Outlawing the short-handled hoe

Banning the el cortito (short-handled hoe) was part of the recently enacted Colorado Farmworker Bill of Rights. At first glance, this seems like an odd addition to any piece of legislation. How could such an innocuous garden tool be so dangerous as to be outlawed? There’s actually a very rich history to this tool and why farmworkers led a movement to have it banned.

The short-handled hoe is a traditional Japanese gardening tool introduced in California in the late 1800s to manage the cultivation of intensively grown sugar beets and greens. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the agricultural labor force shifted towards Mexican workers unfamiliar with the short-handled hoe who had no control over the tool’s use. Growers required farmworkers to use the short-handled hoe for their entire shift, day after day, disciplining any worker who stood up to rest.

The use of the short-handled hoe created a tension between the bodily needs of the worker—to be free from back pain—and the needs of the farm owner— for precision and maximum efficiency.  This tension began to build in the 1920s but didn’t give way until the agricultural labor movement gained momentum in California in the late sixties and seventies. Activism led to legal advocacy, culminating in a California Supreme Court decision in 1975 declaring the short-handled hoe an “unsafe hand tool” and thereby being the first state to ban it.

In 2022, this history isn’t well known, and Colorado’s new law has caused some head-scratching since the short-handled hoe is a common tool on farms and in gardens. What’s more, both Colorado and California go further than banning the short-handled hoe, as they also limit the practice of hand weeding and hand thinning in certain circumstances. Depending on the scale of the operation, alternative methods, and the functionality of long-handled tools for the tasks, farmers are asked to limit the amount of time their employees perform what became known as “squat” or “stoop labor.”

It is rare for us to see this concern for workers’ health enshrined in our body of agricultural law. Anyone that has worked on a farm knows that long hours spent bent over causes back troubles. The farms that sparked the initial controversy are of the size and intensity that require farm workers to maintain this damaging posture for up to 12 hours a day. Now even small farms that aren’t certified organic in California and Colorado cannot assign more than 20% of an employee’s weekly work time to hand weeding, unless the weeding is considered an ‘exempt activity,’ such as hand thinning closely planted crops or weeding seedlings. However, to prevent the overall damaging effects of sustained use, the short-handled hoe is not allowed for any farm work in Colorado or California.

Farm service providers can learn about helping farmers respond to legal vulnerabilities in our upcoming Guiding Resilience course, which begins on Wednesday, June 1, 2022. Whether you are helping farmers understand the reasoning behind seemingly confusing rules (like the banning of the El Cortito), or helping them navigate how to negotiate a stellar lease, the Guiding Resilience course teaches you to answer your farmers’ most pressing legal questions.

Sources & Further Reading

You can read the text of the California regulation here. The Colorado statute can be read here; see page 12 for the relevant section.

For a historical account of farmworker resistance to the short-handled hoe, see “The Abolition of El Cortito, the Short-Handled Hoe: A Case Study in Social Conflict and State Policy in California Agriculture,” by Douglas L. Murray. Accessible here.

Here is a PBS article on the history of the California ban.