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Migrant Workers in the Valley


Given the recent news coverage of concerning illegal aliens and the Mexican border, today’s story is an interesting look back at our state’s relationship with Mexican migrant workers.

At this time in 1944, The Fargo Forum reported, “Over 2,000 Mexican sugar beet workers are in the state and many of these men will be available to North Dakota farmers when the haying and harvesting seasons begin, NDAC (North Dakota Agricultural College) extension service leaders report.

“H. W. Herbison, supervisor of the emergency farm labor program, says about 600 of these workers are Mexican nationals from Mexico, the remainder from Texas. The extension service, the United States employment service and the American Crystal Sugar Beet [Company] of East Grand Forks co-operated (sic) in the movement.

The article continued, “Some 200 are working in the McKenzie county area, the others, for the most part, are in the Red River valley, which has the largest beet acreage, Herbison said. North Dakota county extension agents are completing a survey of farm labor needs so that arrangements can be made to bring in additional labor for the small grain harvest.”

The critical shortage of farm laborers was, at that time, precipitated by many North Dakotans being overseas during World War II. When those men later returned home, however, the call for migrant workers continued. Farmers built permanent housing for their migrant workers, many of whom returned to the same farm year after year.

Jim Norris, associate professor of history at NDSU, has written extensively about the role of migrant workers in the Red River Valley’s sugar beet fields.

Norris writes, “The power balance between beet producers and as many as 26,000 migrant workers who traveled to the Red River Valley fluctuated with national events and advances in beet-growing technology.” He added that American Crystal Sugar and valley growers promoted family-like relationships with Mexican workers to ensure an adequate supply of field laborers each year.

In the late 1950s, North Dakota, Minnesota, American Crystal Sugar and community groups came up with a new plan aimed at hiring local youth instead of migrant workers.

Norris says, “The Youth Beet Program, as it was officially designated in 1961, was supposed to reduce the number of migrants coming to the Red River Valley, while at the same time discourage juvenile delinquency.”

Norris concludes the Youth Beet Program didn’t work, because teenagers thought the work was too difficult. The young workers also weren’t as productive as the migrant workers.


The Fargo Forum. 16 Jun 1944.

Norris, Jim. Bargaining for Beets: Migrants and Growers in the Red River Valley. Minnesota History. Winter 2003.

Puffe, Ellen. Norris presents paper. NDSU Vice President University Relations. 7 Apr 04.

by Merry Helm