbers of slave laborers would be needed to clear the land and plant Cotton industrycotton on new acreage being acquired. Because the Founding Fathers had written into the Constitution a twenty-year moratorium on even considering an end to the transatlantic slave trade, importation continued unchecked into the early nineteenth century. Initiatives by the United States government to acquire additional land, including the Louisiana Purchase, the annexation of West Florida, the purchase of East Florida, and the annexation of Texas, permitted the expansion of both cotton cultivation and slavery. The cultivation of cotton in the United States had a powerful impact on both the domestic economy and international trade as well.

Although cotton was the dominant cash crop under cultivation by slave labor, the slaves raised other profitable crops: sugarcane in southeastern Louisiana; tobacco in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky; rice in South Carolina and Georgia; and corn and wheat in the Shenandoah Valley, the “breadbasket” of the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War. All contributed to the nation’s economic viability and prosperity. However, Reconstruction laws, specifically the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, would bring slave labor to an end, as the rights of citizenship and the vote were enacted for all natural-born Americans.

Sharecropping and Debt Peonage

After slavery fell into disrepute, free-labor plantations came into use. In the aftermath of the Civil War, planters often had to borrow money at high interest rates to produce crops. SharecroppingOne way to be able to work all of the land was to establish a system of agricultural labor whereby a landlord provided a plot of land to a poor agricultural worker or farmer to work in exchange for the sharecropper’s paying the landowner a certain percentage, usually from one-third to one-half, of each crop. Historically, the tenants were both white and black. At one point during the early twentieth century, there were more than 5 million such white laborers and about 3 million black sharecroppers.

During the Dust Bowl era of the 1930’s, the number of white tenant farmers and sharecroppers increased, because so many sold their own farms and began migrating to harvest crops on other farmers’ farms. The system had benefits and costs for both the landlords and the tenants. It assured that the tenant would remain on the land throughout the harvest season, but because the tenant paid in shares of the harvest, the owner was not immune from the effects of a bad harvest. Because sharecroppers benefited from large harvests, they had more incentive to work hard and use better farming methods than did plantation slaves. Debt peonageDebt peonage resulted when a sharecropper’s share was insufficient to repay the landlord for seed and supplies. Sharecropping laws required indebted croppers to remain on the land until their debt was retired. Although there was often a perception that sharecropping was exploitative, the system could be mutually beneficial.

Large-Scale Farming in the West

Between the 1860’s and the 1920’s, farming, especially in California, developed into a large-scale industry that resulted in a series of importations of Asian labor. The first wave of imported workers were Asian Indians, followed by Immigration;ChineseLabor;Chinese immigrantsChinese. By 1876, seven out of eight farmworkers in California were Chinese. Between the 1890’s and 1903, Japanese workers joined the labor force, followed during the 1920’s by Filipino and a few Mexican workers. Thus, Asian Pacific American history is inextricably interwoven with American labor history. These workers planted some of the first crops in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and although they toiled for generations helping build the country, the U.S. labor movement historically opposed including Asian American workers in unions.

A Mexican farmworker holding carrots in Edinburg, Texas, in 1939.

(Library of Congress)

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, supported by labor unions, was the first immigration law in U.S. history to explicitly forbid an entire group based on nationality. Unions;Asian AmericansIn 1903, Japanese American farmworkers in Oxnard, California, along with some Mexicans, tried to form a multiracial union, but when they applied for a charter, they were rejected because of the Japanese American members. In 1934, Chinese and Japanese American workers participated in a strike. During this same period, Filipino workers established the Filipino Labor Union and played a key role in organizing agricultural workers throughout the Central Valley and the number of Mexican workers saw a huge increase. In 1924, the U.S. Border Patrol was created, an act that would have an important effect on their lives and give rise to the term “illegal alien.”

Between 1942 and 1964, because of labor shortages arising from World War II, the Bracero programbracero program was established. Employment;migrant workersUnder this program, temporary laborers from Mexico were brought in to harvest crops; more than 4 million Mexican farmworkers left their own lands and families to chase the dream of a better life in the United States. Their arrival altered the social and economic environment of a number of border towns. Because the contracts were written in English, many workers signed papers without understanding the terms of employment and the rights they were forfeiting. Eventually, the program ended because of gross humanitarian violations by bracero employers. The end of the bracero program was followed by the formation of the United Farm Workers union, and subsequent changes of the American migrant labor system were made under the leadership of César Chávez, a bracero program critic.

Between the 1970’s and 1990’s, many African American workers moved into other industries, and Latin American immigrants became the primary source of labor in agriculture. In 1994, the North American Free Trade AgreementNorth American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was implemented, eliminating nontariff barriers to agricultural trade between the United States and MexicoMexico; the final provisions of the agreement were fully implemented on January 1, 2008. Free trade, as U.S. policyProponents hail NAFTA as one of the most successful trade agreements in history, citing large increases in agricultural trade and investment between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Detractors observe that 2 million Mexican farmers and farm laborers lost their livelihood and were forced off the land by heavily subsidized U.S. farm products being imported to Mexico. Although agricultural workers in the United States have been a disenfranchised group by any measure, the Mexican hand helped the United States become the most lush agricultural center in the world.

Further Reading
  • Buss, Fran Leeper, ed. Forged Under the Sun/Forjada Bajo el Sol: The Life of Maria Elena Lucas. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. The autobiography of a migrant farmworker who endured the struggles and the injustices of such a life, and who grew up to become a champion for farmworkers through organized labor groups. Also a writer, she incorporates some of her poems and a play into the text. Photographs.
  • Eaton, Clement. A History of the Old South: The Emergence of a Reluctant Nation. 3d ed. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1987. Traces the colonial origins of southerners, the evolution of the plantation, the rise of a native aristocracy, and the southern Federalists. Discusses slave labor and later changing attitudes toward slavery. Bibliography and index.
  • Kiser, George C., and Martha Woody Kiser, eds. Mexican Workers in the United States. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979. A collection of essays and brief commentary, organized chronologically, traces the use of Mexican labor from the World War I era through the bracero era of 1942 to 1964. Addresses the illegal Mexican worker and the Mexican commuter situations. Reports on the Mexican Border Industry Program enacted by the United States government.
  • Lewis, Sasha G. Slave Trade Today: American Exploitation of Illegal Aliens. Boston: Beacon Press, 1979. Analyses the reality of slave trade in contemporary times in the United States, pointing out that it is international in scope. Discusses the problems inherent in the undocumented alien labor situation, with employers wanting to reap the financial benefits of hiring illegal aliens, leaving the law-enforcement sector feeling helpless. Suggests ways to addresses the broken system. Extensive list of sources and resources.
  • Northrup, David. Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, 1834-1922. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Compares the different indentured migrations of the nineteenth century and relates their experiences to those of more contemporary migrant groups. Presents indentured labor as a distinct historical phenomenon, not as a continuation of slavery.



Bracero program

Dust Bowl

Farm protests

Farm subsidies

Indentured labor

Plantation agriculture


Slave era

United Farm Workers of America

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