Sorting cherries … and making sense of migrant labor in Michigan

Migrant girls working in cherry canning plant Berrien County, photo by John Vachon

February is National Cherry Month and back in the day (July of 1940 to be precise), the cherry sorting machine was any able body that could tell the difference between a good and bad cherry as they sped past.

Agriculture is a vital part of the northern Michigan economy, and the League of Women Voters in Leelanau County has released an interesting study on migrant worker visas. They study contends that although the care for and harvesting of crops is a critical, labor-intensive aspect of our agriculture, Michigan workers aren’t stepping up to fill seasonal agricultural jobs, risking closure or bankruptcy for farmers and processors. The study notes that it’s an issue that’s been with us for years:

Seasonal workers have been essential to the operation of area farms since the transition from subsistence farming in the early 20th century. Agriculture was the principal livelihood for Michigan residents throughout the 1800s, but by the turn of the century, the Industrial Revolution was transforming agriculture from a small, self-sufficient family art to a large, mechanized, scientific industry. The tractor, the telephone, and the automobile revolutionized cultivation, communication, and transportation, and rural isolation was broken. Although farm conditions improved, people left the farms in droves and resettled in the cities. Rural depopulation became so severe during the 1920s that many farmers and growers had to import migrant labor.

The need for migrant labor has ebbed and flowed over the years. World War II was the catalyst for the Bracero Program, which from 1942 to 1964 brought Mexican migrant agricultural workers to the US legally. The program increased Michigan’s reliance on Mexican farm workers for harvest, and when the program ended, many workers continued to work in US agriculture.

Some crops like cherries have become largely mechanized, but apples, wine grapes and many other crops still have to be harvested by hand. Check out Migrant workers and Michigan agriculture on Absolute Michigan for a lot more about a critical issue for our farms and farmers.

You can get this photo background bigilicious and click to view the Michigan cherries gallery at the Library of Congress and you can also have a look at UpNorth Memories cherries slideshow.

The article on photographer John Vachon from the LOC’s American Memory Project says that his first job for the Farm Security Administration held the title “assistant messenger.” Vachon was twenty-one and had no intention of becoming a photographer when he took the position in 1936, but as his responsibilities increased for maintaining the FSA photographic file, his interest in photography grew. A memoir by his son quotes Stryker as telling the file clerk, “When you do the filing, why don’t you look at the pictures.”

Good advice.

One thought on “Sorting cherries … and making sense of migrant labor in Michigan

  1. We had migrant workers from Mexico in the 60’s,,,,,,,,,this pic is a great reminder of that time,,,,,,,Thanks, those workers really worked hard!


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