They Saved the Crops
Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle over Industrial Farming in Bracero-Era California

Don Mitchell

A MacArthur Award–winning scholar explores the explosive intersection of farming, immigration, and big business


"The bracero program was the ideal business recipe for cheap immigrant labor, cooked up by growers and stamped 'Government Approved.' Mitchell has written the definitive history of the era, which all future studies of California farming and Mexican immigration must build upon. By its archival depth and trenchant analysis, it sets a new standard in the study of farm labor and provides an unassailable indictment of grower power and abuse of workers—all the while expanding the theoretical envelopes of geography, political economy, and labor studies."
—Richard A. Walker, author of The Conquest of Bread: 150 Years of Agribusiness in California

"They Saved the Crops is a tremendous book. It is extremely well written, and it organizes an astonishing amount of material in an innovative way, all the time avoiding the easy simplification so tempting with multi-layered material. Even more important, it couldn't be more timely, insofar as renewed assaults on immigrant workers remind us that 'guest worker' politics is a pot always on the boil."
—Geoff Mann, author of Our Daily Bread: Wages, Workers, and the Political Economy of the American West

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At the outset of World War II, California agriculture seemed to be on the cusp of change. Many Californians, reacting to the ravages of the Great Depression, called for a radical reorientation of the highly exploitative labor relations that had allowed the state to become such a productive farming frontier. But with the importation of the first braceros—"guest workers" from Mexico hired on an "emergency" basis after the United States entered the war—an even more intense struggle ensued over how agriculture would be conducted in the state. Esteemed geographer Don Mitchell argues that by delineating the need for cheap, flexible farm labor as a problem and solving it via the importation of relatively disempowered migrant workers, an alliance of growers and government actors committed the United States to an agricultural system that is, in important respects, still with us.

They Saved the Crops is a theoretically rich and stylistically innovative account of grower rapaciousness, worker militancy, rampant corruption, and bureaucratic bias. Mitchell shows that growers, workers, and officials confronted a series of problems that shaped—and were shaped by—the landscape itself. For growers, the problem was finding the right kind of labor at the right price at the right time. Workers struggled for survival and attempted to win power in the face of economic exploitation and unremitting violence. Bureaucrats tried to harness political power to meet the demands of, as one put it, "the people whom we serve."

Drawing on a deep well of empirical materials from archives up and down the state, Mitchell's account promises to be the definitive book about California agriculture in the turbulent decades of the mid-twentieth century.

Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation

Page count: 576 pp.
50 b&w photos, 5 maps, 6 tables, 3 figures
Trim size: 6 x 9


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Don Mitchell is a distinguished professor of geography at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. He is the author of many books including The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space and The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape.