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Big Sugar: Seasons in the Cane Fields of Florida.

Big Sugar: Seasons in the Canefields of Florida. Alec Wilkinson. Knopf, $18.95. Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker, once remarked that his magazine was not for the little old lady from Dubuque. Perhaps as penance for this affront to the heartland, The New Yorker has in recent years run quite a few pieces on agriculture. The magazine deserves praise for this. The agricultural economy is one of America's great neglected stories, and the handful of writers who cover this unglamorous subject often do important work for which they receive inadequate recognition. (The

Washington Post's underappreciated Ward Sinclair, one of the best agri-journalists, recently left to become an organic farmer.) Unfortunately, The New Yorker has approached the subject in its characteristically literal-minded fashion, crop by crop. In a series of stories that appeared in the mid-1980s, E.J. Kahn Jr. wrote about corn, potatoes, wheat, rice, and soybeans.

Now Alec Wilkinson has taken on sugar. Unlike Kahn's pieces, Wilkinson's focus is on the labor conditions of agricultural workers. Specifically, Wilkinson writes about the West Indians, most of them Jamaican, who

come each winter to south Florida to perform what Wilkinson calls "the most perilous work in America." That's an exaggeration; judging from Wilkinson's description, cutting sugarcane in Florida doesn't sound as dangerous as, say, mining coal in Pennsylvania.

Clearly, however, a combination of factors-low pay, brutally long hours, authoritarian work rules, and yes, physical hazards, chief among them being cut by a knife or piercing an eye or an eardrum on a sharp cane leaf-makes cutting sugarcane a lousy job. Even the poorest American citizens spurn the work. As a result, sugarcane growers end up importing 10,000 cutters annually to do the job. They are the largest group of foreign workers regularly admitted to the U.S.

"To watch a West Indian wield a cane knife is to see a centuries-old art," proclaims the narrator of an idiotic public-relations movie made by the Florida Cane League. In fact, Wilkinson writes, most West Indians never held a cane knife before they arrived in Florida. These guest work-

ers make good employees mainly because they are desperate to earn cash to take back to the Third World, and because they know if they get out of line-for example, by threatening to strike-they risk immediate deportation.

Growers started importing West Indians to cut sugar only after the U.S. Sugar Corporation was indicted in 1942 for its harsh treatment of its American black employees; apparently coercion has always been a crucial element to success in south Florida sugarcane farming.

Information like this makes Big Sugar intermittently gripping, but overall, Wilkinson's book is difficult to get through.

As is often the case with New Yorker journalism (even, alas, in the post-Shawn era), Wilkinson seems less concerned with framing an argument or narrative than with creating a little democracy of facts where the number of buzzards the author sees flying over a canefield one day is as important as the revelation that the Labor Department official responsible for the welfare of the foreign

workers has never challenged a single firing. The book is especially bad at explaining precisely how the cutters get paid. Wilkinson says the system is deliberately complicated in order to confuse outsiders and allow growers to falsify the number of hours cutters work. I'm convinced this is true, but after reading Wilkinson's lengthy explanation I still haven't a clue about how the con actually works. Although Wilkinson worked several years on this book, he doesn't seem to have thought very hard about what his mountain of facts means. Here's my suggestion: U.S. quotas and tariffs on sugar (discussed in a paltry one and a half of Big Sugar's 264 pages) should be abolished. It's insane for the U.S. government to prop up an enterprise that not only depends so heavily on the exploitation of foreign workers but also helps impoverish countries like Jamaica that might otherwise develop thriving sugar industries of their own.
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Author:Noah, Timothy
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1989
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