Hello. This is one of Unearthed Ohio’s infrequent “themed” posts. It combines images that feature migrant farm labor housing in the “muck lands” area near Willard and Celeryville, Ohio. Photos from two trips are combined here, and much of the text is taken from those entries. People who are curious about migrant farm labor in Ohio might find these photos interesting.
[Remember that you can click on each image below to see a larger, better image. Also, the EXIF data for each image contains GPS coordinates that you can use to locate the exact place where the photograph was taken. Copyright information: All of the text and images on this blog are the intellectual property of Mark Pitcavage. Attributed, non-commercial (ONLY) usage is permitted under the Creative Commons License.]
We all have heard the term “muckraker” and to most of us it conjures up journalistic images—perhaps writers like Upton Sinclair or Ida Tarbell who engaged in early investigative journalism. Many people credit Theodore Roosevelt for popularizing the term and the term itself to a reference from John Bunyon’s 17th-century novel The Pilgrim’s Progress. Of course, Bunyon did not use it to refer to journalists. It was an agricultural term—as was the closely related “mud rakers”—and it referred to people who literally raked the mud, i.e., who tilled wet soil growing produce. It only came to have a (pejorative) association with journalism in the early 1800s in Great Britain. And even then it was still being used, in the United States as well as in Great Britain, in its agricultural sense. And that brings us to Ohio…
Ohio, it turns out, has its own muck and its own muckrakers. Anyone who travels across Ohio will see that corn and soybeans dominate the agricultural landscape, with white and other grains playing a supporting role in some areas. Produce—vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, celery, and so forth—is not something you would ordinarily see. Yet produce is grown in Ohio, in certain places, and one of those regions is the muck lands of northwestern Ohio.
Much of northwestern Ohio is former swamp or wetlands, which was progressively drained through the middle and late 19th century to create a lush farming area. Some areas in particular, when drained, had very fertile soil, well suited for the growing of produce. These areas were often once lakes left behind by receding glaciers. They are the muck lands. Albert E. Wilkinson, of the New York State College of Agriculture, in his book 1916 Muck Crops: A book on vegetable crops, raised on reclaimed land, in some localities known as black dirt or muck, described muck lands as “low bodies of land which are generally swampy and often spoken of as being ‘peaty or mucky,’ a name commonly given to the soft, woody, black soil found in these places.” From sources such as the Journal of the American Peat Society I learned a great deal about muck lands, but I will spare you the specifics of acidity and drainage.
Ohio’s muck lands became important sources for crops such as celery and onions. But unlike many crops, including wheat and corn, which can be heavily mechanized, growing produce still requires a significant amount of physical labor. Where does that labor come from? In large part, from Mexico, as well as from Mexicans or Mexican-Americans who live in Texas (and some from Florida).
This blog entry combines photos from two trips I took to or through the Willard, Ohio, area in November 2016, the “off season” for migrant farm labor. Prior to the photographs here I had just left Plymouth, Ohio, heading west. I did not know, at the time, that just west of Plymouth begins the muck lands.
Just a bit west of Plymouth I came across the first sign that something was up when I drove past a long, low barracks-like building. I wondered if it might have been an old motor hotel from the early 1900s, so I found a place to turn around and drove back to examine it. It was clearly no motel; motels do not have sets of clotheslines out back. My next guess was that it was some sort of kid’s camp or church camp, closed for the winter season, of course.
But if it was a camp, it was a pretty thread-bare camp. It did have this lonely basketball pole, hardly inviting. More interestingly, in the field behind the building a soccer field had been marked out. It was slightly mysterious. But there was nothing intrinsically visually interesting about it, so I took no photographs and left (I later drove back and took these photos, once I realized what I had seen).
Like the previous building, they seemed divided into apartments or rooms, and had clothesline poles next to them. Furthermore, different “apartments” had television antennae or satellite dishes. Oddly, there were also old-fashioned water pumps outside.
It was here that I began to suspect that what I was seeing was housing for Ohio’s migratory farm workers.
As the muck lands were drained and cultivated in the late 1800s, farm labor was needed to work the crops, particularly at picking time. There was not enough native labor in the region willing to do this grueling work, so farmers began to import laborers, including African-Americans from the south, but particularly Hispanic farm workers from Texas and, eventually, Mexico as well. By the 1930s or so, Mexican farm workers came to dominate this labor force. For many decades, migrant farm workers ranging in number from 9,000 to around 15,000 have come to Ohio to work the different produce-producing areas of the state, including the muck lands of northwestern Ohio.
Legal migrant farm work in Ohio is regulated by the federal government, which issues a special type of visa, the H2A visa, and by the state. The H2A visa is a temporary visa for seasonal agricultural workers. Farmers who employ such laborers are required by federal law to pay for their transportation to and from the area and to feed and house them. Federal minimum wage, however, does not apply.
Ohio state law requires that migrant farm workers be housed in “agricultural labor camps, which can consist of buildings ( as seen here), but also tents, trailers, or vehicles. The minimum size is two or more families or five or more persons—so some can be quite small. The Ohio EPA regulates water and sewage issues—which are minimal. There were 88 total camps across Ohio in 2013, which gives some sense of the scale. In 2016, there were 104.
About 70% of Ohio’s immigrant farm laborers are undocumented. These can be divided into two categories: those with false papers who participate in the legal agricultural labor programs and those who are totally undocumented and are, in a number of cases, trafficked. Trafficked farm labors are totally underground and essentially have no legal protections; this can result in what is essentially slave labor under awful conditions. Some migrant farm workers come into the country as juveniles; others come as whole families, with the children working (agricultural work is largely excepted from U.S. child labor laws and what restrictions exist are often ignored for migrant farm workers).
This second agricultural labor camp I found was located in New Pittsburgh, Ohio, which is a census-designated place that consists of a church and a few buildings. I noticed a woman coming out of the church, so I asked her about these buildings and she confirmed what I had suspected, that they were for migrant farm workers. She said, “Oh, those are for the mud rakers.”
The water pumps gave me pause, but the buildings seemed reasonably well constructed. I couldn’t see inside them to tell the true conditions, though. It is possible for migrant housing areas to be very poor, indeed. In fact, at the time I took these photos, state law did not actually require running water at migrant worker camps. A law passed that only went into effect in 2017 mandated sinks with hot and cold running water, smoke detectors, partitions for “communal toilets,” and, if the toilets are non-flush, that they be cleaned once a week. Farmers were given five whole years to comply, however.
Typically, workers will stay in a camp for only a short period of time before moving to some other part of the state (or out of it) to do work at another farm, but some may stay longer.
I’m curious how many people typically stayed here. There appear to be four “apartments” per building, and four buildings, so a total of 16 apartments. That could be 16 families or anywhere from 32 to 80 individuals, or even more, depending on how many people were put into each “apartment.”
Whether the buildings had plumbing was something I was definitely curious about, in particular because this little shed-like structure looked very suspiciously like an outhouse (particularly with the vent on the upper left). But there was only one—for so many people? If this was the only toilet facility, that would be a huge problem, so I hope that the apartments had indoor plumbing. These seemed to be among the nicer migrant dwellings I saw, so perhaps they did.
The water pumps, though, do not generally add to my comfort levels about indoor plumbing. Perhaps they are merely relics of an older era.
Looking across the fields from the second set of buildings I found, I could see more individual residences stretching down a road, all of similar construction, so I decided to check those out, suspecting they were housing for migrant farm workers as well.
The nearby town of Willard, Ohio, is the center of this stretch of mucklands, as well as the adjoining hamlet of Celeryville, whose very name explains the muck’s significance. Much of the produce grown in this area is grown by a small number of large farms started around the turn of the (previous) century. The names of these farmers—Holthouse, Buurma, Wiers—can be found all around this area. The above dwellings are probably part of Wiers Farm, though they are close to Buurma Farms as well. Holt Farms is to the north.
I drove closer to this line of houses, which were located on a dead-end road that paralleled a drainage ditch. I made a similar parallel on the other side of the ditch, going up a dirt road next to a field. You can see the “children playing” sign here, another reminder of the ubiquity of children among migrant farm workers (whether the children themselves are laboring or not).
These dwellings were separated rather than joined but could easily house a number of people, depending on how generous or spartan the conditions were. The buildings looked old and the trees around them were mature as well, so these dwellings have been here for quite a while.
Even though it was November, and the agricultural season was over, I noticed that some of the dwellings were occupied. Some laborers can get longer visas, so these may be people wintering. It is also possible that they are permanent farm workers housed by the farming concern. I’m just too ignorant to know for sure.
Here are the buildings looked at from the reverse side (from the west). I’m curious what sorts of things people are growing here in November, which seems rather late.
Across another field, I could s see yet more similarly constructed buildings that were likely another set of dwellings for migrant labor.
I continued west, skirting the southern edge of the Willard Marsh Wilderness Area—a remnant of the once-vaster wetlands that occupied this area—and found another agricultural labor camp, this one entirely abandoned for the winter. Many such places, I noticed, had the windows boarded up, whether to protect them during the off-season, or to protect the dwellings from intruders.
Here are the dwellings looking from the other direction (taken on my second trip to the area, which I approached from the west this time). One of them had a small cross nailed to the front door (which wasn’t boarded over). It also had a small sheet of paper stuck to the screen door with a handwritten note: a smiley face and the words “Smile you are on camera.” Was this a warning to deter possible intruders? In any case, I saw no actual cameras.
Like many of the dwellings I saw, this one has electricity and a satellite dish.
Here’s a different set of buildings; this one even has a front porch. These were near Celeryville and may possibly be associated with Holt Farms, which seems to own much of the nearby land.
Here is the Community Health Services building in the Buurma Farms complex. Buurma Farms maintains this, with a doctor, to provide allegedly free health care for migrant workers and their families. Though I do not know what level of care they can provide with this, anything is better than what they would otherwise have. From what I read, the Burma, Holthouse and Wiers farms seem to have a pretty decent reputation in terms of how they treat their migrant workers, compared to some other places. The Buurma Farms website claims that they provide “more than 60 two-bedroom apartments for its migrant workers at zero cost to employees. The farm employs nearly 450 people during the busy summers.” Of course, the zero cost is mandated by law.
Here’s a shot of Holthouse Farms. These big farms, even though they are technically still “family farms,” in that they are family-owned businesses, are very different than what most people would think of as a “family farm.” This looks more like an industrial setting, from the outside.
Note the many buses used to transport the migrant labor force around.
Over the years, treatment of migrant farm workers in Ohio has improved, in large part due to years of tireless work by labor and Hispanic advocacy groups in Ohio—but much more could still be done, I think.
It occurred to me that things might be harder for farm workers in this Age of Trump in which we now live and I was right. Even before Trump was elected, Ohio had seen the number of its migrant farm workers go down, which made many farmers nervous, because crops would die in the fields if there was not enough labor to harvest them. That, in fact, has happened in recent years, thanks to stricter immigration enforcement (or the threat thereof) acting as dissuasion. Some of the migrant workers themselves did not seem to be very worried. However, just a week or so before I wrote this blog entry, the New York Times, of all places, did a story on the farm workers around Willard.
The Times piece, written by Miriam Jordan, told a troubling anecdote. This past winter, the Willard Area Chamber of Commerce decided to plan a “welcome back” party for returning migrants. There would be food, soccer, music and even rides for the kids. “Our community is very fortunate we have a group of people who come here every year to work,” said the chamber president.
Others in the community did not like the idea of welcoming immigrants at all—even temporary migrant farm workers—and a backlash ensued. One Willard resident, according to the Norwalk Reflector, complained that “Willard is throwing a party for all the immigrants coming in from Mexico etc. who take most people’s jobs in Willard.”
By May, the organizers canceled the planned event (due to “scheduling issues”). There would be no welcome for the workers on whom the area’s economy largely depended. Modern day Wiers and Holthouses and Buurmas, descendants of the original farmers, all lamented the new, hostile attitudes. “We pray and hope the workers show up,” one of them said. Not only the farmers are nervous—a number of local businesses have seen their sales drop due to fewer migrant workers buying food or other items.
If your celery or tomatoes are more expensive this winter, you may want to talk to your president.