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Meet the A-team: When SLO County high school students became farm workers

Supervisor Harry Liggett, right, stands in front of the baracks that served as a summer home for 40 San Luis Obispo High School students in 1965 as part of the A-Team program.
Supervisor Harry Liggett, right, stands in front of the baracks that served as a summer home for 40 San Luis Obispo High School students in 1965 as part of the A-Team program. Telegram-Tribune

Most folks associate the title “A-Team” with a campy 1980s television show, but a group of high school students from Texas to California were once part of another A-Team.

From the earliest days, California agriculture relied on cheap labor.

Mission-era farms were founded on the sweat of Native Americans. Then, as the decades passed, labor was imported from various sources: China, Japan, the Philippines, Mexico, Central and South America.

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Dust Bowl refugees also played a role.

During World War II, the supply of agricultural labor ran critically short. Factories paid far more than field work, so the federal government initiated the Bracero program to keep food flowing for the war effort. (The program’s name was derived from the Spanish word brazo, meaning “arm.”)

The Bracero program was an agreement between the Mexican and U.S. governments to import farm labor from Mexico.

By 1964, World War II had been over for almost 20 years, and the program ended.

It was thought that high school students could replace Mexican labor, picking up strength and some summer cash by working the fields six days a week.

The U.S. Department of Labor came up with an acronym A-TEAM, which stood for Athletes in Temporary Employment as Agricultural Manpower.

The A-Team program was launched but ended in failure.

Bill King wrote this article. which ran in the Telegram-Tribune on June 30, 1965.

This is ‘moment of truth’ for county’s A-team farm crew

After 2-day wait, harvesting starts

MERCED — Today is the moment of truth for 40 San Luis Obispo High School students who, after another setback, finally marched into the tomato fields of Merced.

The big question on many people’s minds at home is whether the county’s contribution to the “A-team” experiment will be successful, particularly in view of many reports that entire teams have pulled out and returned home, finding work, pay and living conditions not what they were led to believe.

Parents and other interested persons have more than usual interest in the San Luis Obispo student farm labor force also because of the many setbacks the A-team program has had since its inception in the county.

The latest setback came just after students arrived Sunday in Merced and learned that they wouldn’t start work until Wednesday. The students, eager to start work Monday, were told that cool weather had kept the crop from maturing, causing the delay.

The Telegram-Tribune visited their home for the summer Tuesday afternoon — a labor camp on the outskirts of Merced.

Although the toughest test was yet to come — stoop labor in 100 degree-plus heat — complaints were already abundant.

After passing through the gate to the camp, encircled by an eight-foot fence trimmed with barbed-wire the SLO students were located in and around their army-type barracks, whiling away their time.

With the temperature climbing above the 100 mark, they played cards, stretched out under the shade of a tree or lounged in their cots, sectioned off by eight-foot cubicles.

1965 06-30 farm Ateamb
Terry Philbin relaxes in a labor camp barrack as the A-Team of high school laborers wait for the tomato harvest in Merced in 1965. Jack Wilson Telegram-Tribune

The most prevalent complaints were about food and rigid enforcement of rules requiring adult supervision for all recreational outings or jaunts into town.

“The food’s pretty crummy,” according to student Bry Schmidt. Van Leighty concurred, pointing out that at one meal (meals are served in a central dining hall) they had chocolate pudding “made with sour milk and burned about 12 times.”

“The main dish is okay,” Steve Jessup said, “but salads are bout 10 weeks old and they use a lot of left-overs.”

However, Larry Liggett, Cal Poly graduate student and adult supervisor for the coastal work force, indicated the food was pretty good, “better than they have at the Cal Poly cafeteria.”

Confinement to the labor camp most of the time, especially because of the work delay, and made many of the boys restless, according to Liggett, but this will change after they start working and “don’t feel like running around all the time.”

A swimming pool is available to students at a nearby fairgrounds and Monday buses were provided for a trip to Yosemite Lake for boating and swimming.

Liggett indicated there has been some problem so far in getting transportation but buses will be made available on weekends for supervised trips into town.

“We were locked in Monday night,” one youth pointed out “and we couldn’t even go to the store across the street from the camp. We had a kid running back and forth to the store, getting us ice cream and other goodies, and handing them to us through the fence.”

Living conditions were also criticized. “If this is one of the clean barracks I would like to see a dirty one.” One of the student pointed out what he called a rat’s nest in the barracks.

Other youths, apparently used to the peace and quiet of their homes, complained about big Air Force jets that thundered over the area every few minutes, about trains that roared by and of dogs barking throughout the night.

However Jerry Johnson and many of the other students indicated that “things were better than expected” and were only disappointed about the work delay.

Larry Liggett agreed, noting that the barracks were very clean and that the growers have been going out of their way to help out with problems and provide recreational facilities. He noted that the growers have been going out of their way to help out with problems and provide recreational facilities. He noted also that the growers agreed to “foot the bill” for meals, because of the delay until work started. The fee for meals is normally $2.25 a day per student.

Starting today the students were to get up at 4:30, eat breakfast and go to the fields at 6. After a breaking-in period of about four days, they will work an eight-hour day, 48 hours a week at a minimum of $1.40 an hour, providing they do acceptable work.

“I hope and think most of the boys will make the grade if they can make it through the first week,” Liggett said. However he did indicate that a few would drop out and go back home.

About 20 students from Atascadero High School and a few from Paso Robles were to join the SLO crew Thursday. Then the combined group will be divided into two crews, one under Liggett and the other under Gary Kuhn, Atascadero.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp
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