Delivering the Goods
Growing for the Wider Market
Railroads changed agriculture. As railways linked farms to a wider commercial world, farmers began to grow new crops for markets near and far. Vast wheat fields supplied flour for people around the world. Trains carried cattle and hogs to central stockyards and shipped meat by refrigerated railcars to retail markets across the country. City dwellers could buy fruits and vegetables year-round. Farms became commercialized, often specializing in single crops and became tied to the ups and downs of a national market.
With its rich farmland, Watsonville became a center of produce farming. When the railway opened up new markets, local farmers began to experiment with sugar beets, apples, strawberries, and other cash crops. These new crops were highly labor-intensive, needing a vast army of workers to plant, cultivate, harvest, and pack them. Watsonville growers looked for low cost and temporary field hands. They hired Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Mexican workers to perform the backbreaking work.
Working the Fields
Chinese workers in the field. Courtesy of Sandy Lydon Collection
After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese immigration slowed to a trickle. By the 1890s, California’s overwhelmingly male Chinese population was aging and declining in numbers. Growers began to look for other sources of cheap labor.
Izumizaki family in strawberry field with orchard
Filipino farm workers, Pajaro Valley, near Watsonville, September 1939
Mary Oliver photograph, courtesy of Pajaro Valley Historical Association
Mexican workers, 1960s
Ana Ventura Phares photograph, courtesy of Watsonville Public Library, Shades of Watsonville Archives
What Happened to Farm Work?
Growing for a Wider Market
Railroad companies laid more than 100,000 miles of new track between 1870 and 1890. Along with the development of refrigerated cars, this new network helped create a growing market for fruit and other produce. By the 1880s, Armour, Swift, and other meatpacking companies shipped refrigerated beef around the country. Fruits and vegetables became more widely available. Strawberries from Tennessee, Georgia peaches, Florida oranges, and a cornucopia of produce from California poured into midwestern and eastern cities, feeding America’s expanding urban populations.