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Farm-labor crisis comes full circle

During WWII, schools closed so kids could harvest berries


The Bilderbacks
Farming is a nerve-wracking business year-round, but spring is particularly difficult with the beginning of the planting season.

This year might be trickier than usual as farmers face the spectre of a potentially record-breaking drought, along with changing immigration rules that could affect their workforce.

Farmers in the 1940s certainly could relate to both problems.

By the time World War II broke out, the farm-labor crisis had been brewing for several years. Local growers had always relied on child labor to harvest certain crops, including berries. As cultivated acreage grew in the 1920s and 1930s, farmers hired children as young as 6 to help keep up the pace, competing with canneries for child and seasonal labor.

Many local landowners gave up on farming and sold their farms or leased them to Japanese tenant farmers.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, plans were drawn up to send Japanese-Americans to internment camps. By March 1942, with internment a virtual certainty, the War Department still demanded that the Japanese farmers plant crops and prepare berry fields, although they would not be around to harvest them. By the time the harvest came, the Japanese farmers were locked in faraway camps, many young men were in the military, and Washington County found itself with a full-blown labor crisis.

Farmers clamored for farm bureaus and state agencies to encourage migrant workers from Mexico to pick up the slack, but those efforts would take time, and berry growers needed help immediately.

News-Times owner and publisher Hugh McGilvra launched a campaign to close every school in the county and bus the children into the fields instead. Before long nearly every school in Washington County had agreed to the plan, but farmers still couldn’t harvest all the berries, which happened to be a bumper crop that year.

Walnut growers faced a similar labor shortage, and Pacific University students cancelled Homecoming festivities to work in the orchards.

Mexican workers — some already in California — were reluctant to come to Oregon, but farmers raised money to bring them up. The next year, Gov. Earl Snell signed a letter to be run in Mexican newspapers, saying, “We would consider it a privilege to welcome you back to this state.” More Mexicans eventually arrived and farmers survived the war years.

When the war ended in 1945, some local residents demanded that the Mexican workers leave and that the Japanese not be allowed to return. Although others rallied around both groups, the ranks of Japanese farmers did not return to pre-war levels and labor shortages remained a problem.

Then in 1948, California experienced one of the worst droughts in state history. In March, migrant workers from the Golden State came to Oregon in record numbers. “Though the influx seemed to indicate a surplus in farm help,” the News-Times reported on April 1, “it is yet too early to know what the situation will be.”

By summer, the answer was clear. Although the drought had limited Oregon’s crop somewhat, the top headline in the June 17 News-Times still blared “Labor Crisis Hits Berries.” Yet again, urgent pleas were sent to California and Mexico, begging even more workers to make the trek to Oregon.

By the 1950s, fewer families were willing to let young children work in the fields and canneries, and more young adults found more permanent and comfortable work in the burgeoning post-war suburbs. New, advanced farm machinery picked up some of the slack. But going forward, farmers sensed that worrying about both the weather and the labor force would be an annual rite of spring.



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