|Thirty years ago, some 1,000 to 1,500
migrant farmworkers came yearly to harvest potatoes in Livingston,
Steuben and Wyoming counties in western New York State. Most were African-Americans, with a scattering of Hispanics and non-Hispanic Whites.
Some came directly from home-base communities in Florida. Others worked
their way up the "East Coast Stream" through the Carolinas and
Maryland into New York, picking strawberries, tomatoes and other crops
along the way. In the late fall, they returned to Florida for the winter
citrus and tomato harvests, some stopping to pick sweet potatoes along
Crew leaders based in Florida recruited family groups and single men to travel the Stream. They provided transportation (often in converted old, battered school buses) and contracted for work with local growers. In any one year, there might be 25 to 30 migrant camp sites, operated by 10 to 12 growers, on back roads in the three-county area west and south of Geneseo,
|In 1969, picking potatoes was hard
"stoop labor," only partially mechanized. Machines dug up the
potatoes, laying them in rows. Workers moved along the rows, bagging the
potatoes, two buckets to a 70-pound bag. The bags were later hand-loaded
onto trucks in the field. Potatoes went from the field to sheds where
other workers hand-graded them as they moved along conveyor belts or
"roller picking tables." Graders were paid hourly; pickers
were paid a piece work wage by the bagful. They averaged 100 bags a day,
but a good picker could fill 200 or even 250 bags.
Dust blew through the potato fields. The days were long, dawn to dusk and very cold by the end of the season in late October or early November. Workers bundled up as best they could, in work gloves, sweaters and caps.
|In the camps, workers slept in small
bedroom units, one to a family, or in larger "bullpen"
dormitories for single men. The communal kitchen or
"commissary" was the bustling and noisy center of camp life.
Workers bought meals from the camp cook, often the crew leader's wife or
another family member, and ate together at long bench tables. Food was
plentiful, filling and "ethnic". Workers could also buy
cigarettes and alcohol on camp.
A juke box or "piccolo" (later, a "boom box") played loudly. In their spare time, groups of men gathered to play cards. When the Center's In-camp education program began in 1970, the commissary became an impromptu classroom. But teaching often had to compete with other social business and with workers' weariness after a long day in the field.