5 Questions About Chasing the Harvest

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Gabriel Thompson discusses his book Chasing the Harvest: Migrant Workers in California Agriculture.

The review of Chasing the Harvest will soon be available online.

What’s it about and why does it matter?

Chasing the Harvest is an oral history collection from California’s fields, with a focus on the farmworkers whose work feeds the nation. I packed a notebook and recorder and traveled throughout the state, interviewing farmworkers in their living rooms for hours and, occasionally, in the fields while they worked. The result, I hope, is a chance for readers to hear directly from farmworkers as they share details about their hopes and fears, their struggles and their victories, the moments of seriousness along with silliness…all the messiness and beauty that makes up human lives.

Lots of writing about farmworkers is one-dimensional—they are exploited and miserable—and by letting farmworkers tell their own stories the result is much richer and intimate, more human. This book matters because every day we rely on farmworkers. As I write this, I’m munching on an apple that was picked by someone. That someone has a story. Chasing the Harvest gives the reader an opportunity to invite farmworkers into their homes, sit back, and listen (or read, in this case).

Lots of writing about farmworkers is one-dimensional—they are exploited and miserable—and by letting farmworkers tell their own stories the result is much richer and intimate, more human.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

Well, except for the intro, the book is a book of oral history, so I’d say the contribution is pretty hard to miss. I wasn’t really schooled in the practice of oral history and still can’t really say what rules exist within it as a field beyond the obvious ones, like not making stuff up, but I have worked as a journalist for many years and so interviewing isn’t new to me.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

I like that you, as an oral historian, have to learn to shut up. I considered myself a good listener, and then I went over the first couple of interviews and wow did I talk way more than necessary. That got better as time went on, and I found that letting the conversation or interview or whatever you want to call it breathe and have pauses and sort of jump around without too much effort to constrain it can make for beautiful moments. I also like that it demands that you slow down. And related to the other two points, I appreciated handing over the steering wheel to the narrators themselves.

In journalism, you tend to focus on a certain aspect of a person’s life: the one that relates to the particular story that you’re working on. Everything else gets shoved out of the picture. I remember working on a story a few years back about wage theft in the fields—which is endemic—and I spoke to a farmworker who was owed a bunch of money. But as he talked it became clear that the wage theft wasn’t all that important to him. It was just a small slice of his life. He wanted to share about other things—his family, his story of migrating from Mexico, his favorite soccer team, his new girlfriend…and of course none of that was why I was interviewing him and none of that was particularly relevant to my project. Chasing the Harvest had a really broad purview: farmworkers talking about their lives. I found that liberating.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

Well, different books appeal to different people, so I hesitate to make any pronouncements about why they will be interested, aside from, well, if you’re an oral historian, you’re probably interested in oral history. I can at least say that oral historians are intimately involved with the types of lives and stories that are shared in Chasing the Harvest, even if they don’t know the details yet, because each time we eat we’re on the receiving end of their work. Oral historians are a curious bunch. So if you’ve ever wondered, while filling up your grocery cart with fruits and vegetables, who made it all possible, Chasing the Harvest is one place to start.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

Probably that, despite all the technological innovation in the fields, farmwork remains physically punishing (I spent two months harvesting lettuce, so I know from personal experience) and that the last person to touch the apple or head of lettuce that you pick out at the store was the farmworker who harvested it, so that in a real way they are handing it to you. They are handing you the healthy food that you eat and that you serve your family. Remembering that relationship is key. From it, a bunch of questions arise about what responsibilities that relationship might imply for us, as beneficiaries of their labor. 

Gabriel Thompson is an independent journalist who has written for The New York Times, Harper’s, New York, Slate, Mother Jones, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Nation. His articles about labor and immigration have won a number of prizes, including the Studs Terkel Media Award and the Sidney Award. His most recent book is America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century (University of California Press).