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North for the Harvest

Mexican Workers, Growers, and the Sugar Beet Industry

Jim Norris

Publication Year: 2009

Throughout most of the twentieth century, thousands of Mexicans traveled north to work the sugar beet fields of the Minnesota–North Dakota Red River Valley. North for the Harvest examines the evolution of the relationships between American Crystal Sugar Company, the sugar beet growers, and the migrant workers. Though popular convention holds that corporations and landowners invariably exploited migrant workers, Norris reveals that these relationships were more complex. The company often clashed with growers, sometimes while advocating for workers. And many growers developed personal ties with their migrant workers, while workers themselves often found ways to leverage better pay and working conditions from the company. Ultimately, the lot of workers improved as the years went by. As one worker explained, something historic occurred for his family while working in the Red River Valley: “We broke the chain there.” “North for the Harvest is beautifully conceived, very well written, and nuanced and original in its arguments. Norris demonstrates that labor relations in the Red River Valley beet industry was a ‘three-corner game’ that cannot be fully understood without examining all the players.” David Vaught, author of Cultivating California: Growers, Specialty Crops, and Labor, 1875–1920 “This story of the long-established and productive contributions of Latinos to Minnesota and North Dakota needs to be heard. It has never been told in such depth and with such style.” Jeffrey Kolnick, Associate Professor of History, Southwest Minnesota State University

Published by: Minnesota Historical Society Press


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Front Matter

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Table of Contents

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p. vii

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pp. ix-xi

When I set out on this project, I had to significantly retrain myself as a scholar. My graduate work had prepared me to be a colonial Latin Americanist; my area specialty was in the often nebulous region of the Spanish Borderlands. My dissertation and first monograph...

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pp. 3-14

Lloyd was born on a farm in the northern part of the Red River Valley near Fisher, Minnesota, in 1927. His family produced a variety of crops, such as barley, oats, wheat, corn, and “a few potatoes,” and raised some cattle. This diversified farm fit a pattern common in...

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1 Coming Together

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pp. 15-38

Necessity turned farmers in the red river valley to sugar beet growing. Necessity brought the sugar beet industry to the valley. And necessity linked Mexican migrant workers to those farmers and that industry. Necessity laid the foundation for a three- way, multi - faceted relationship among these groups that endured for much of the...

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2 Depression Years and Transformation

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pp. 39-60

In 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, the American Beet Sugar Company abruptly changed its name to American Crystal Sugar Company (American Crystal). Perhaps nothing was more representative of the major restructuring taking place in the sugar beet industry...

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3 War and Aftermath

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pp. 61-86

During the remainder of World War II and through the immediate postwar period (to the start of the Korean conflict), the sugar beet industry and its participants in the Red River Valley made important adjustments in response to both domestic and international developments. A nationwide increase in sugar production, spurred by...

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4 Growers, Mexicans, and Patronismo

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pp. 87-112

The year 1950 proved to be a pivotal one for American Crystal, migrant workers, and valley growers as the federal government launched an in- depth investigation into migrant labor working and living conditions, the Korean War broke out, and the sugar beet growers in the Red River Valley suffered an acute labor shortage. The onset of...

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5 Anxieties and Reassessments

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pp. 113-140

By the middle of the 1950s, American Crystal, its growers in the Red River Valley, and the Mexican migrant workers upon whom they relied to cultivate the sugar beets had interacted with one another for about thirty years. The federal government had established considerable...

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6 Cuba, Texas, and the Red River Valley

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pp. 141-164

The Eisenhower administration’s move to block Cuban sugar from coming into the United States had important consequences for the industry throughout the nation, including the Red River Valley. On the one hand, the ban created an enormous void in the country’s...

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7 The Growers Take Control

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pp. 165-190

By the late 1960s the interdependency among American Crystal, the betabeleros, and the growers had endured in the valley for about four decades. Certainly, important changes had occurred through these years, but the basic structure remained unchanged: American Crystal controlled the distribution of a significant share of the nation’s sugar...


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pp. 191-210


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pp. 211-218


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pp. 219-224

Image Plate

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E-ISBN-13: 9780873517461
E-ISBN-10: 0873517466
Print-ISBN-13: 9780873516310
Print-ISBN-10: 0873516311

Page Count: 216
Illustrations: 25 b&w photos, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: 1

OCLC Number: 794700999
MUSE Marc Record: Download for North for the Harvest

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Migrant labor -- Red River Valley (Minn. and N.D.-Man.).
  • Sugar beet industry -- Red River Valley (Minn. and N.D.-Man.).
  • American Crystal Sugar Company.
  • Mexicans -- Red River Valley (Minn. and N.D.-Man.).
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