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Manitoba History: Review: Manitoba Commercial Market Gardening, 1945-1997

by Ron Friesen
Agricultural Reporter, Manitoba Co-operator

Number 42, Autumn / Winter 2001-2002

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Avis Mysyk, Manitoba Commercial Market Gardening, 1945-1997: Class, Race and Ethnic Relations. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 2000. 108 pp. ISBN 0889771286, $19.95.

As a kid growing up in south-central Manitoba during the Fifties and Sixties, I would participate in the annual summer ritual of hoeing sugar beets. At the munificent wage of $20 an acre, thinning and weeding beets was a good way for a youngster to earn some spending money after school let out for the summer. But it was more than that. In those days, beet weeding was a full-fledged industry in the Red River Valley. Many small farmers supplemented their incomes on the beet field, often bringing entire families to toil under the hot sun alongside Mom and Dad. The beet field was a small community where you worked row by row with friends and neighbours.

But there were also a few people we didn’t know, even though they stood out. They were migrant labourers from Mexico, drawn north every spring to the sugar beet and vegetable fields of Manitoba. They worked silently, methodically and by themselves. You didn’t mix with them; they didn’t mix with you. They finished the work they contracted for, received their pay and moved on.

But who were they? And why did they show up in southern Manitoba year after year? Avis Mysyk does not deal so much with the first question but she provides some insight into the second one by examining social relations in the province’s commercial market gardening industry.

Now before I continue, I have to list two caveats about this book. First, I’m one of the sources cited in Mysyk’s footnotes, which may hurt the quality of her research right there. Second (and seriously this time), Mysyk approaches her subject from a particular ideological viewpoint which she makes known on the very first page: I argue in favor of using the Marxist perspective to understand social relations in Canadian agriculture in general and Manitoba agriculturein particular.

Not exactly a popular perspective among farmers, especially when all the buzzwords are there. The vegetable farm owner-operators are the petty bourgeoisie, the hired hands are the proletariat and so on. However, despite her perspective (or perhaps because of it), Mysyk produces a solid piece of research on a little-examined subject.

Marxists usually analyze subjects in terms of economics and study social relations on the basis of class. They will look at a topic with an eye to class and power, and categorize a person’s economic position accordingly. So, workers (hired hands) are considered proletarian if they do not own the means of production (e.g., land) and all they have to sell is their labour. A person owning land and a small operation is a petty commodity producer (or petty bourgeoisie). So it is with this work. Even though labourers in Manitoba’s market gardens range ethnically from locals to Mexicans to aboriginals, Mysyk insists on the centrality of class as opposed to race or ethnic relations, since an exclusive emphasis on the latter two obscures the context of production in which social relations have evolved in Manitoba agriculture.

What does this have to do with growing vegetables in the Keystone province? Quite a lot, in Mysyk’s view. Under the federal Canada-Mexico Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, vegetable growers are able to meet temporary seasonal demands for workers which cannot be met locally. The program imports a maximum 100 Mexican laborers each year for that purpose. From the government’s view, it works very well. Growers generally express satisfaction with the Mexicans for their dedication to hard work and their willingness to work long hours for relatively low pay. Even at that, Mexican workers reputedly say the money they

earn from stoop labor in Manitoba far exceeds anything they could ever make at home. But farm workers are not covered by the Manitoba Employment Standards Act. This means that such things as minimum wages, overtime, vacation pay and due process for termination do not apply to them. Mysyk also finds that Mexican workers are frequently marginalized by their ethnicity, social status and language. As well, she suggests that growers tend to use Mexican labourers as their birthright instead of trying to hire local workers first. While Manitoba farmers benefit from these reliable foreign workers, hundreds of thousands of dollars are taken out of Canada each year, dollars that might otherwise have been spent here.

In 1976, at least partly in response to the Mexican program, Indian and Metis farm workers formed the Manitoba Farm Workers Association in an attempt to act as a bargaining agent with growers. Their success was limited. Despite lip service from Manitoba NDP governments, says Mysyk, growers continue to treat their workers according to the mood of the day. Today, the MFWA appears largely dormant, some say it is defunct, amid an implicit attitude of racism toward native workers that is hinted at but not explored in depth.

Mysyk also provides a useful sketch of the history of market gardening in Manitoba from its early origins as subsistence farming to a multi-million dollar commercial industry today. She traces the development of marketing strategies, including producer-controlled marketing boards and direct contracting with food processors. The trends shedescribes in market gardening mirror Canadian agriculture in general: a decrease in the number of farms, an increase in their size, larger production offset by higher input costs. Today, outside of a few local farmers’ markets, small producers have given way to larger-scale owner-operators, again the petty bourgeoisie.

Mysyk’s Marxist approach is one take on the subject and it is a valid one. Any historical work will carry a certain political viewpoint. But the narrower the focus, the narrower the view. This work really does not cover the overall impact of marketing gardening in Manitoba, e.g., how is the industry doing? Economists would take issue with Mysyk’s statement that the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) has had little impact, positive or negative, on Canadian agriculture. On the contrary, analysts agree NAFTA has had a profound effect on agricultural trade. That includes exports of Manitoba vegetables to the United States, which nearly doubled in value between 1991 and 2000.

Even so, after reading Mysyk’s book, I find myself reflecting on those Mexican labourers working stolidly and alone in the beet fields 40 years ago. They tilled the soil, nurtured plants and produced food for others to eat. But I wonder how much sugar and broccoli they themselves got on returning home. Mysyk provides a clue.

Page revised: 14 October 2012

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