Remember high school history class, and all that jive about Thomas Jefferson and his dream of a democracy based around small family farms? When it comes to California, you can toss that dream right out the window. So writes Richard Walker in The Conquest of Bread, a sweeping new take on agriculture in California.
"The California grower has
almost never been simply a family farmer in search of sustenance,"
writes Walker, a geography professor at the University of
California, Berkeley. California growers have always grown for
markets and sought to turn a profit. "The long national debate over
family farms and the future of the republic," writes Walker, "was
always tangential to California."
drove farmers as they raised successive waves of progressively
higher-value products every 10 to 20 years, from Mexican cattle in
the 1850s to organic raspberries in 2004. The growers’
fortunes relied on a series of ethnic groups — Irish,
Germans, Chinese, Japanese and now Southeast Asians and Mexicans
— to do the dirty work. California farming "has used one
group after another, in a vast, repetitive cycle of recruitment,
employment, exploitation, and expulsion," writes Walker.
Whereas the wheat- and corn-growing American heartland became a
place ruled by tractors and combines, Walker writes, "Fruits and
vegetables have proven notoriously difficult to mechanize, and the
reversion to greater fresh produce in the commodity mix has only
emphasized this. …What occurred in California was not
mechanization but Mexicanization of the labor
Walker’s work draws on — and
debunks some of — the vast field of scholarly work that has
already been done on California agriculture. But he proves, more
conclusively than ever, that California really is different.
No room for democracy on California farms
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