Two significant milestones in the continuing struggle to bring social and economic justice to rural America will be observed this month. Although they appear at first glance to be unrelated, they nevertheless signify an important joining of forces that history may well judge a turning point in the relationship between family farmers and the men, women and children who harvest our crops.
On Sept. 16 the United Farm Workers will commemorate the 40th anniversary of its strike vote in Delano, Calif., against the local table grape growers. Two days later in Tinley Park, outside of Chicago, Farm Aid will hold its 20th-anniversary concert.
In the ensuing years, both the family farm and farm worker movements have achieved significant victories and achievements, despite being arrayed against the awesome power of corporate agribusiness and their minions in the White House, Congress and state capitols.
It was in an early morning tule fog, signaling another soon-to-be-hot day in California's San Joaquin Valley, when my plane's wheels touched the ground at the Bakersfield Airport. As the plane taxied to the gate I reflected on what had brought me here this day in early October 1965.
My odyssey began just a few days earlier when I had received a phone call from my friend LeRoy Chatfield, a member of the Roman Catholic Christian Brothers' order. On Sept. 16, two weeks prior to Chatfield's call, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) had joined with the Filipino-based Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) union in striking against the table grape growers in Delano, Calif., a town some 32 miles north of Bakersfield. LeRoy, knowing of my interest and articles relating to the plight of the state's farm workers, thought this strike might make for a good story.
Reluctantly I agreed to make the trip, mainly owing to the fact that strikes like these were somewhat a common occurrence and of a short duration throughout the valley.
Alighting from my plane it suddenly occurred to me I had no idea of how I was going to get from the airport north to Delano. Moving across the tarmac I spied a Chicano, short in physical stature, moving toward my arrival. As I stepped through the gate he approached me, a smile on his face, and inquired, "Mr. Krebs?" After I nodded in the affirmative he simply said, "I'm Cesar Chavez."
The bracero program had been officially terminated by Congress as of Jan. 1, 1964, and domestic farm workers were already beginning to agitate for higher wages. One such action, initiated by AWOC, took place in the grape vineyards of California's Coachella Valley in the early summer of that year.
Because the wages Filipino field workers were receiving at this time were below those wages that Mexican nationals had received under the bracero program, the workers struck the vineyards and successfully won a wage boost of $1.40 an hour from $1.25. Later, moving on to Delano, a community of 14,000 in the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, their request for similar wages were immediately rejected by the local growers.
They quickly requested the help of the local AWOC organizer Larry Itliong and on Sept. 8, 1965, the Filipino workers struck by refusing to leave their camps for the vineyards. As the growers sought to recruit outside workers, Itliong went to Chavez and the NFWA and asked for assistance in supporting their strike. On Sept. 16, a somewhat reluctant but determined NFWA voted to join the strike. Later the two unions would merge in August 1966 to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (now the AFL-CIO).
In our ensuing conversation that October day, as we traveled up Highway 99 to Delano, Chavez laid out for me not only these events that had taken place in the past few weeks but the major issues that were involved in the strike.
Reflecting on that day 40 years later, I can see that it was probably the most significant day of my career as a journalist.
It was also a day that saw the forging of an invaluable friendship with a man whom I came to revere and see as a teacher and leader in the struggle for economic and social justice, and an apostle of nonviolence; a teacher, leader, an apostle.
Reflecting on his own life Chavez later observed: "All my life, I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: To overthrow a farm labor system in this nation that treats farm workers as if they were not important human beings. Farm workers are not agricultural implements -- they are not beasts of burden -- to be used and discarded. That dream was born in my youth. It was nurtured in my early days of organizing. It has flourished."
One thing that he said that first day we met, however, has stuck with me throughout the years when it comes to the dynamics of modern day agriculture.
If, he told me, family farmers would only realize that they have more in common with farm workers than they do with the large growers, who are largely creatures of the banks, and agribusiness, "together we could form the most powerful agricultural bargaining agent in the history of this nation, which would mean fairer prices for what the farmer produces and fair and living wages for the men and women who harvest the crops of their farms."
As a journalist covering those early years of the Delano grape strike for the National Catholic Reporter and other progressive religious publications, it was apparent to me that Chavez and the UFW were arrayed as were family farmers in a nonviolent resistance against not only the enormous economic and political power that corporate agribusiness had wielded for so long, while seeking the right to control their own lives and the democratic principles of self-determination.
It is with that same sense of determination that 20 years later Farm Aid, led by its founder Willie Nelson and his equally dedicated friends Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews and an array of their fellow country, folk, bluegrass and rock 'n' roll artists, has allowed grass roots family farm groups and organizations to flourish.
Farm Aid began in 1985 when Willie Nelson, inspired by comments from Bob Dylan at Live Aid, along with Young and Mellencamp, hosted a day-long music benefit for family farmers in Champaign, Illinois. From that moment forward, Farm Aid's activist board has shown relentless commitment and dedication, motivating support from millions of Americans and providing hope for struggling family farmers.
"From small towns to folks in the city, everybody knows family farm food is the best," says Nelson. Since its beginning, Farm Aid has traveled the country, supporting local organizations working to strengthen and promote family farms. From Washington State to Washington, D.C., it has established a platform for family farmers to help create a movement that increases the supply and demand for family farm-identified food. Farm Aid's vision is to offer as many opportunities as possible for farmers to provide us with good products -- food and alternative fuels that protect our land, our health and our environment.
"Right now, America is on the cusp of a 'good food' movement, promoted and supported by Farm Aid," said Farm Aid's dedicated Executive Director Carolyn Mugar. "The American public recognizes family farmers as their resource for food that is local, humanely-raised, organic and sustainable, and consumers are reaching for these foods in grocery stores, at farmers' markets, in schools and even in hospitals. This demand offers growing economic opportunity for family farmers to thrive."
Nelson, Young and Mellencamp organized the first Farm Aid concert to simply raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on their land. Dave Matthews joined the Farm Aid Board of Directors in 2001.
Farm Aid has raised more than $27 million to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture. Through public education and direct grants, Farm Aid has supported national, regional and local efforts to build and strengthen family farm food systems.
For more information about the UFW and Farm Aid's 20th anniversary, visit www.ufw.org and www.farmaid.org.
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203. He publishes a free email newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner. Email firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site www.electricarrow.com/CARP/.