Hard Times in the Land of John Steinbeck

Twice a week Sharon Risner pulls out of her driveway on White Lane and heads south on Highway 99. Around the five-mile mark she takes the Pumpkin Center exit. It's not the quickest route to work, but it does offer the best view of the land. This is the place where the sun kisses the soil and provides enough to feed and clothe a man. Everything here has a purpose, she says. Take the patches of winter wheat. When the farmers come in with their machines, they cut off the top and sell it to companies that make products like flour, then use the bottom for hay. Those fields are followed by expansive dairy farms with hundreds of black-and-white dots off in the distance—dairy cows. Then there is the cotton.

Sharon used to work at the Kern Delta Weedpatch cotton gin. The building—a tin beige shell—houses the first supergin built in the United States. For 28 years it processed 5,400 bales of raw cotton per week during harvest season. That ended last December, when it closed, one more victim of this epic recession. Sharon—who is 62, with sun-hardened skin and a faint Southern drawl—had kept the books here since the place opened. Her daughter Suzanne, 32, who weighed the cotton, worked here for eight years. Even today, Sharon still shows up at least two times a week. She understands she won't be paid. She knows that the gin will soon be sold off in parts to cotton growers in countries like Peru. Still, she feels responsible because Sharon Risner has cotton in her blood. It was passed down by her parents, Vergie Bonds and Atwood Risner, Oklahoma natives who in the 1930s joined the mass migration of desperate souls heading to California looking for financial redemption. The Risners found theirs in the cotton fields at the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley. Here is where they first settled into tents and eventually moved into the Arvin/Weedpatch federal migrant camp.

In this recession, however, the region that once served as destination for economic refugees is now one of the most depressed in the country. Compared with the rest of the United States, high unemployment and poverty rates are not abnormal in the San Joaquin Valley. But California's ongoing budget problems, the housing meltdown, and the downturn have made an already bad situation worse. This has left the area in a very vulnerable position, says Mark Keppler, executive director of the Maddy Institute. So even though the Valley is the largest agricultural producer in the country, if this eight-county region were a state, it would currently have the highest unemployment rate in the nation, at 15.4 percent, and the highest percentage of people living below the poverty line, at 17.8 percent. There's even been a sporadic resurgence of tent cities—Hoovervilles—in towns like Fresno. And while the downturn may be bottoming out, economic indicators like the unemployment rate will continue to go up. And places like California may bear that brunt. Comparisons between our economic time and the Great Depression have spurred renewed interest in the era in which the Risner's forbears settled in the Valley. Check your local library shelves: there's a good chance David Kennedy's Freedom From Fear and Studs Terkel's Hard Times are already checked out. But those nonfiction accounts aren't nearly as beloved as John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath. So, NEWSWEEK revisited the iconic region, where Steinbeck came to understand the lives of the real people he fictionalized, in order to see how their descendants are weathering today's great recession.

It's a group that includes the Risners. Sharon's mother, Vergie, now 85, made the trip from Oklahoma to the San Joaquin Valley as a young girl. Sitting at her kitchen table, next to stacks of canned peaches and pickles—her habit of stockpiling food is a leftover from the Depression—Vergie thumbs through old family photos. The thick lines on her small round face tighten as she compares today's distress with what her generation felt during the 1930s. "Those were the worst hard times," she says. "I thought that was over." Indeed, for all the progress their family made during six decades in California, the demise of the gin and the devastated local economy has them feeling a sudden need to reinvent themselves—and in a way, gives them a renewed kinship with the Joads of Steinbeck's novel. "I guess you could say we've come full circle," Sharon says.

Like countless other families, the Risner's journey west had its roots in a confluence of bad farming practices, bad weather, and bad finance. In the 1910s, farmers in the Plains states took out loans to buy more land and equipment to grow more crops like wheat, which was experiencing a boon because of World War I. As that demand tanked, many farmers responded to falling prices by upping production, which drove prices down even more. The banks eventually came to collect on the loans, but few were prepared to pay. Farmers compounded the problem when they cleared millions of acres of sod so they could plant, leaving the fine topsoil unprotected. Failure to rotate crops also stripped the land of vital nutrients. Then the stock market crashed in 1929 and "business leaders panicked, banks panicked ... Voices shrill with terror continued to tell the people that what was happening couldn't happen," Steinbeck wrote of the time. The final blow: the drought that arrived in 1931.

Vergie was 5 years old when she saw the crops on her daddy's farm in Ada, Okla., shrivel up. Of course, they were not alone in their suffering. By 1932 roughly 1,000 families from states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas were losing their farms to foreclosure every week. "Somepin's happening. I went up an' I looked, an' the houses is all empty, an' the lan' is empty, an' this whole country is empty," says the preacher in The Grapes of Wrath. "I can't stay here no more. I got to go where the folks is goin'."

There was no good reason to stay. So Vergie's siblings, Tiny and O. J., and her parents, Martin and Tena Bonds, packed up and headed to California, seeking jobs. In all, more than 300,000 people made this journey, part of the largest internal migration in American history.

When they arrived after an 18-month trip, the family set up their two white tents along an irrigation canal in the town of Lamont, Calif. The white canvas could not keep the blistering sun or torrential rains out. A lack of bathrooms meant most folks had to use a hole, and a lack of water meant perpetual filth. Gas stations and restaurants showed their disdain for the newcomers with signs that read NO NIGGERS AND OKIES ALLOWED. "Okie use' ta mean you was from Oklahoma," a man tells the Joads in Steinbeck's novel. "Now it means you're a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you're scum."

When a bout of diphtheria broke out in their tent city, the family moved to the nearby Frick farm to live in a small wooden home next to the fields where Vergie's father picked fruit and cotton. There, Vergie met her first husband in 1939. That was the year The Grapes of Wrath was published. In Kern County—where the Bonds's lived—the book was officially banned from schools and libraries; in some cities, it was burned. Vergie had only heard rumblings of the uproar it caused, and did not pick up a copy until years later. Still, the book became a bestseller, and was praised by people like President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, who called it an "unforgettable experience."

Over the coming years, Vergie divorced and returned to live with her parents at the Fricks's farm, where she also went to work. In the summer of 1943 she helped weed the cotton fields to make room for the burrs to grow. That fall she picked cotton faster than many of the migrant men. It was a year of many changes. U.S. involvement in World War II had started to free most of the country from a decade-long economic chokehold. In California, especially, defense jobs flourished. In Vergie's case, working the cotton fields gave her life purpose. It's also where she met her second husband, Atwood Risner, a widower with two children. "We needed each other to survive," says Vergie. "The Depression was over for some, but for some of us it took a while longer."

Shortly after the marriage, the family settled in at the Arvin/Weedpatch camp, located southeast of Bakersfield. It was built back in 1935 by the federal Resettlement Administration, which had begun setting up migratory labor camps in an effort to provide the struggling migrant population with a better standard of living. The man who breathed life into these first camps was Tom Collins, manager at Weedpatch. When Collins met Steinbeck in 1936, he helped him gain unique access to migrant life. From Collins's camp reports, Steinbeck created much of the foundation of The Grapes of Wrath; from Collins's personality, he constructed Jim Rawley, the fictional camp manager. In the book's dedication, Steinbeck wrote, "To Tom who lived it."

From the moment the Risners' moved into Weedpatch, their lives revolved around the seasons of cotton. So much so that Atwood eventually became a contractor, responsible for working a field from the time the seeds were planted in April to the time the cotton was harvested in October. On those cool fall days, a small legion of workers would tie their canvas cotton sack around their waist and head into the white and green rows at dawn, and leave at dusk. At the time, 100 pounds of cotton would earn someone $3. Sharon, born in 1945, knew this process well. While Vergie worked the payroll register, 10-year-old Sharon would strap on her toe sack to pick. Her goal was simple—make enough to buy a treat.

Life on Weedpatch was also mostly good. The Risners had even risen through the camp ranks and gotten themselves a cottage. "That was the highest we [could] go," says Vergie. "We come to find out years later that people on camp went to calling us the silk-stocking family." When the family became the first in the camp to own a television, it only fanned that fire. But Atwood handled it with grace, leaving the front door to the cottage open so folks could arrange their folding chairs at the entrance to watch.

Such traditions ended in 1952 when the family bought a small yellow wooden home on Santa Anna Street for $6,000 cash. They were no longer the poverty-stricken people who had arrived in California years before—but they continued to make their living in the cotton fields. In 1980, after her children, Tim and Suzanne were born, Sharon took a bookkeeping position at the Kern Delta Weedpatch gin. That was the year the supergin was built, says David Alderete, the gin manager.

By that point, America had forgotten the Depression. The cotton gin, on the other hand, was a working physical legacy of that period. Its employees were, in many ways, similar to the migrants who first inhabited Weedpatch camp. Most were migrant workers themselves, looking to build some semblance of a better life. That is the pathology of this region, says Mark Arax, an author and expert on the Valley. "There's an underclass that's consistently drawn here and oftentimes doesn't leave."

It's true that the most financially needy have generally tended to this land. In the '30s it was the Okies. Arax says many made the Valley their home and worked their way out of the fields. Their own children became blue-collar workers—mechanics and foremen. Their children's children sometimes went to college. The fields then turned to Mexico, which has always been a source of cheap labor for the region, and Latinos filled the lower ranks. Today, they represent the area's largest ethnic group. Some argue that this symbiotic relationship between a state dominated by large agricultural operations and foreign low-skilled workers has created a cycle that's led to most of the Valley's current problems.

As the growing season in the area has become longer and crossing the border more difficult, a formerly mobile migrant population has taken up residence. Hans Johnson, associate director at the Public Policy Institute of California, says most can cobble together at least 10 months of agricultural work a year. That still leaves them idle for weeks, and that's part of why unemployment rates run high. Latino immigrants also tend to have lower high-school graduation rates, which are associated with higher unemployment, particularly in more urban parts. Arax says this only serves to feed the pattern of poverty that many of them came to the Valley to escape.

It is easy enough to suggest that curbing migration would solve many of the region's issues, but what or who would replace these people? Automation has not found a way to pick grapes, for example. "The unique nature of California agriculture [actually] requires that these migrants exist," something that has not changed much in the six decades since Steinbeck made note of this in his nonfiction work The Harvest Gypsies.

Today, migrants harvest some 250 types of crops in the Valley. When one loses its value, it can become disposable. In the '30s a farmer may have burned a crop to keep prices from collapsing. Today, he pulls it from the ground and replaces it with something "better." It's why the million acres once devoted to cotton have shrunk to 200,000, says Arax. As its worth continued to dip and water became more expensive and less available in California, "[cotton was] penciled out and the land went to other crops that are more profitable, like almonds and pistachios."

These too will be overplanted, he adds. And there will be a glut and fields will be stripped again for something new. But in the early 2000s not all farmers replanted. Instead, some sold off chunks of land to hungry builders who wanted a piece of the Valley so they could build manicured developments to compete with famously high housing prices in other parts of California. From 2003 to 2005 home construction boomed as mostly Bay Area, but also coastal, transplants and locals bought up these homes, says John Burns, a real-estate consultant in Sacramento. Some buyers were just looking to flip houses and make some cash. Others bought with the belief that they could finally afford a home, although many didn't qualify for their mortgage. Migrant workers were especially easy prey, often saddled with subprime loans.

By the spring of 2006, home prices started to fall and the bust hit. California's foreclosure filings doubled from 2007 to 2008. Today, six of the 10 metro areas with the highest foreclosure rates in the country are in the Valley. The Golden State is not only lined with blocks of empty homes; there are also countless stalled construction projects that have left thousands unemployed. Agricultural production was not deeply hurt in 2008, but that will likely change this year because of particularly severe water shortages. On top of all of this, the long-term problems with balancing the state budget loom over California is such a way that it may eventually demand federal intervention.

Already, by certain measures, this recession—more than the two before it—has hurt the state. Jed Kolko, associate director for PPIC, says the current unemployment rate in California is higher than where it peaked in the past two recessions. Last year was also the worst for employment growth in California since World War II. It doesn't come as a surprise then that in the past four years, California has seen more people leave the state than move in from other states. But even with a loss in domestic migration, international migration from places like Mexico to the Valley continue to rise.

Sharon doesn't know that these newest migrants will find whatever it is they are seeking here. After all, it was this region that killed off her beloved gin. Suzanne, who came to the gin in 2001, recognizes her mother's great loss, but acknowledges that this same loss gave her a reason to look east. "I want to leave California," she says. "I'll probably go to Georgia and be with my boyfriend."

Sharon has also thought about leaving, but right now there are more immediate things on her mind. She and her husband find themselves looking for ways to cut back or save. At 62 years old, Sharon can't collect Medicare for three more years, and without a job she has no health insurance. That's a problem because the medication for her type 2 diabetes costs $200 a month. It's another bill she can't afford at a time when "there's just no blasted jobs," she says. As a result, she's been forced to draw her Social Security early.

Even if she tried to leave the state, Sharon wonders: where she would go? Unlike the 1930s, there is no modern-day version of California for the newly destitute. Besides, her heart is in those fields. "Cotton is a part of our family," she says. And she's not quite ready to give up on the land that gave her parents a second chance. That's the thing about people like the Risners. They find a way to survive and, as Sharon puts it, "if the good Lord allows," to keep forging ahead.

Hard Times in the Land of John Steinbeck | Business