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Syndic Literary Journal

Photo Essay: California Farmworker – Picking Cotton


Photo by John Kouns (c.1965)
This incredible photo of a farmworker – a mule or beast of burden, really – who drags a 20-foot sack with a harness tied to his body. He picks the cotton in a stooped position, stuffs it in the sack he is dragging, but you can see the more cotton he picks and stuffs into the sack, the harder it is to drag along the row. When the sack is full, it will weigh close to 100 lbs. He (or she) will hoist the sack onto his/her shoulders walk a 1/4 mile or more to the cotton bins lined up in the edge of the field, and while carrying the sack, climb an eight foot ladder tilted against the bin, walk out on a narrow plank on top of the bin, shake out the cotton from the sack, then hurry back to the row to continue to pick and drag, pick and drag, until it is full again.
This huge agribusiness industry pays by piece rate: the more hundred pound sacks you can fill and dump into the bin, the more money you can earn. This field labor job required farmworkers to be part mule and part super human – men, women and children.
It does not seem possible even now – many decades after farmworkers were excluded from the protections of the national labor law in 1935 – that with all the civil rights legislation that has been passed, with all the labor laws enacted to protect millions of workers in our country that agribusiness would still be using human labor with such a plantation-like mentality. But why should agribusiness change? These factories-in-the-fields control the jobs farmworkers desperately need to survive and feed their children. Social injustice reigns supreme.


Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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