Throughout the twentieth century Mexican and Mexican American migrant workers were instrumental in the success of the sugar beet industry in the Great Plains. Beginning as early as 1915, corporations such as the Holly Sugar Company and the Great Western Sugar Company increasingly depended upon reliable, experienced, and low-cost labor to cultivate and harvest sugar beets. Recruited from Texas, California, and Mexico, these workers came to be known as los betabeleros, the sugar beet workers.
Government-sponsored research and construction of irrigation systems in the 1890s, combined with a sharp rise in the national consumption of sugar at the turn of the century, made the sugar beet industry one of the fastest growing and most successful in the Great Plains. Main growing areas were, and are, eastern Colorado and western Nebraska, the Yellowstone and Bighorn Valleys of Montana and Wyoming, and the Red River Valley of the North. Government and industry cooperated to provide farmers with the muchneeded labor in these sparsely populated areas. Two groups of laborers became the working backbone of the industry: German Russians and Mexicans. For example, in 1924 the Great Western Sugar Company brought to Montana's Yellowstone Valley 3,604 Mexicans and 1,231 German Russians to harvest a record 31,000 acres.
While the German Russian immigrants were supported by the sugar beet companies in purchasing their own farms and settling their families permanently, the Spanish-speaking workers were initially hired only as seasonal workers. Before World War I, this strategy kept wages down and eased European American fears of "foreigners" settling permanently in their midst. But by 1922, as the need for field labor increased, the corporations began to recognize that attracting families to "winter over" assured a stable and experienced workforce. In Billings, for example, the Great Western Sugar Company, enlisting the labor of Mexicans, arranged for the construction of up to forty small adobe homes. By 1927 hundreds of these low-cost settlements, known as colonias, had been established by the sugar beet companies throughout the Great Plains.
Within the colonias, residents raised animals and planted gardens to supplement their diets, and during the winter those with limited earnings shared resources. But while the colonias provided Latinos with a sense of community and support, they also isolated them from the larger community. Latinos were often banned from public swimming pools, segregated in theaters, and not allowed in certain stores and restaurants. Sugar beet companies worked to allay fears and prejudice directed at the Mexican laborers by citing in their annual reports and publications how essential they were to the success of the industry. Despite the discrimination, the economic hardship, and the backbreaking labor experienced by the betabeleros, many returned to work the fields each spring, often renewing previous associations with farmers. Some beet workers even remained with the farmer throughout the year, tending to animals and fences during the winter.
In the Northern Great Plains, the sugar beet season began in mid-April with planting. Workers hoed and thinned from late May to mid-July, weeded through the summer, and harvested and topped the beets in the fall. Stoop labor for planting, weeding, and harvesting, a short-handled hoe for thinning, and a curved knife for topping made for arduous work. For the women, in addition to the work in the fields, the regular household duties of cooking and cleaning made for a "double day." Children, by ages eight or nine, were encouraged to help out and were regularly pulled out of school to help plant and harvest.
The Depression economy of the 1930s created an atmosphere of opposition to the migrant worker. The Great Western Sugar Company elected to hire local workers before those from outside the area, thus discouraging Latino families from remaining. But with the onset of World War II western growers and industries faced serious labor shortages. Congress responded by creating the Bracero Program, which allowed farmers to employ Mexican nationals. From 1943 to 1946 Great Western's Billings district relied on Mexicans to thin and top most of its crop. After 1963, when Congress terminated the Bracero Program, companies continued to rely on Mexican nationals.
In the 1950s, as agriculture was becoming more mechanized, many Latinos began to seek out better-paying, steadier jobs. In Billings, jobs with the railroad or the packing plants offered a positive alternative to working the beet fields. While establishing permanent homes in Billings, Latinos also began working to improve educational opportunities for their children. As early as 1929, associations like the Comision Honorifica Mexicana were formed to organize social and cultural events and assist Latinos in need. In the 1960s Concilio Mexicano helped to advocate for jobs and education in the community. In 1971 the Migrant Council was established to provide health, educational, and labor assistance to migrant families.
Despite farm mechanization, increased use of herbicides, and continued restrictions on migrant workers, beet growers still depend on some hand labor. By 1976 the Great Western Sugar Company handed over the job of recruiting and providing migrant workers to the beet growers. Today, migrant workers, mostly Mexican Americans from Texas, still come to the Yellowstone Valley each spring to work the beets. These seasonal workers follow a route that takes them on to other states in the region to pick apples, top and bag onions, and harvest beans before returning to Texas in late fall. The migrant workers of the past, including those who have elected to make a home in this region and those who choose to return each year, continue to make a vital contribution to the economy as well as to enrich the culture of the Great Plains.
Rebecca Berru Davis Western Heritage Center
Mercier, Laurie. "Creating a New Community in the North: Mexican Americans of the Yellowstone Valley." In Stories from an Open Country: Essays on the Yellowstone River Valley, edited by William L. Lang. Billings MT: Western Heritage Press, 1995: 127–47.
Valdes, Dennis N. "Settlers, Sojourners, and Proletarians: Social Formation in the Great Plains Sugar Beet Industry, 1890–1940." Great Plains Quarterly 10 (1990): 110–23.