North For The Harvest

A 20th Century chronicle of sugarbeets

Published in the May 2009 Issue Published online: May 03, 2009
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The 20th Century was a monumental century in the history of the world, with more ups and downs, wars and prosperity, than arguably any other time period. The Great Depression and two world wars (and everything in between) weren’t just anecdotal headline-makers on a newspaper page, too big to affect the average Joe. All were far-reaching events that infiltrated the lives of people from all backgrounds, whether immigrant laborer or businessman.

A new book, North For The Harvest: Mexican Workers, Growers, and the Sugar Beet Industry by Jim Norris, is a depiction of the three-way struggle of three different groups of people in the Red River Valley in the early to mid-20th Century—Mexican immigrants, the sugarbeet growers who employed them and the American Crystal Sugar Company, which provided a contract for the beets.

This evolving, complex three-way struggle was exacerbated by racial tensions and world events, at a time when beet knives and back-breaking work and sweat were the primary means of harvesting.

The Introduction whets the appetite by telling the stories, oral history style, of three men—a sugarbeet grower, a Mexican immigrant and lifelong sugarbeet worker, and an employee of the American Crystal Sugar Company. The rest of the book is a chronicle of the period during the 20th Century when the three groups depended on each other, sometimes willingly but much of the time on the contrary, until a group of growers banded together and bought out American Crystal Sugar, thus ending the interrelationship and a unique time in sugarbeet history—not to mention American history.

As you see the sugarbeet industry through three different perspectives, you see the struggle for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with all three parties.

The book details how many growers in the region first turned away from previously dependable cash crops to try out sugarbeets. It also meticulously documents the multiple yearly rises and falls of the market—from events ranging from World War I and the Great Depression to the Korean War and President Eisenhower’s Cuban sugar trade embargo—that impacted all three groups in different ways.

The story also outlines the racial obstacles Mexican immigrants had to face—from start to finish, whether economic times were good or bad.

Circumstances were never perfect for all three groups in this decades-long tug-of-war, but in the end, through sweat and hard work, they all somehow profited by and large, expanding the sugarbeet industry into the period of time when the relationship naturally came to an end.

Students of agricultural history as well as cultural history will appreciate this book for its step-by-step accounting of each curveball each person had to field as a result of decisions of another group, or world circumstances none could control.

North for the Harvest was published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. The book has a retail price of $22.95 and is available on Amazon.com.