Peat, Asparagus, and Hard Labor, Part 2 of 2

Rusted bedframes reflect how during the harvest the Delta was a residential community for thousands of Filipino and Mexican farm workers. These frames rest against the peat-blasted walls of a 1950’s era cabin. Emil Merlo purchased 37 of these frames in his first few years on Brack Tract.

Changing Demographics: Shifts to Filipino and Mexican Labor

Amidst this labor climate, the Federal Government passed the National Origins Act of 1924, severely curtailing Asian and Mexican immigration to California. In the face of a labor crisis, farming concerns began to actively recruit Filipino men, technically US citizens since the 1904 colonization of the Philippines, to come in large numbers to work the fields. By 1980. 80% of asparagus crews in the Delta were Filipino in origin.

1978, Roberts Island – Well before sun-up a hearty breakfast in the farm’s cookhouse precedes the Filipino cutters’ day in the asparagus fields.

In her powerful 2012 study of the Filipino community in Stockton and the Delta Little Manila is in the Heart, Dawn Mabalon discusses life for Filipino farmworkers in the Delta. Professor Mabalon used oral histories, diaries, government documents, and photographs to vividly portray the backbreaking life of asparagus laborers, while also commenting on the everyday life for laborers in a Filipino campo: Peat storms, scrounging for food, predatory pimps, cockfights, and isolation. Fascinatingly, the material culture of this Delta world is preserved on Brack Tract on E. Merlo & Sons farms. [10]

The interior of a farm labor camp kitchen. Filipino and Mexican farm workers would often spend the long asparagus harvest season isolated in the campo, and spaces like these served as communal gathering places.

My great-grandfather Emil purchased the Southwestern corner of Brack Tract in 1948, and his business ledgers and expense receipts from the 1950’s are replete with evidence of vigorous attempts to maintain a viable labor force on the farm. Ledgers from 1951 show the purchase of 60 bed frames from Sears, walnut and fig saplings for the campo that are today full grown trees, and “dust screens,” which given the peat dust that dominates the tract in the Spring, were probably fitted on windows. Dozens of ancient rusted bed frames and old window screens can be seen littering the grounds of the camp today.

Asparagus, once one of the Delta’s main crops, is only grown on a fraction of the original acreage and harvested by hand.

E. Merlo & Son hired a predominantly Filipino labor force into the 1970’s. Susan Bishopburger has vivid memories of the visiting the laborers in the packing shed, and Eric Merlo remembers cock fights behind the headquarters building as a kid. In interviews he recalls the variety of survival methods employed by Filipino laborers: raising goats, harvesting wild celery, and hunting waterfowl.[11] In the Spring during asparagus season, these adaptations were a matter of survival. While the exact number of laborers hired by E. Merlo & Son is unknown, the wages were low. Depending on the year, a laborer could expect between $30 and $100 a day for well over 12 hours of work.[12] The peat storms, which could turn Brack Tract into a “dense brown fog” throughout the asparagus season potentially could have caused serious respiratory disease in the community, and had the potential to spoil food supplies. Farm labor life was hard, and reflected the capitalist logic of California agriculture’s industrial regime.

The E. Merlo & Son Farms packing shed has been defunct since the 1970’s. It’s now used as a parking garage for oversized vehicles. Throughout most of the mid-20th century this was the site of a major packing operation.

As the Filipino immigrants from the 1930’s grew older, younger generations of Filipino community members transitioned into broader American society. To replace this labor force, farmers in the Delta began to increasingly hire Mexican contracting crews, primarily consisting of migrants from Michoacán and Jalisco. The campo at E. Merlo & Son reflected this demographic changes during this time period.

Decline in Asparagus

Between 1970 and 1980, roughly coterminous with the decline in Filipino labor in the Delta, the dominant cash crop of the region, asparagus, fell out of the market due to competition from Mexico.[13] Cultivars of the plant had been developed to succeed in warmer climates, and the differences in wage regimes between Mexico and California meant that food processing firms found California asparagus too expensive to stock. This led to a broader diversification of crops both on E. Merlo & Son Farms and in the Delta more broadly. Corn, tomatoes, winter wheat, rice, and squash can all be found on the farm today, and across the Delta a wide variety of fruits and vegetables can be found. Due to differences in crop yields and crop harvesting needs, gone are the days of massive semi-permanent hired labor forces in the Delta. While contract labor forces still exist during harvest and planting seasons across the region, the increasing mechanization of harvesting techniques, due to advances in the agricultural tractor industry, have decreased the labor demand.

Remembering Histories in a Contested Place

Narratives of the Delta’s past are largely divided between studies of the region’s ecological history and its increasing usage as a hub for statewide water transportation, chronicles of the investors and farmers who endeavored to change the landscape for the purposes of industry, and ethnographic histories of marginalized communities of immigrants who have traditionally supplied the labor for reclamation projects and agricultural industries of the region.

Dialogues between parties engaged with the Delta’s history are often spiked with animosity. Ecologists and environmentalists often rue the degradation of ecosystems caused by reclamation, agriculture, and water imperialism. Farmers and growers, who take pride in their role as engines of the regional economy, are often inclined to be defensive in conversations about agriculture’s impact on local wildlife. Narratives of reclamation and agriculture are also often dismissive or simply neglect the roles and histories of migrant laborers, and discussions of injustice and hardship endured by Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican laborers frequently provokes animosity. Conversely, historians and ethnographers of Delta communities have investigated extant sources and concluded that immigrant laborers in Delta industries have repeatedly endured immense hardships, racism, and meager pay, while also commenting on how regional ecological and agricultural narratives have neglected these narratives.

One of the entrances to the original 1911 cabin.

These histories are not and should not be mutually exclusive. By focusing on the how people have interacted with each other and the landscape to create places, historians and journalists can create vivid stories about the Delta’s landscape. The legacy of excluding intersecting histories haunts the Delta to this day. In the era of the twin tunnels, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s purchase of multiple islands, water hyacinth blooms, and the slow creep of Bay Area expansion, the absence of vigorous, intersecting voices in the Delta stands as a great barrier to social and political advocacy in Sacramento. The complex histories of Brack Tract ultimately reveal a powerful truth about our region’s way forward: our communities in the Delta are strongest when their stories are told together.

Brack Tract Map

End Notes —

[10] Mabalon, Dawn Bohulano. Little Manila is in the Heart. Duke University Press. Durham, NC, 2013. 61-93.

[11] Merlo, Eric. Interviewed by Phillip Merlo in Stockton, CA, on February 8th, 2019.

[12] E. Merlo & Son Farms, business ledger 1949-1975.

[13] Susan and Bob Bishopburger.

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  • Sure enjoyed both part 1 & 2 of this article. Great exploration of a history now long past and fading. I always knew of the old rail bed being the base of the road that I’ve probably rode over 250 times thru the years, but this is a nice look back at the hard life etched into those times before.

  • I remember growing up in the delta .. the labor camps on shima an bishop tracks an king island too not only did they harvest asparagus they were there to pick the massive tomato ? crops too farming has change so much over the last 50 years thank you for not forgetting the past An for sharing it too ..

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