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Know the West

No room for democracy on California farms

  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."

Instead, capitalism 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 process."

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.