This article explores the role of early migrant workers (“harvest hands” or “hoboes”) in the American wheat industry. It argues that the constant threat of drought and other climatic disasters created a state of climate precarity for workers. In the variable climate of the Great Plains, these disasters could not be forecast, and employers instead shunted climatic risk onto impoverished migrants, whose contracts were ad hoc, informal, and could be made, completed, or broken in a matter of hours. It compiles data from over ten thousand newspapers in the Great Plains to show not only how harvest hand employment varied with the climate but also how climatic instability often only became apparent as harvest hands arrived in the state. This made it virtually impossible for employers to plan ahead for labor, as the demand for harvest hands could vary dramatically even from year to year. Though government and union action pointed the way to possible alternative systems, they never emerged. Ultimately, the hobo-wheat complex was an emergent property of climate and industrial capitalism, unplanned by any group or authority, made by the choices of each.

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