"From 1882, when the first Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, until about 1930, the history of farm labor in California has revolved around the cleverly manipulated exploitation, by the large growers, of a number of suppressed racial minority groups which were imported to work in the fields."
--Carey McWilliams, Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California
Between 1890 and 1910, the number of Japanese people in California rose from 2,039 to 72,156, many of whom worked as agriculture laborers. In 1901, the Industrial Commission on Immigration reported, "In the state of California alone there is today a great army of Japanese coolies, numbering upwards of 20,000. They do not colonize as do the Chinese; they are scattered throughout the state, doing work in the orchards, vineyards, gardens, and hop and sugar beet fields." By 1909, there were 30,000 Japanese field workers in California.
Apparently, the large growers were as pleased with the Japanese as they were with the Chinese, as a low-paid labor force. J.L. Nagle of the California Fruit Growers Exchange stated, rather bluntly, "The Japs and Chinks just drift--we don't have to look out for them." The growers liked a labor force that worked cheap when fruit needed harvesting, and then moved on.
The Japanese brought about innovation in California agriculture. It was they who introduced rice cultivation to the state, a crop which by 1935 brought in around $20,000,000 per year. Some Japanese were able to purchase farms and become growers themselves. George Shima became famous for a time as the "Potato King."
When Japanese agricultural laborers began to organize and demand higher wages, they were met with racial prejudice and exclusion. In 1920, the Los Angeles Times stated, "Japanese labor is not cheap labor. The little brown traders know how to get as much for their product as the traffic will bear."
When Japanese immigrants began to purchase and cultivate their own farms, they faced systematic legal discrimination and exclusion. In 1909, John D. Mackenzie, Commissioner of Labor Statistics, stated, "The moment this ambition [land ownership] is exercised, that moment the Japanese ceases to be an ideal laborer."
Feuled by widespread anti-Japanese media and hysteria, the California government passed the Alien Land Law of 1913, which prevented Japanese people from owning property. A similar Alien Land Law was passed again in 1920. The Immigration Act of 1924 (aka The Asian Exclusion Act) excluded the Japanese from entering the United States.
Writing in 1939, Carey McWilliams stated, "The Japanese are today no longer an important element as farm laborers." With another labor pool excluded, the large growers looked elsewhere. McWilliams continues, "After 1920, the large growers, who of course employ the bulk of farm labor in California, began to use Filipino and Mexican labor, as it was unorganized and cheaper."