Recently, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services took the phrase “securing America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” out of its mission statement. The agency now focuses on “fairness, lawfulness, efficiency…and safeguarding the homeland.” In this political climate of xenophobia, fear and racist attempts to re-write American history, it is crucial that we tell, tell loudly, and tell often the stories of wave after wave of immigrants who shaped this country through every era of its existence.
California’s agricultural empire, the great Central Valley, is no exception. From the Chinese to the Japanese to the Filipinos to the Portuguese to the Armenians to the Sikhs to the Hmong, dozens of groups of people from all around the planet have dug their shovels and fingers into California dirt, planted seeds and cuttings with their machines and their hands, carved irrigation furrows and ditches with their tools and their sweat and tended craggy, sandy, cropland until it burst with bounty.
Cal Ag Roots Podcast #5: Borderlands of the San Joaquin Valley shares stories about immigrant innovations in California farming that were told live at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center. Tune in at the link above, or on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher to hear them.
There’s a stubborn, pernicious myth that masks that truth, of course. If we learn about California agriculture at all, we learn about technological miracles, about landscapes transformed through a massive infusion of science and money. If we picture the farms behind our supermarket abundance at all, we picture white, male farmers—a thousand Old McDonalds and their quaint red barns. And if we think about who harvests our food at all, we think about Mexican workers, anonymous, hunched over, faces covered.
But of course the truth is so much richer than those tired storylines. Not only is the Central Valley one of the most diverse places in the United States, but the immigrants arriving there through the centuries brought something with them besides capable hands and strong bodies. Yes, many of them were funneled into the industrial agricultural system and became a key input for California growers as they implemented their crop plans. But many also came to CA from rural areas—the plains of Laos, the mountains of Oaxaca, the Azore islands—with social, cultural and ecological knowledge about how to grow food.
Their farming wisdom shaped the industry in many small and large ways. A Japanese farmer invented the strawberry basket that allowed that fragile fruit to get to market. The iconic bing cherry is named for the Chinese farmer who first bred them. Filipino farm workers were striking and union organizing in farm fields before the formation of the United Farm Workers. Portugese immigrants invented California’s dairy industry and by the 1960’s were producing more than 90% of the milk in the state.
And because those stories are textured, vibrant and reflect reality more than the glossy, technology-worshiping, stories of powerful agricultural magnates, they crack open the myth of California farming. Telling these stories, telling them loudly, and telling them often is the only way to secure America’s promise as a nation of immigrants—and to safeguard the homeland.
Huge thanks to the voices heard in the Borderlands of the San Joaquin Valley podcast: Isao Fujimoto, Janaki Jagannath, Marisol Baca, Aideed Medina and Lupe Martinez (music). The Cal Ag Roots theme music is by Nangdo. We’re grateful to the Merced Multicultural Arts Center for hosting our live Borderlands event and to Tim Emerich and Roberto Mora for helping us to capture audio and video from the event.
Special shout-out to two key Cal Ag Roots funders: the 11th Hour Project and the Food and Farming Communications Fund. We couldn’t do this work without you!
(Photos by Janaki Jagannath and featured on the Marigold Society website.)