California Forum

David Mas Masumoto: If Steinbeck were a farmer

Seventy-five years ago, John Steinbeck published “The Grapes of Wrath,” a tale about the plight of displaced Okies and their journey from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to the Central Valley of California, where they hoped to find work and a new life. When I first read “The Grapes of Wrath” in high school, I was stunned to see a side of our Valley, our farms and our people I had not imagined. A land of plenty contrasting the plight of farmworkers. The constant struggle of poverty while trying to scratch out a living in our dirt. Hunger in a land where growing food is driven by business and money.

Steinbeck wrote his seminal work during the Great Depression, an era of great suffering. “The Grapes of Wrath” examined the crushing economic forces on the human spirit and the search for dignity.

But what if Steinbeck were a farmer who wrote today? How might we re-envision his words as he rewrites his books?

Steinbeck might be my neighbor, and I believe we’d trade stories, trying to make sense of a crazy world of farming. We would talk about an economic system that drives the price of food lower and lower. We struggle as farmers in a cheap food system. When “The Grapes of Wrath” was published, Americans spent 35 percent of their income on food. In the 1960s, it had dropped to 18 to 20 percent. Today it’s less than 10 percent, and there is a seemingly never-ending demand to grow food cheaper and cheaper. What’s good for the consumer squeezes us farmers. We need to simply work harder.

Readers often forget that the Joad family in “The Grapes of Wrath” were displaced farmers and were not always farmworkers. Arriving in California, they sought a place of their own, not unlike the immigrant farm story repeated over and over in our Valley. My grandparents arrived in the 1900s from Japan, aliens in a foreign land. They, like the Joads, were displaced from the farm in their homeland. Once in America, they faced a hostile land filled with discrimination and “Alien Land Laws” that prevented specifically “Orientals” from land ownership.

Steinbeck the farmer might write a tale of new immigrants, the Hmong and other refugees from Southeast Asia or the Sikh farmers from Punjab, India, or Armenians from east Europe. Instead of a clash between farmworkers and farmers, he might pen a new novel about class struggle: the small guy vs. the machinery of capitalism. The destructive power of economic privilege and power over the “little guy” might become a rallying cry for the new Steinbeck.

The new “Grapes of Wrath” may also focus on a revolution on the farm for the past century: the epic shift from horses to tractors. The adoption of the new technology of mechanization can be depicted in an almost perfect economic curve, a graph with a giant “X” with tractors steadily replacing horses from the early 1900s to the present.

The evolution meant vast numbers of farmworkers were displaced – but equally as significant, they were absorbed into an ever-expanding urban industrial workforce. Tens of thousands of laborers were more than happy to leave the land for the bright and prosperous lights of the city. From one perspective, mechanization on the farm was bad only if you were a horse.

Steinbeck the farmer might write about the crushed hopes of those working hard with a fleeting dream of prosperity. I once wrote about finding torn lottery tickets in my fields, discarded hopes from our workers. I don’t play the lottery; the odds are stacked against you. But I also can’t share the same dreams as my workers. As they remind me, I already own a farm.

If Steinbeck was a farmer, race would be a major issue. When “The Grapes of Wrath” was written, America in the 1930s was 90 percent white and only 1.5 percent Latino. By 2010, whites were 72 percent, and Latinos had grown to about 17 percent.

Over the past century, waves of immigrants filled our Valley’s fields. Cheap labor fueled the rapid and successful expansion of our agrarian base. A common theme was often the tension between those at the bottom fighting for the scraps left for them.

Yet all these characters may have journeyed a common path: a search for home. An eternal optimism permeates our lands, a collective narrative about the human spirit to work the earth and plant roots. Dreams were embedded in the hardpan of our soils.

The new Joad family from “The Grapes of Wrath” would now be a Latino family from Mexico, crossing physical and emotional borders. Their route would be along the back roads, perhaps even Route 66 of today, still journeying off the main highways. The new Joads would be part of an invisible population whose forgotten hands continue to pick and harvest our foods. Steinbeck the farmer would be fighting for immigration reform, knowing firsthand the role farmworkers play in our food system.

Steinbeck the farmer would still be passionate about writing stories of connection, about people who are not rich with money but wealthy in relationships. He would share in a story of people on the land, and our quest to scratch out a living in a green valley of dreams.