The sugar beet is a swollen, pulpy, three-pound plant that has lingered at the fringe of some of American history’s most significant events. It has spurred movements and ethical debates, bringing its cultivators towards both hope and ruin. It has facilitated our understanding of how food production shaped the world as we know it. All the while, many people who live outside of its farming range have never even heard of it before.
One reason for this is that the sugar beet has always been eclipsed in notoriety by its fellow sucrose-producing cousin, sugar cane. Cane grass is grown in tropical climates and is heavily associated with the Atlantic slave trade. Sugar beets (beta vulgaris), on the other hand, were traditionally cultivated in northerly temperate zones. Each plant creates sugar by photosynthesis and stores it in the roots, which are harvested in the autumn and early winter.
Prior to the Civil War, abolitionists championed the sugar beet as “free sugar” because it was not produced by slave labor on sugar plantations. It was also one of the first crops that Mormon exiles attempted to grow in Utah in the mid-nineteenth century. At the turn of the twentieth century, it fed into imperialist concerns, featuring prominently in trading debates surrounding the passage of the 1901 Platt Amendment. During World War II, beet production was tied to internment and followed the movement of interned Japanese beet farmers into “sheltered” inland states. But perhaps sugar beet farming made its most direct impact on American life during the Progressive Era, when the industry first attracted the attention of child labor reformers.
In the late 1880s, the state of Nebraska offered incentives for area farmers to grow the crop because of the suitability of the soil in the North Platte Valley. Local growers commissioned mostly German-Russian and Mexican immigrant families to tend the fields. The status quo in the valley remained unchanged for several decades. Families worked seasonally from October to April and were housed in hastily-built one-or two-room shacks. Children as young as five were pulled from school and worked alongside their siblings and parents for up to 13 hours a day. It was not until 1923 that the normality of these practices was challenged by representatives from the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC).
Prior to this time, agricultural child labor was considered a much smaller problem than labor in mining or urban manufacturing. Researchers also compared U.S. child labor favorably to practices in Great Britain, where thousands of children had been called upon to fill gaps left by men who went to fight in the Great War. The National Child Labor Committee became concerned that the organization had done a lot for child workers in mines and factories, but “[had] not even touched this greatest field of all,” agriculture. This was almost entirely due to an unshakeable American faith in the wholesomeness of farm life.
Early Americans like Thomas Jefferson championed the notion that farm work was good for children and served as a bulwark of economic, social, and moral values. Many investigations into unsafe working conditions in mines and factories had prescribed farm work as a remedy, sending child workers out for extended stays at rural farms to “undo” the negative influences of urban life. But progressive reformers encountered an unprecedented dilemma when they turned their eyes to the sugar beet industry. Traditional views of idyllic family life were shattered by accounts of backbreaking work, poor education, and pitiable living conditions. The reformers needed to find a fast way to separate “negative” kinds of farm labor from the golden agrarian ideal.
Sara Brown and Robie Sargent, the authors of the official report of the investigation into the North Platte Valley sugar beet industry, wrote that their “purpose is to state impartially, accurately, and without personal opinion, conditions under which children worked, lived, and went or failed to go to school.” Many of their efforts proved to be particularly groundbreaking. For example, the introduction of the report ends with the sentence “Childhood never returns.” Brown and Sargent thus introduced the revolutionary idea that childhood was a distinct stage of life – a child was not simply obligated to assume a smaller share of the same tasks performed by adults. Thus, the practice of “thinning,” one phase in the sugar beet harvest, was put under scrutiny. A day’s work during “thinning” season typically involved both children and parents walking through the rows of plants and bunching them with hoes, while littler children crawled behind them and plucked out the plants. One farmer excused this practice by reasoning, “Little children thin fine, no hurt them in backs. Hurt me in back bad, to bend all day.”
The investigators also took care to define the child labor in traditionally “industrial” terms so as to remove the veil protecting the sanctity of agriculture. Numerous tables and graphs attest to the great lengths the researchers took to report accurate demographics. The stages of sugar beet production are described as if field work were akin to an assembly line, with certain workers assigned to various tasks to meet their quotas. According the report, children belonging to 355 families were surveyed and interviewed about their daily work schedule.
Although the North Platte Valley report willingly exposed a previously untouchable universe, it misplaced the blame for the existing circumstances. Hoping to portray themselves as enlightened progressives, the investigators overstated the culpability of heedless parents and greedy companies. They did not acknowledge that larger social forces, as well the existence of the agrarian ideal itself, had contributed to the misfortunes of child workers and their families.
Farm owners and overseers received a large share of ire from the investigators, who printed damning one-line quotes from various interviews. When one grower was asked if an adult contract laborer he had hired would be putting his children to work as well, he replied, “Sure, he wouldn’t be tending beets if he didn’t.” Another sugar company official remarked, “We prefer families… all big families want large acreages. Beet work can be done by children all right.”
Parents were also painted as villains, regardless of their circumstances. “Kinder eat, must work,” was the reported mantra of one German-speaking grower parent. “Undoubtedly,” wrote Brown and Sargent, “the labor of children in the sugar beet fields means larger money returns to the parent, the grower, and the company.” Families, many of whom were immigrants who did not speak English, were also put under fire for not conforming to norms of neighborliness, socialization, and church attendance. The report chided that it was “surprising” that less than one-third of the immigrant fathers surveyed had gone to the trouble to declare their intentions to become citizens.
The NCLC report on the North Platte Valley is a direct glimpse into the forces of sociopolitical transition. This and other investigations to expose abuses of labor eventually resulted in modest, but not absolute, successes. In 1934 the Jones-Costigan Amendment forbade children under 14 to work in sugar production, effectively ending child labor in the industry. Growers’ and owners’ children were exempt, however, and further age and hour restrictions were not put into effect until the 1970s. The NCLC had hoped to prove that industry and certain individuals had abused the gifts of the agrarian ideal. But in distinguishing the issues that concerned them from the agrarian consensus, they developed a narrowly centered critique that nearly missed its mark.
Esther S. Anderson, “The Beat Sugar Industry of Nebraska as a Response to Geographic Environment,” Economic Geography, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Oct., 1925), pp. 373-386.
Sara A. Brown and Robie O. Sargent, “Children in the Sugar Beet Fields of the North Platte Valley of Nebraska, 1923,” Nebraska History 67 (1986): 256-303. Reprint.
Edward N. Clopper and Lewis W. Hine, “Child Labor in the Sugar-Beet Fields of Colorado,” Child Labor Bulletin, Vol 4, No. 4, 1916.
Anne B. W. Effland, “Agrarianism and Child Labor Policy for Agriculture,” Agricultural History
Vol. 79, No. 3 (Summer, 2005), pp. 281-297.
Mary Lyons-Barrett, “Child Labor in the Early Sugar Beet Industry in the Great Plains, 1890-1920,” Great Plains Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 1 (WINTER 2005), pp. 29-38